Your problem is my problem. We live in a highly interdependent world. People, information, capital…everything is more mobile than ever before. Borders have become permeable. Flow has increased, and with it so too has our interdependence. The systemic challenges of our times – climate change, ecological collapse, resource scarcity, war, migration, economic breakdown – are symptoms of interdependency. We can no longer ignore ‘externalities’. Everything is connected. We can no longer pretend that actions in one place won’t affect conditions in another. Instead of blindly pursuing our own goals, we should focus on creating healthy systems that don’t generate negative outcomes for others, least they return to us in some other time or form.

Complex doesn’t have to be complicated. We’re not very good with complexity. Uncertainty scares us; shatters our illusion of control. We like clean lines and simple truths, and tend to disregard contradictory information. Sometimes our actions in complex situations are overly simplistic, ignorant of important causes or consequences, at risk of inadvertently causing harm. At other times our plans are overly sophisticated, sensitive, cumbersome to implement, or we are forced into inaction by too many choices. What should we do? First, get your head out of the sand. Embrace complexity and stop pretending everything is black and white. Second, use tools to help you make meaning of complexity. See the wood for the trees. Focus on the elements or relationships in a system that are the most influential, or the actions most likely to leverage your desired changes.

Your theory is probably wrong. Most people and organisations are slaves to dogma. Mental models, academic theories, norms, heuristics, best practices – the abstract simplifications we employ to help us make sense of reality are diverse, and usually wrong. Reality is replete with contradictions and much more nuanced than our models allow for, particularly where humans are involved. We like theories and models because they provide us shortcuts, telling us what to think and do so we don’t get baffled in the face of complexity. We get tripped up though when we assume that because a theory was accurate in one instance, it will be correct in others, or that our models will run smoothly off the shelf. We should respect the individuality of the contexts we work in, re-design our tools accordingly, and apply them more flexibly. 

The best solutions are homegrown. International aid programs in developing countries are usually ‘outside in’ and ‘top down’. Most of the people that fund or implement them are outsiders. We assume that the norms, assumptions and strategies that we learned elsewhere will work here too. We talk a lot about local ownership and consultation in peace and development work, but tend to follow our own personal, institutional or political imperatives when locals don’t agree. We need to flip the paradigm. Let’s start with local context, not end with it. Beneficiaries should be at the start of the chain – where ideas are conceived – not just at the end. This is not just an ethical imperative; it produces better outcomes. Indigenous design and implementation produces programs that are adapted to thrive in local conditions, have strong local ownership, and remain viable in the absence of external assistance.

Loosen the reins. Stakeholders and funding providers in international peace and development work want accountability and value for money. This makes sense, especially when public money is paying for it. But to get these assurances, some require that all of the activities in pursuit of a given peace or development goal are planned in advance. Implementers must stay the course or risk losing support, regardless of how the situation changes. Which inevitably it does. In complex environments, the causal landscape is dynamic, uncertain, and non-linear. Reaching your goals requires staying sensitive to signals and adapting to this changing landscape as it unfolds over time. Organisations that are allowed more freedom to decide how they do it achieve more. 

Processes, not projects. Transforming conflict and development challenges takes a long time. Aid funding is generally short term. Peacebuilding works best when the agency and interests of locals rather than donors is empowered. We seek means of initiating and maintaining change processes than can reduce their reliance on external support over time.