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Complexity, Adaptation, and Results

In the last of a series of three blog posts looking at the implications of complexity theory for development, Owen Barder and Ben Ramalingam look at the implications of complexity for the trend towards results-based management in development cooperation. They argue that is a common mistake to see a contradiction between recognising complexity and focusing on results: on the contrary, complexity provides a powerful reason for pursuing the results agenda, but it has to be done in ways which reflect the context. In the 2012 Kapuscinski lecture Owen argued that economic and political systems can best be thought of as complex adaptive systems, and that development should be understood as an emergent property of those systems. As explained in detail in Ben’s forthcoming book, these interactive systems are made up of adaptive actors, whose actions are a self-organised search for fitness on a shifting landscape. Systems like this undergo change in dynamic, non-linear ways; characterised by explosive surprises and tipping points as well as periods of relative stability. If development arises from the interactions of a dynamic and unpredictable system, you might draw the conclusion that it makes no sense to try to assess or measure the results of particular development interventions. That would be the wrong conclusion to reach. While the complexity of development implies a different way of thinking about evaluation, accountability and results, it also means that the ‘results agenda’ is more important than ever.

Wow: Will This Results-Based Approach Change DfID Country Allocations?

This is a joint post with Rita Perakis.

The UK Department for International Development is getting down to real business on adopting results-based approaches to aid. It will allocate future resources across country and regional programs on the basis of “results offers”, as explained here. (DFID spends annually almost 3 billion pounds, about $4.5 billion, on these programs – exclusive of its allocations for humanitarian assistance and for support of multilateral programs.) DFID recently wrapped up one step of the process, in which all country and regional teams set out their “results offers” for the period 2011/12 – 2014/5 (“indicative results teams proposed to deliver” ) for review and evaluation (and some sort of ranking we assume) by internal advisers and a panel including external experts. The reviews were asked to assess the extent to which the results offers are “realistic and evidence-based”. Now ministers will consider them as they determine their aid allocations for the next four years. According to an earlier press release the results offers will cover about 90 countries.