Living on the edge: Rethinking aid amidst complexity

By Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre directoraid on the edge of chaos

These days, a remarkably short and convenient flight takes one from Sussex UK –  where among other STEPS Centre activities this week I’ve been contributing to the post-2015 global sustainable development goals process and the international Future Earth Science Committee  – and Sierra Leone. Here, I’m on my way to join Njala University and Kenema Government Hospital colleagues and villagers in the country’s forested east, exploring the ecological and social processes shaping transmission and vulnerability to Lassa fever, a virus carried by rodents that routinely devastates lives and livelihoods here. This is one of the case studies within our Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, an affiliated programme of the STEPS Centre exploring the interactions between people, environments and zoonotic disease.

This flight has passed particularly quickly as I’ve spent it riveted by a cover-to-cover read of  Ben Ramalingam’s fabulous new book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos. Published this week, it’s about how and why the conventional paradigms that dominate foreign aid aren’t fit for purpose in a world that is hugely dynamic, multiply-interconnected and replete with uncertainties; and how the approaches and tools of complex systems thinking can help trigger much needed transformations in how aid is conceived of, works, and is practised. The accolades on the cover are well-founded; this is a great read, engagingly written, and full of vivid examples, poignantly-funny cartoons and a reflective humility that suits its subject matter.

But it also strikes particular chords on this journey, since one of the book’s opening salvos is towards the Millennium Development Goals process, in its incarnation as a set of narrow targets and indicators that have driven ill-conceived planning approaches. And one of the key areas where it illustrates the power, value and practical application of new approaches is in the social-ecological dynamics of disease, where examples show complex systems thinking within integrated ‘ecohealth’ ’ approaches successfully tackling the challenges of malaria in Kenya, measles in Niger, and avian influenza in Asia.  The book traverses the scales – from the most global to the most local – and range of issues – from macro-economic, environmental, societal and political  concerns, to everyday health, livelihoods and agro-ecologies – that we regularly try to bridge in the STEPS Centre, and that I’m somewhat schizophrenically trying to cover this particular week. And it picks up on some of the self-same examples, albeit with a host more in between, offering insightful analyses of the global financial crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, humanitarianism and its misrepresentations of sexual violence in the Congo, and ‘hole in the wall’ computer technologies in Indian slums – to name but a few of the most memorable.

The book’s central argument, as I read it, is that development – as a broad process and normative project concerned with change towards improved human wellbeing – has been beset by a mismatch between the assumptions and practices of the foreign aid industry, and the way the world actually works. Aid, put simply, has been driven by mechanistic assumptions and planning models that assume predictable processes amenable to linear transformation. Particular modes of thinking, measuring and accounting, bureaucracies and institutions, and field-level action, aligned with such assumptions, tend to dominate, and prove remarkably resistant to challenge even when they lead to manifest failure to bring about the desired change, or even to make things worse. Instead, the reflex tends to be to ascribe problems to ‘implementation difficulties’ – or to blame the so-called beneficiaries. Analysing and exemplifying this self-reinforcing tendency to ‘try to do the wrong things righter’ as a pernicious feature of the ‘aid system’ in part 1, the rest of the book looks to ways to change it.

It looks specifically, and in a wonderfully wide-ranging and thorough sweep, at what the insights and tools of complexity thinking offer. Rather than reify this as a single science, complexity is aptly portrayed as an evolving work in progress, a diversely inhabited set of only partially explored territories. It encompasses perspectives emphasising open, dynamic, non-linear systems; emergence, learning, adaptation, self-organisation and co-evolution amongst multiple elements and agents, an emphasis on social and interpersonal relations and networks, and an understanding of change as non-linear. It involves a colourful cast of characters, thinkers and institutions, and a multiplying array of tools and methods, from agent-based modelling to network analysis. Having laid out this array, the book’s third part illustrates how these alternative understandings – grounded more in ecology than physics, anthropology than economistic rational choice – have underpinned and been mobilised in some very practical examples of different ways of thinking about and doing development, more workable in an intrinsically complex world.

The overall arguments here have much in common with the STEPS Centre’s pathways approach, which as Ben notes, has drawn on aspects of complexity thinking to track, identify and look to building pathways towards multiple, dynamic sustainabilities. This book’s detailed and specific insights into aspects of complexity science offer many points of engagement with and enrichment of STEPS Centre work, not just in relation to health and disease dynamics but also in climate change, energy, agriculture, water and in thinking about ‘green transformations’ more broadly, so I’m particularly delighted that Ben is now with the STEPS Centre as a Visiting Fellow for the next two years. The messages of this book – about the importance of diversity, fostering creativity and innovation at the margins, and humility – resonate very strongly with the STEPS Centre’s analysis and ethos.

In turn, pathways – as we explore them – also implicate questions of power and social (in)justice more fully than Aid on the Edge of Chaos explores. There are important debates to be had about the potential uses and abuses of power in the application of complexity science and its concepts, as well as their distributional implications, and I’m looking forward to these conversations. Equally, a pathways approach, conceived over longer historical timeframes and in relation to diverse and contested futures, might point to ways that narrowly and simplistically defined aid approaches have not just misconceived and thus acted ‘wrongly’ on real-world systems – causing collapses in Balinese rice farming in the 70s, for instance, or  enabling resurgences of malaria as parasites evolved to resist ‘silver bullet’ solutions – but have also become part of pathways, creatively appropriated, subverted or (re)directed by diverse local and national actors to suit their own goals, interests and narratives. These complex interactions between ‘aid’ systems/pathways, and diverse ‘real world’ systems/pathways, are challenging to study but well worth attending to, since they too may be a source of unexpected innovation and transformation.

So plenty of food for further thought, debate, analysis and action fuelled by this book. I’m looking forward to working with Ben and colleagues to thinking through the implications for big global and national development processes such as those around the post-2015 framework, and to working with colleagues on the Future Earth Science Committee to ensure that complexity thinking is properly reflected in the new, integrated, interdisciplinary science for sustainability that we are tasked with developing and promoting over the next decade.

But meanwhile, we’re about to land in Freetown – and the next week will be about seeking to understand complexity as lived and practised by the Mende villagers of Kenema district, as they grapple to secure health and livelihoods in rapidly-changing post-conflict farming and small-scale mining landscapes. Do their ideas, creativity and practices, amidst non-linear interactions between ecologies, rodents, people’s movements and social relations, offer clues as to how to limit Lassa fever and its effects? Might these contribute to forward-looking, integrated ‘one health’ and ‘ecohealth’ approaches, beyond the narrow lab-focused diagnostics and vaccine development that currently dominate? One of this book’s overriding messages – is that to improve development intervention, professionals need to see the world with new eyes. People who have been living and innovating with complexity at the margins all along, like the women and men of Sierra Leone’s forest villages, may turn out to be our best guides in such re-visualisation.