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Complexity and Systems Thinking: New Perspectives that Check Assumptions

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Most experts agree that today’s theories and practice of complexity and systems thinking provide a way for the international development community to see its work through a different lens. Complexity reminds us that development work is messy, and to succeed, we must learn and adapt as we go. Systems thinking reminds us that economic development requires a holistic approach, and success with cause-and-effect approaches may be limited.

As practitioners and policy makers strive to find transformative solutions with the potential for large-scale reductions in global poverty and hunger, it is more important than ever to check assumptions and ensure that we learn and adapt as we go. The SEEP 2014 conference (September 22-25) provided a space for people to reflect with that alternative lens and ask the difficult questions: Are inclusive market systems reaching the poorest populations? Are gains in agricultural productivity helping the poorest farmers and reducing food insecurity among the most vulnerable? Is the focus on innovation and entrepreneurship driving the pace and breadth of change as expected? How do we ensure accountability and measure success amid complexity and ambiguity?

Unexpected Results: Farmers Not Necessarily Entrepreneurs

One such line of questioning focused on the assumption that with the right access to markets and information, farmers as entrepreneurs can transform agriculture markets at scale, and thereby help reduce poverty and food insecurity. Core to the value chain push-pull approach, this economic development narrative builds on the idea that farmers are more than “petty traders,” and have a significant role to play, often as the last-mile link between producers and larger, outside private firms, in bringing economic development to scale. 

However, the latest research out of USAID/Ethiopia, which was presented at the SEEP conference, raises questions about some key assumptions in the value chain push-pull approach and its focus on farmers as entrepreneurs. For example, data to-date finds that improvements in agriculture technology and boosts in productivity have not led to expected growth in value chain-related employment. A closer look at employment and poverty in Ethiopia found that fewer than 20 percent of the poorest farmers are expected to become entrepreneurs. Moreover, the research also showed that most small businesses in Ethiopia are expected to fail.

The findings did not surprise Karri Goeldner Byrne, Chief of Party, Pastoralist Areas Resilience Improvement through Market Expansion (PRIME) project in Ethiopia, who presented at the SEEP conference. 

“Innovation is hard, risky work,” Bryne said. Even if a project finds a way to address the many risk hurdles that poor farmers and pastoralists face, it often fails to account for the fact that people don’t want to change.

Bryne cautioned that the current focus on innovation and entrepreneurship may not align with what the USAID community knows is successful regarding pathways out of extreme poverty.

For Adrian Cullis, Chief of Party, USAID/Ethiopia's Agriculture Knowledge, Learning, Documentation and Policy project, the Ethiopia findings call into question the overall premise that broader production gains in agriculture will benefit small, rain-fed farmers in terms of better incomes and food security.

The data shows that mid-size farmers, who already have better access to markets, information and other resources, are the ones benefitting from the value chain programs in Ethiopia. It’s not the smallest, most vulnerable farmers, said Cullis, who also presented at the SEEP conference. 

“We need to learn from these experiences,” Cullis said. “Market opportunities are out there. We may not yet truly understand how [Ethiopia’s] market system works.”

Promising Questions to Learn and Adapt

The promising news is that these reflections and questions are part of the learning and adapting framework crucial to creating change in complex social systems. 

Data and research used to further learning, as illustrated in the USAID/Ethiopia example, are crucial to managing the accountability and risk inherent in complex programs. As Peter Senge and other leaders in the field of complexity and knowledge management note, the key to success is not extensive planning and number crunching, but rather learning-as-we-go by understanding the narratives behind projects and creating the space for people to share and check underlying assumptions. 

Markets are complex systems that require systems approaches for interventions, said USAID’s Jeanne Downing, who also participated in the SEEP conference. To embrace this within the Agency, project designs may become “best guesses” that we refine along the way, she added. 

Will donors and practitioners be comfortable with such a shift? As Bryne noted in her observations on innovation, is being uncomfortable necessarily a bad thing?