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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Complexity and Development lecture at CGD


On February 5 I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture given by Owen Barder at the Center for Global Development, entitled “Complexity Theory and Development Policy.”  This blog comprises the notes I took during the lecture.

Overview: The lecture and presentation were a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) Theory  101 for the uninitiated and applies it to development at the high theory level (with hints to policy).  There were many book references throughout, shared below.  The audience was full of SAIS professors as well as the World Bank, former (retired) USAID staff, and some interns at various NGOs. CGD streamed the lecture live because there was so much interest in this topic.  Main point: we need to be able to fail and to document and share the anatomy of each failure, recognizing system-wide effects.

Intro: The first slide was the famous chart depicting GDP growth in South Korea and Ghana over the past 40 years or so.  Why did South Korea rise spectacularly and Ghana flatline? (Spoiler alert: EVERYONE can list a few reasons why this is so…and then he didn't return to this chart to tie it to CAS so…we’re still wondering about that.) He referenced Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson who posit that corruption leads to bad policies; to change institutions, you need to change politics first.  Owen believes this book would explain everything if it included just one more chapter…and I’ll make you wait for that just like he did in the lecture.

Toaster project: a guy tries to build a toaster from scratch and succeeds somewhat; this experiment illustrates the benefits of economies of scale and the value of trial and failure.  “Development” has not followed this model.

The past 50 years of development saw: 1) fastest progress; 2) no explanation for difference; 3) questioned the existence of a missing ingredient; and 4) led to thinking that all is endogenous—a function of a system that cannot be affected from outside.

Adapt by Harris emphasizes learning from failure.  Testing through trial and error, adaptation and iteration is a better way to solve problems than trying to engineer a solution from the outset.  And an observant audience member pointed out that in that case, success cannot be separated from failure, to which Owen agreed.  Models and engineering solutions are not appropriate for development.

Industries, not firms, adapt.  Eighty percent of innovation results from firms going bust and new firms starting. Witness the fall of Barnes and Noble to Amazon, which then leads to Congress rethinking interstate commerce.  Firm goes bust and institutions adapt.  Adaptations affect each other – interlocking adaptive-ness yields a complex system.

Complexity overview: Origin of Wealth by Beinhocker describes an economy as a CAS.  Characteristics of a CAS:

1.       Butterfly Effect

2.       Predictable at Scale

3.       Emergent Properties – like thunderstorms; these are non-linear systems with system-wide properties

4.       Tend to complexity

5.       State of perpetual disequilibrium – periods of time look like they are relatively stable then there is seemingly a sudden change because all units are constantly adapting to each other

These are familiar traits in the study of economics.

Development: slight adaptation to Amartya Sen’s description—there is a need for a system that makes it likely for people to live out their life choices.

Discussion: Development is an emergent property of a CAS. What are the properties of the system that bring about this emergent property?

What can we do to accelerate the evolution of systems? To affect the rules that govern relationships of elements in the system?

1.       Resist engineering.  Instead, iterate, adapt and learn through trial and error rather than designing answers

2.       Resist fatalism

3.       Promote innovation and variation – equity promotes innovation, e.g. a social safety net gives people the freedom to innovate (leftist view).  The right side would say, eliminate regulation in order to get out of the way of entrepreneurs.

4.       Embrace creative destruction (Schumpeter’s term) – e.g. the evolution of the music industry

5.       Shape development – what is the fitness function.  Create selection pressures.

6.       Embrace experimentation

7.       Act global – open markets to poor countries, encourage migration, etc.

We want to accelerate adaptation.

 If development is an emergent property of a CAS then development policy should promote adaptation.  Does thinking about it this way help us?

How can we fail safely?  We should expect successes in portfolios, not individual projects (Remember—he’s an economist!).  We should package projects in portfolios (CSHGP, anyone?).  Take the implementation risk out of the public sector and put it in local groups, like “cash on delivery” aid.

Aside: DFID is an interdisciplinary agency and adopts interdisciplinary approaches.

Support of microfinance initiatives has blunted financial environmental pressures in some markets, creating a protected class.  Development should do the opposite—it should strengthen adaptive pressures.  And failure needs to generate feedback and learning.

Big question:  measurement (coming from the Bank, no less). Owen admits this is tricky and requires more thought: In CAS collect less data—focus on the part of the system you are working on.  Editorial note: I don’t agree with the second part.  Less data, of the right kind, is appropriate but to focus on measuring/documenting just the part of the system you’re working on is exactly where we are now.  I think we need to describe systemic effects as best we can.  That kind of documentation is significant for iterations and learning.

Ah, you’re wondering about his reference to the missing chapter in Why Nations Fail – it’s the identification of politics as an endogenous property that co-evolves with everything else.

Let's invite him to a CEDARS happy hour!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Food Security Revisited



We recently posted a short 2-pager on the opportunities and challenges, notably for monitoring of new donor efforts with food security approaches, integrating livelihood as well as nutrition and health. (See Sudhir Wanmali’s Food Security Revisited.)

We asked Sudhir to answer three questions for this blog.

Q- Why is food security becoming fashionable again?

The Global Food Security Initiative was launched at L’Aquila, Italy in 2009 at the G-8 Summit in which the global leaders agreed to reverse the decade long decline in investment in agriculture, and to “do business differently”. Amongst others, this was to be achieved by aligning their efforts with country owned processes and plans, by paying specific attention to immediately tackle the hunger of the most vulnerable, and by initiating medium and long-term sustainable, agricultural, food security, nutrition security, and rural development programs. The United States Government, through USAID, is at the forefront of these global efforts with its Feed the Future Initiative and its Global Health Initiative.

Q- What is the new thinking behind what is happening in food security?

Food security is now being seen by all donor agencies at once as a multi-sectorial, mutli-level, and multi-disciplinary exercise in rural development with a view to enhancing food, nutrition, and livelihood security of vulnerable households in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. It is also being seen as an integral part of the national plans of development with the emphasis of engaging all stakeholders, and strengthening their capacities with a view to sustaining this exercise. Rigorous tracking of its progress, from the beginning, is one of the salient features of this new thinking.

Q- What is the focus of your note?

Having studied issues of agriculture driven rural economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia since 1981, having noted the decline of the idea of agriculture as the “engine of growth” in these two most poor regions of the world during 1995 to 2010, and having witnessed the emergence of this idea again on the center stage of the development agenda of the world recently, the note briefly delineates the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in understanding, analyzing, and monitoring the intricacies of food, nutrition, and livelihood security, and learning from that experience, in order to make this exercise sustainable and transferable, thereby making the vulnerable rural population of these regions more resilient than what it is today.