Complexity theory in international development has been a popular concept for at least five years now, if not longer.  But while some NGOs are trying to get to grips with what complexity theory means for them and their work, they are not aware that how their organisation is set up (as a siloed business with a strict hierarchy) will prevent them from using the key concepts of

© danleap / iStock

© danleap / iStock

complexity theory (or even some of the analysis tools associated with it such as agent based modelling and social network analysis) to the best of their advantage.

International development issues have been described as organised complex problems that need a completely different approach than the one that we have been using for the past 70 years or so.  While everyone agrees with this in principle; in practice very little seems to be changing.

When you think about some of the complexity theory tools used, it seems perfectly obvious that these would work in international development.  After all, agent based modelling is about planning using individuals (mostly) as the basis for projecting what would happen in any situation as a result of an intervention.  Seems perfectly logical to use this approach in project and programme design.  However this approach puts the beneficiary at the heart of the planning approach, rather than the organisation or even the donor.  Both of which currently occupy the focus for project planning and implementation.  Similarly, social network analysis is a great tool for advocacy and rights-based programming and delivery.  Except that it again does not really empower international NGOs, but rather exposes the cracks in the layers below, at a national, local and community level, where international NGOs don’t often reach.

In my blog two weeks ago I suggested that redesigning NGOs along matrix management lines would make them more responsive and better vehicles to deliver development and aid programmes.  I would also suggest that matrix NGOs would be better placed to take advantage of tools such as agent based modelling and social network analysis as they already operate in a more beneficiary (client or customer) focused way.  Including complexity theorists amongst your technical specialists to research and develop products, services, programmes that respond to the actual needs of the community (however radical or different those might be) is, I suggest, more likely in a matrix organisation that is built to include such activity.  The results of such research are also more likely to be taken to scale in target communities, making use of the continual feedback loops that are more likely to be present in matrix organisations than in traditional NGOs.

In short the flexibility and focus of a matrix organisation fits well with the organised complexity of international development and the tools and approaches needed to navigate that complexity.


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