Elinor Ostrom: “The last thing aid agencies want to do is analyse things as a complex system!”

Ben Ramalingam:

“When Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in 2009, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences made the following statement:

‹‹[she] has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concluded that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories››.


Indeed, her 2009 Nobel Prize Lecture – she was the first and, to date, only woman to win the Economics Prize – builds on the distinction between simple and complex human systems, and closes with the following words:

‹‹We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it››.


(In an interview in 2010)

‹‹I get so upset when people use complexity as a reason not to do things – complexity and context are essential for operating in many different situations. In order to make sure decisions are relevant, we have to understand the context of decisions, and the complexity of the situation. My take on complexity is that it is a key set of concepts which are essential for understanding how the world works››.


How would you apply these ideas to international aid agencies?

‹‹The last thing aid agencies want to do is analyse things as a complex system! (laughs) But how do you unpack systems without such analyses? In biology and ecology, there is a necessity of using complexity science and related ideas as a model – although it is not always acknowledged, they do have to use it. For example, in a situation with 10, 15, 20 species, how do you understand the potential impact of the elimination of one species, when one unit being eradicated would cause disaster rather than simply being important. We can’t address these questions without drawing on complexity theory in some way.

The lack of long timeframes and a lack of supporting cultures means that aid agencies don’t help people learn how to think about and change the structure of the situations they are facing. In many situations, this is because of colonial roots of aid, which did not respect local institutions – they didn’t understand them so they were treated as non-existent››.


What three things would you change among aid agencies to get them to take more account of complex realities?”

‹‹The number one thing is the ‘spend it or lose it’ mentality – it is common to most bureaucracies, but getting it changes is essential if aid is going to be tailored to the complex realities of development. This institutional change will allow many others to come about, and so it is a very important one.

Number two is getting aid agencies to be more of a learning enterprise and less of a doing enterprise. This means feedback, training, reflection. This means not assuming we have the answer. We need to create an environment where discussion and debate are openly welcomed, and where redundancy is not always seen as bad, just excessive redundancy.

Third, we need to reward people for developing imaginative ideas that draw on the complexity of the real world, that leave people in developing countries more autonomous, less dependent, and more capable of crafting their own future››.


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