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Spark | Complexity theory

Development and aid are influenced by a range of interacting factors in constantly changing social contexts, which can lead to unpredictable outcomes. This is particularly true in the case of HIV and AIDs, where complex social challenges like stigma and discrimination and gender inequity are difficult to address with traditional programming aimed at individuals and short term changes in behaviour.

Complexity theory provides some useful concepts and approaches to tackle such issues and to help approach evaluation differently.

Complexity theory argues that the many interrelationships and feedback between them in complex systems produce ’emergent’ and often unpredictable outcomes. This means that the social outcomes of development cannot be predicted from looking at single issues in isolation, but has to attend to the influence of constantly changing context.

Panos London hosted a meeting to discuss these ideas. This lively dialogue meeting on complexity brought together a wide range of stakeholders working at the cutting edge of development evaluation, including development practitioners, academics, donors, consultants and NGO representatives, to share insights and learning. The meeting is the latest in a rolling series of meetings on complexity and development  that have been lead by a succession of different aid and development organisations in the UK and the Netherlands.

The meeting explored six case studies of using concepts and approaches from complexity theory to enhance the evaluation of aid and development initiatives – including looking at how to evaluate the social drivers of HIV, how to assess capacity development, and how to evaluate an emergent networking and research programme

Discussions highlighted the need to:

  • Document and share more widely successful examples of innovation drawing on complexity concepts and approaches
  • Mainstream complexity concepts into evaluations so that programmes are designed with regular review of changing context built in
  • Focus evaluation more on learning and less towards pre-conceived results, and link this to incentives and rewards
  • Relocate the responsibility and use of and learning from evaluation to the South
  • Demystify some of the language of complexity
  • Make more use of ‘multi-sensory’ information and multi-media reporting, rather than rely on written reports.

To your right you can read the summary report of the meeting, as well as the full dialogue from the meeting. You can visit the IKM Emergent Research and Communication Programme website here for more details on their projects.

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Panos London complexity and evaluation dialogue

Panos London complexity and evaluation summary