January 5, 2014 4:09 pm

Aid on the Edge of Chaos, by Ben Ramalingam

An expert argues that aid agencies could be more useful if they used tools devised to analyse ecosystems

Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking International Co-operation in a Complex World, by Ben Ramalingam (Oxford University Press, RRP£25)


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After Typhoon Haiyan battered the Philippines – displacing 4m people and damaging a third of its rice-growing area – international aid agencies appealed for $794m for humanitarian relief and early reconstruction to help the 14m affected by the calamity. But the extent to which this international aid will help any particular victim could depend heavily on individuals’ existing social and community networks, including ties to local government officials.

That is one implication of Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, which argues that humanitarian and development aid should be examined using “complex adaptive systems” re­search, originally developed to understand the workings of biological ecosystems such as forests and fisheries.

In recent years, economists and social scientists have borrowed these analytical tools to analyse human societies and structures, from the global financial system to water-sharing arrangements in rural communities. Ramalingam, a UK-based development consultant, argues that these tools could also help to improve aid programmes so that foreign assistance can work better to improve the lives of the poor. Traditionally, he argues, aid has been rooted in an “engineering, mass production, conveyor belt mentality”, with agencies – as “dogmatic as churches” – promoting “silver bullet” solutions for complex problems such as eradicating malaria, reducing vulnerability to drought, and social violence.


“Whether for political expediency or administrative convenience, or because of conceptual small-mindedness, there is a pervasive and longstanding bias towards treating the world as a simple, predictable place in which aid can be delivered, as if on a conveyor belt, to bring about positive changes,” Ramalingam writes. These ideals are embedded in the way agencies operate, including how they strategise, measure progress and learn from experience. As a result, he says: “Simplicity is repeatedly, consistently and damagingly chosen over relevance and appropriateness.”

He argues that aid agencies would be more effective if they assessed challenges through the prism of complex adaptive systems. These emphasise interdependent variables; social networks, the adaptation of behaviour, and the dynamics of real-world change. This could yield insights – such as the interrelationship between access to aid and community networks – that could improve the way programmes are designed.

It would also help to harness the ability of the poor to adapt. Ramalingam cites a groundbreaking 1991 Save the Children programme against malnutrition in Vietnam, which emerged after a study of poor families whose children were not suffering malnutrition, though they had no more resources than their neighbours. It turned out they were being fed four to five small meals a day, while most families provided two big meals – before and after a day in fields. Parents of healthier children also supplemented their diets with shellfish from the rice paddies, even though this went against conventional wisdom.

Encouraging the parents of thriving children to share their approach with the community helped to reduce malnutrition dramatically without the need for expensive, and unsustainable, supplemental feeding programmes.

Complex systems thinking is slowly being picked up by many aid agencies – conceptually if not yet in full practice, given the difficulties of implementation. The idea is that solutions to complex problems must evolve, through trial and error – and that successful programmes may be different for each local context, with its particular history, natural resources and webs of social relations.

“Ideas of complexity should not themselves be seen as some kind of all-purpose fix to aid problems,” Ramalingam writes. “These ideas can help us make sense of our existing realities, enable more open conversations about the challenges we face, and generate new ways of thinking about problems.”

Aid on the Edge of Chaos offers an exhaustive tour of the complex systems research landscape, including how it is used to understand phenomena as diverse as climate change, food price rises, ethnic segregation and the Arab spring.

Ramalingam’s ideas are no doubt important and relevant for the aid world, especially as pressures on aid budgets, and demands to show better results, mount. But readers who do not share his enthusiasm for the detail of complex adaptive systems research may find the book heavy-going, with its abundance of jargon. In this contribution to debates on the effectiveness of aid and complex system, a bit more simplicity would have gone a long way.

The writer is the FT’s South Asia correspondent

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