Development cooperation: working in complex systems

Social systems are highly complex; a development practitioner must acknowledge that personal contribution, though often not very visible, is part of the whole.

Collaboration and facilitation in international context

Working effectively in complex systems requires understanding the importance of one's personal contribution and striking a balance between active engagement and refraining from direct action.

This article explores some of the challenges of development cooperation and emphasises the importance of mobilising existing resources rather than focusing solely on visible solutions.

Drawing on insights from international and local professionals in the Western Balkans, the article highlights the role of international staff as facilitators and the need for a broad perspective to address systemic change. It also emphasises the importance of local cooperation and the satisfaction derived from joint efforts that lead to the development of new approaches.

The other day, a friend of mine told me she had installed a heat pump in her house to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions. However, in the first cool days of autumn, a water leakage occurred, both unexpected and unwanted. The filters in the existing heating system were overloaded and didn't stand up to the effects of the heat pump installed with good intentions. The "upgraded" system took an unexpected turn for the worse. 

Even today, there is a great temptation in development cooperation to move directly to actions based on (partial) analysis. A perceived problem should be countered with a (preferably visible) solution. After all, people often find satisfaction in their work when they can see or feel an immediate impact. However, development cooperation takes place in systems whose size and complexity surpass the scope of action of an individual. It is, therefore, necessary to understand the magnitude of situations, fields of action and your personal contribution in order to avoid becoming discouraged or lost in blind and short-lived activism.

Development cooperation takes place in systems whose size and complexity surpass the scope of action of an individual.

How does this apply to working in development cooperation?

Here are some insights and comments from national and international experts active in the Western Balkans that I had the chance to visit last summer:

  • The work is mainly about mobilising what is on site. This requires connecting different actors so that they can learn from each other and move forward together.
  • Cooperation between experienced professionals from the region, with ministries, administrations and associations is essential for this to work.
  • International professionals are first and foremost facilitators. They create good working conditions for a team, bring together different actors, organise meetings and study trips, and mediate between donors and project implementing organisations.
  • They also liaise with head office for administrative work, strategic discussions and reports.

To achieve this, international professionals need…

  • Own networks on the current issues (e.g. vocational education, one of the current issues in the Western Balkans)
  • In-depth knowledge of the social, economic and political environment
  • An intimate knowledge of the lives and concerns of the local population, but at the same time, a broad perspective to see where systemic changes need to be addressed, perhaps well away from the immediate issue
  • The ability to let things happen without intervening immediately
  • The knack for finding and retaining good people in the country
  • Perseverance, to be able to put heart into lengthy processes despite setbacks, and to assess personal contribution appropriately

A typical day or week is filled with many exchanges, both internal and external, such as at a partner office, in email exchanges, in online meetings or on the phone. The focus is on working with and through local actors, be they associations, government agencies, or schools and universities. It's often a lengthy process, but hopefully one part of a system will change in a way that doesn't overburden another part. It's not about saving the world - which realistically wasn't the starting point, was it? The satisfaction in this kind of work often comes from the energy of collaboration, the creative component, and the joint development of new services or approaches that will function without unwanted/serious side-effects.