Politics of Poverty

The complexity of being an aid worker in a brave new post-2015 world

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NGO staff meet with community members during a drought early warning system meeting in Ethiopia in 2008. Photo: Emily Farr / Oxfam America.

What does the future hold for the next generation of development practitioners?

This is a guest post by Brendan Rigby, an aid worker, PhD student, and co-founder of WhyDev. It is based on a virtual presentation he gave last year at the Cambridge International Development Conference entitled, “To the SDGs and beyond! The next generation of the development practitioner.”

When I was young, I used to regularly go over to my aunt’s house in Sydney to watch VHS tapes on her VCR. She only had two sets of movies; Star Wars IV-VI and Indiana Jones. Seeing as I couldn’t grow up to be a Jedi, an archaeologist was surely the next best thing.

So I dropped all my math and science subjects at high school, concentrated on humanities, and went onto study archaeology and ancient history at the University of Sydney. I also trained as a secondary school teacher and taught in China and Australia. Since, I have worked for NGOs in China, UNICEF in Ghana, consulted for Plan International and ScopeGlobal, and co-founded WhyDev. Amongst all this I’m doing my PhD on the literacy practices of out-of-school children attending second-chance primary education in Ghana.

Clearly, if I’m any sort of example to go off, there is no linear career path to becoming a development practitioner. There is a ton of advice online about getting a aid sector job – what to do, what not to do – but instead, I think the next generation of development practitioners need to be looking beyond the SDGs and through the lens of complexity, (which I’ve determined looking into my crystal ball).

“The ‘study of complexity’ refers to the attempt to find common principles underlying the behavior of complex systems—systems in which large collections of components interact in nonlinear ways.” ~Melanie Mitchell, Santa Fe Institute

I’ll admit readily that I haven’t even begun to understand complexity theory. But, I do understand the basic, plain English principles of it. (A notable thinker on global development and complexity is Ben Ramalingam.) In looking at any system – for example, aid – we cannot understand it by simply understanding its individual components. Complex systems evolve, continually changing in an open-ended way and they learn and adapt over time. Seemingly simple rules can result in complex, unpredictable behavior. And, complementary to this, small inputs into complex systems can produce huge, unanticipated changes.

Yet, aid agencies and development practitioners are incentivized, as Ben Ramalingam suggests, to treat the world as a simple, predictable place in which foreign aid can be delivered to bring about positive changes – predictable, ordered, mechanical changes. Deliver a school WASH program to six districts in northern Ghana and 5,000 children will benefit, with increased awareness and knowledge of hygiene practices.

Increasingly, the aid paradigm wants simple problems with simple solutions. We need to demonstrate value for money. Lest we forget that aid is just a tiny component of complex global and domestic systems in which governance, accountability, taxation, fiscal policies, politics, culture, and everything under the sun interact in usually very messy ways. (Like, really messy ways.) Just because we want to end extreme poverty, doesn’t mean we can.

So, what does this mean for the post-2015 world and the next generation of development practitioners?

To tackle intractable challenges like FGM, child malnutrition and delivering quality education to all children, we need to expand the tools and techniques available to us in a complex world. Ramalingam highlights many examples of innovative programs that employ complex systems approaches in his book and blog. But, how this applies to the actual professional practice of those designing, implementing, studying and evaluating the programs is different.

Here, is my Top Gun (I forgot, my aunt also had this movie on VHS) list of six attributes needed by the next generation of development practitioner in a complex, post-2015 world:

  • No more heroes. We don’t need people who want to save the world, but want to understand it through critical and complex lenses and then work with communities to design programs accordingly.
  • More innovators, not just program managers and technical experts who treat the world as a simple, predictable place. We need those who can combine the best of a generalist and specialist. Devex’s Kate Warren calls them integrators.
  • Demonstrated interpersonal skills. Everyone says they have them in the interview, but rarely do they exhibit these skills in day-to-day work. Most of the time, we are generally poor at connecting, handling conflict, and working together effectively.
  • More networked people. No we don’t need you to name drop or brag about the time you met Jeff Sachs or Paul Farmer. We need people who know what it means to work across networked systems – people who see the connections, dependencies, and incentives and make them work.
  • Nuanced communicators, or, the ability to communicate all this to a broad range of stakeholders: government, public, private, communities, individuals. Messaging is still very simple and unproblematic, but we need people focused on how we can communicate complexity.
  • Willingness to fail. If you are willing to fail and can do it with learning and adjustment always as the goal, you can persuade others of the need to do it too. Success is most often hard won.

Ban Ki-moon released his synthesis report on the post-2015 agenda in December 2014. It mentions ”complex” in only 10 instances across 47 pages. But, those instances are significant. He recognizes that sustainable development is a complex phenomenon.

Thinking with a complexity lens about the SDGs and a post-2015 framework means we need to be thinking about our role as development practitioners too.


As a follow up to the presentation, the Cambridge students asked a couple of questions via Skype that I wanted to share here as well:

First question with regards to the complexity of international development: To what extent can there be a “common language” of development? What would this look like and how could this be achieved?

Second question with regards to “ownership” of the development process: How can we ensure healthy relationships between international organizations and local leaders and grassroots organizations on the ground?

Kindly share your thoughts and insights in the comments section.

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