Thinking In Complex Ways And Development On Our Own Doorstep

In September 2000 advocates from 189 countries signed up to the United Nations Millennium Declaration which is a statement for the rights of the poor. The declaration commits countries to fighting poverty and has its main drivers set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which include halving the numbers of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.

Millenium Development Goals Reports

Capital in the 21st Century

The reduction of poverty thus became the overarching goal of international development and it called for via the adoption of more pragmatic and people-centred policy which responds to local knowledge and the priorities of the poor and most disadvantaged. This contrasts and connects with a time where there has never been such vast wealth concentrated in such small numbers of people.

According to the work of Thomas Piketty and colleagues, in his book Capital in the 21st Century: “When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”
The sparsity of financial wealth for some is obvious, and with it comes various accompaniments of loss of agency, loss of opportunity and loss of cultural engagement for many. Beyond the obvious, we can start to detect newer, more modern forms of poverty which are taking root in apparently abundant environments. The use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is illusory and effectively masks the negative welfare situations of people who exist within cultures which are badged as wealthy and healthy.
For an indepth examination of the problems of GDP, you can read the following ‘Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ written by Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Professor Amartya Sen and Professor Jean Paul Fitoussi. Together they created The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (CMEPSP). The Commission’s aim was “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, including the problems with its measurement; to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress”:
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress
Once we go looking under the top layer, we discover that there are many problems that the existing measures and language do not account for. They are invisible to our measures and therefore lack a means to be discussed – therefore, the simplest and most apathetic response is to imagine that the problems we do not discuss do not exist.


Creating New Language To Have New Conversations

Besides the glaring inequalities in financial wealth, what is important is to try and develop a means and language for grappling with the emerging forms of poverty which are under-represented and prevalent in the modern United Kingdom context. Thinking about notions like ‘time poverty’, ‘impoverishment of opportunity‘, ‘dispossession from cultural capital’, ‘intellectual poverty’ and ‘social impoverishment’ all are allusions to types of poverty I perceive around me.
The expanded analysis of prospective forms of poverty and impoverishment is necessarily a multi-disciplinary endeavour – that is, there is a need to draw from all subject areas to be able to gather the language which has explanatory power necessary to articulate what is not common already in common usage. Drawing language, concepts and models from as many areas as possible will elaborate a way in which we can develop meaningful conversations that lead to practical solutions.
I regularly see people who apparently are ‘well off’ and have ‘good jobs’, however are caught on a constant merry-go-round of busyness such that they cannot give time to anything other than the narrow demands of what they are already engaged in.  People are steeped in time poverty so much so that the idea of voluntarism itself is facing being a simply a euphemism for curriculum vitae building.  People are forced to choose between work and family, family and community, community and vocation.  Society seems increasingly stratified in terms of professional classes and qualifications, recreating bounded social opportunities and reinforcing revolving door cultures. 

Creeping deserts

It seems that although our age extols the principles of science and merit, that only some people are allowed to make meaning in these professionalised worlds.  More and more, community spaces are being forced into becoming ‘social enterprises’ thus passing on the costs to the community to meet; where children played once, real estate agents have parcelled up the land and public goods have been sold off to enterprises which charge a rent to associate in those spaces.  Even benches, bins and public toilets are starting to disappear from our urban landscapes.  There are creeping invisible deserts which we need to create conversations around.

It is helpful to draw from the syncretic method of Cicero and others as a way of thinking in new ways about sticky problems. The syncretic refers to the synthesis of the eclectic which takes the pragmatic perspective that if it helps develop an understanding – explain and communicate that which is under study – then the knowledge can be viably appropriated into a new context to allow a new expression to take place. For example, understandings in the field of agriculture can come to inform mathematics, and biology can inform engineering etc.
This openness to where we draw our learning from gains its power from the fact that it puts knowledge out of phase with its traditional categories and aims to value its exposition on the relationships it has been set in. Those of a more traditional bent might feel uneasy at the idea of such interdisciplinarity and use of metaphor driven content, however there is a profound need for us to develop the complex and allow the experiments that create the possibilities from which helpful things can emerge. This is not to set the contemporary against tradition, nor vice versa, but to combine the assets of both; to always be looking over our shoulders at how we have done things is as ludicrous as to label the traditional redundant as it makes reference to the past.

If we are to discover the fruitful, we must acknowledge the creative thinking that takes us out of the ordinary, into terrain where the tropes and baubles of the established become equals and once again reside on their innate qualities rather than reputations. We can no longer afford to speak only one language in a global-local world; equally, we can no longer afford to reside in the carefully segregated specialisms which have divided up our intellect.

The Tower Hamlets divide

Accepting Complexity

A new voice in the socio-political dynamics of development is required that recognizes development as a complex system rather than as simple initiatives that can be pushed into S.M.A.R.T plans and ‘implemented on people’. In the context of this digest and article, I am framing the work of international aid and development as including the commonly called ‘developed world(s)’ and as integral to achieving the projects of education as well as addressing the social, environmental and economic.

I have come to this conclusion because of the obvious poverties/inequalities which co-exist with the extremities of wealth in places such as the UK. An example is that of the London borough of Tower Hamlets; simultaneously one of the richest and poorest borough’s in London. Giles Fraser wrote about this in The Guardian in his article ‘The wealth divide in Tower Hamlets is a violation of Britons’ sense of fairness‘.

Ecosystem thinking is needed to tackle the gross inequalities engrained in our culture and develop a resilient, sustainable, long term societal infrastructure which serves everyone. This will have to include in its matrix, educational, social, environmental and health imperatives as interwoven equals to the financial economic rhetoric which dominates all considerations at the moment.
The pea brain in us takes fright at the notion of thinking with so many factors involved, especially as our modern post industrial world has been divided – like a butcher would an animal – into different sections and strata, whilst expecting it to live and thrive. We need a more joined up world which works on a basis of mutual synergy rather than a dismembered and categorical culture maintained by services which are forced to operate as if they could
exist in a vacuum.

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

For example, I have heard reports on how the funding and procurement procedures around support services are structured so that consortium working situations are impeded as the first service which deals with a client gets the funding which is allocated in a support situation; this leaves the other services bereft, and a multi-agency approach to complexes of problems starved of oxygen.

This means that in a client who needs multiple support needs met (i.e. homelessness prevention, drug and addiction counselling, education, psychological support etc) they cannot be tended to as the complex interrelated whole that they are. Rather are dealt with in isolation, and as one problem is dependent upon the mutual resolution of another problem, no long term advances are made (i.e. someone is detoxed from drugs but left without psychological counselling and adequate housing resulting in relapse through disenfranchisement).
The fear that strikes those who resonate with the tropes of ‘that is not in my job description’ or ‘I simply have to focus on the measured outcomes’ can be made of many components. Each component, must be dealt with to change the working environment from one driven by fear, blame and recriminations to one which puts a humane, rational, patience-rich one that fosters long term successes. There is a need to adjust our inward focus, stepping back from the intricacies of individual projects and programmes to take in and build understandings of the links between the various actors in a culture of education, support and development.
A macro-intelligence needs to evolve which can distinguish between the valuable mycelium of social and intellectual capital which underlies a society’s successful group venture, and that of the deadweight free rider culture sponsored by anxious management policies and extrinsic rewards which lead to mercenary traits. Indeed one can be cultivated into the other in either direction by shifting the imperative mandates from those anchored in the social long term to those based in the financial short term or vice versa. The discourse of international development underpins that of the social long term.

Inclusive Aid Changing Power and Relationships

Rachel Hinton and Leslie Groves, editors and authors in the book ‘Inclusive Aid; Changing Power and Relationships in International Development’ say that to successfully meet the Millennium Development Goals, “Far greater trust, accountability and responsibility must be developed within and among all actors at all levels” [page 3, Inclusive Aid; Changing Power and Relationships in International Development, edited by Leslie Groves and Rachel Hinton, Earthscan Books, ISBN: 1-84407-033-6].

These key factors of trust, accountability and responsibility need to be understood in ways different to the traditional imperial, command-and-control type managerialism which exists in vertical power structures. The danger is that a blindness develops around the subjective stance of the thinking of those who are empowered where they overvalue themselves in the setting of ‘delivering help’. Often by omission of action they might contribute more greatly to societal development goals rather than injecting themselves – and barriers of engagement – which manifest as ‘experts downloading information into a setting’ or of consultants ‘telling communities where they are going wrong’ whilst not acting directly on the problems they feel are tricky.
These aspirational considerations of trust accountability and responsibility feature regularly in the paraphernalia and rhetoric of development projects and social initiatives. All too often funders and donors enact trust, accountability and responsibility as something they ask of those they are engaging and do not give out themselves. The result is that increasingly only large organisations who are a part of the established culture of delivery gain access to resources, contracts, agency, and the security to be actors.
Institutions and organisations often behave in such a way as to infantilize individuals and communities, creating constrained situations in which trust is withdrawn or non-reciprocating, where accountability is a one way process, and responsibility is to the dominant empowered agenda rather than the values of those needing support or the circumstances for development. To tackle the complex micro-management and unruly bureaucracies need to be counterbalanced with trust given in the form of lasting agency, accountability in the form of openness (of information and time), and responsibility to tackle issues which may disturb a convenient status quo.

I close the article on the message that all the themes we can find in modern international development need to be interpreted and applied to ‘developed nations’ such as the United Kingdom and acknowledged as complex problems which require complex solutions.


Ragged University