Aid is not just complicated; it’s complex

One of the points that we try to make on this blog is that aid, planned from an ultra high level and driven to alleviate just the symptoms of poverty, doesn't realistically address the complex problems of international development. We understand that our own economies are complex and require complex allocation mechanisms (i.e. markets; see also "failure of the U.S.S.R.") but this thinking doesn't hold when it comes to helping the poor. So consequently we come up with overly simple solutions to far more difficult puzzles. Ben Ramalingam, author of the blog (and forthcoming book) Aid on the Edge of Chaos, explains this another way in an interview with Dennis Whittle:

[I]nternational aid has been built on a very particular way of looking at the world, and this continues to dog its efforts. As a senior USAID colleague put it, because of our urgency to end poverty, we act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering, rather the complex and often opaque set of interactions that we know it to be.

...The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.

So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple.

Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated.

What is the difference? As Ben goes on to explain, complicated systems can be modeled mathematically, but complex systems cannot.

[For complex systems,] there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way.

Thanks to Dennis for this pointer to Ben's work. (See also Nancy Birdsall's blog post about Dennis on the occasion of his retirement from GlobalGiving.)

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Tribute to Center for Global Development (CGD)

Dennis Whittle has a nice post praising CGD. I couldn't agree more, even when not agreeing on every issue with Nancy Birdsall and the brilliant staff she has hired at CGD. I will always be grateful to Nancy from an intensely personal perspective. She courageously took me in at CGD when I had become persona non grata to the rest of the development establishment, after my first book came out in 2001. She took a big risk in giving asylum to a dissident viewed by many as divisive and dangerous, just as she was trying to launch CGD from scratch. That said a lot about what kind of person Nancy was and is, and she has deserved every bit of her subsequent success at making CGD the premier institution it is today.

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DRI to Host Conference on Aid Evaluation

On February 6th, NYU's Development Research Institute (DRI) will host What Would the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation, a one-day conference with the leading thinkers in development economics. The conference will take place at New York University, where participants from universities, NGOs, the independent media and the private sector will add to the dialogue on how to make aid agencies accountable for the most effective solutions to global poverty. A list of speakers and panelists follows, but for a complete schedule of events, go to DRI's website. The conference is free and open to the public, but space is limited and filling up quickly. To reserve a place, RSVP to with your name and affiliation.


Yaw Nyarko (NYU), Welcome and Introduction

Esther Duflo (MIT), The Evaluation Revolution and the Aid Providers

William Easterly (NYU), The Big Picture on Aid Accountability

Panel 1: Evaluation: Issues in Transparency and Accountability

Andrew Mwenda (The Independent, Uganda), Independent Media in Africa and Foreign Aid

Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development), New Methods for Motivating Results in Aid

Dennis Whittle (Global Giving), Accountability in Decentralized vs. Centrally Planned Aid Systems

June Arunga (BSL Ghana Ltd.), Foreign Aid from the African Business Point of View

Lant Pritchett (Harvard), The Political Economy of Evaluation

Panel 2: Issues in Evaluation

Leonard Wantchekon (NYU), Independent Evaluation and the Reaction of Official Aid Agencies

Ross Levine (Brown University), Evaluating the Economics: Finance and the Aid Agencies

Karin Christiansen (Publish What You Fund), Aid Transparency as a Prerequisite

William Duggan (Columbia Business School), Pragmatic Learning from Success and Failure

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