Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Owen Barder and a Taxonomy of Development Problems

I quote from an interview Barder gave to the Development Gateway:
Global development is a series of complex – not just complicated – problems. An example of a simple problem is baking a cake. If you follow a recipe accurately, it is straightforward to do and it will work out well every time. A complicated problem is sending a rocket to the moon. This is a series of difficult questions to be answered, and there are few people in the world who could answer all of them. You could break the problem down into a series of questions (design a ship, design a fuel, spacesuit, navigation) and solve each of them individually. Once you have figured out how to send a rocket to the moon once, it is likely that you'll be able to do so again. An example of a complex problem is raising a child. In this case, even if you are successful once, there is no guarantee that if you do the same thing it will work in the same way. Indeed, we don't even all agree what it means to raise a child successfully. Running a business, setting up a health ministry or creating economic lift off are all complex problems. 
When a problem is "merely" complicated, we can reduce it into a series of smaller questions that we can solve. But we have to address complex systems in a different way. We have to try different approaches, and see whether they seem to be moving this in broadly the right direction. If something works, we should do more of it and build from there. If something doesn't work, we should stop that approach and try something else. I'm open to correction, but it seems to me that all successful complex systems are the result of a process of evolution, not design.
I like very much the distinctions among simple, complicated and complex problems. In the course of development there are of course many simple problems, many complicated problems and many complex problems.  For example, the cellular telephone is the answer to a significant communication problem in developing countries, and once the technology has been developed it has been possible to disseminate hundreds of millions of cell phones in those countries. Indeed, the development of cellular telephony could be seen as a complex problem, involving the development of appropriate microelectronic circuit technology, appropriate batteries, appropriate systems of transmission towers, appropriate software, etc. Once these problems were solved it became possible to introduce cell phone systems in country after country, region after region, and company after company.

If raising a child is a complex problem, so too must be educating a class of students. I would say that reengineering a company to deal with advancing technological opportunities and restructuring a business sector are complex problems. So too is improving the health of a community, or improving the economic productivity of a farming community.

Unfortunately, too many foreign aid officials assume that complex problems are really just complicated problems. They propose a pilot project that they assume will be successful to be brought to scale when they are in fact confronting a complex problem.

Fortunately, there are development problems that can be usefully compartmentalized into complicated and complex components. Thus the construction of a system of schools and classrooms and the training of teachers can be treated as complicated problems, while those teachers in their classrooms face the individual complex problems of helping the students to learn well.

Barder goes on to make some interesting points, suggesting to my mind that we will see more social networking to share information and less importation of outside "experts". Remember, one's expertise increases with the distance one has traveled to render advice, and with the budget of the organization for which one works, not necessarily with one's knowledge nor wisdom.

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