Newton v Complexity: Robert Chambers on competing aid paradigms

two part piece by Robert Chambers on the excellent ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’ blog.Robert Chambers Worth spending some time studying the diagrams. “Today we can see two broad paradigms at work in international development. On the one side are Neo-Newtonian practices – those processes, procedures, roles and behaviour which emphasise standardisation, routines and regularities in response to or assuming predictabilities. On the other side, we can see what I call adaptive pluralism, which demands creativity, invention, improvisation and originality in adapting to and exploiting change. The diagrams below build suggest some of the ways in which  different elements of each paradigm are mutually reinforcing. Elements in a Paradigm of Neo-Newtonian Practice neonewtonian5                                     Elements in a Paradigm of Adaptive Pluralism adaptivepluralism2                                   There are two points to make. First, it is not an either-or. These ways of thinking about the world need to co-exist in a much healthier manner than they do currently. Rosalind Eyben has written about how the formal, reductionist side of the aid system often overlays the adaptive side of the system, resulting in cognitive dissonance. It must be possible to get a better, more honest, and realistic, balance between the two. Second, and to build on this, establishing a better balance needs to be grounded in the challenges we face right now, otherwise it is likely to be abstract and meaningless. Let me ask for suggestions of approaches, things we know that can be done better, where we might attempt paradigmatic win-wins. Maybe it is about furthering the results agenda through participation and local ownership. Perhaps it is developing more socially grounded alternatives to the logical framework. Maybe it is about how large databases and social networks can be developed in tandem in order to enhance aid transparency. Perhaps it is about how uncertainty and context can be better addressed within aid bureaucracies. In the wider world, areas come to mind where bridging the paradigms may be increasingly essential: climate change, urbanisation, HIV-AIDS, and the link between farming and animal health immediately come to mind. However, here my own prejudices have to come to the fore. There is little doubt in my mind that the neo-Newtonian paradigm has become more and more dominant in development action, if not development thinking. It exerts a powerful influence – for better or for worse – on the way much of the system works. For balance, we need a countervailing pull. For the paradigmatic win-wins which I touched upon earlier to be recognised and acted upon, we need to understand better how adaptive pluralism can add value to development efforts, and how it can be accorded the status it deserves.”  Aid on the Edge of Chaos also posted recently on positive deviance (see my post on that here)]]>

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


6 Responses to “Newton v Complexity: Robert Chambers on competing aid paradigms”
  1. Dear Robert and all,
    Some of us working in measurement are very interested in exploring the synergies to which you gesture. You’re right it’s not either or; one needs comparable measures. But they are of necessity crude – and one also needs far more local and textured tools. Can measurement help at the more local level, and if so how?
    One concrete option I’d like to explore: the multidmensional poverty measurement work OPHI are doing at the moment might be an ‘open source’ technology – something useful for adaptive pluralism. Why? Because the dimensions, weights, cutoffs, and indicators can be chosen locally – to reflect the priorities and values communities hold. They also create a ‘measure’ that can communicate, imperfectly but concretely, some of these things.
    It might be very interesting (and not difficult) to join with those doing participatory monitoring/ evaluation, and just try out whether new measurement methods can add anything at all – or not.
    This would require collaboration (just at the right time, and driven by the local partner so that the measure was useful) to assemble the information in a measure, share it back with the community to see a) if it seems accurate; b) if it is adds value to what they do and know already.
    It would also be very interesting to explore participatory data as you had mentioned – and see if it can enrich more comparable analyses.
    I’m not sure what we’d come up with but it might open up a conversation.

  2. Irene Guijt

    One issue not touched on and I believe it is central is understandings of causality and therefore, ability to influence events. One’s adherence to more or less belief in the knowable influences one’s comfort level with ambiguity and also, I would argue, leads to choices in evaluation practice. There is a huge debate about how evaluation is shaping knowledge on development (or not) and influencing resource allocation, with a clear divide as per Chambers’ two groups.
    Snowden has written an interesting initial blog on this as part of a conference blog series.

  3. Yes, this is absolutely correct and probably Neo-Newtonian practices – those processes, procedures, roles and behaviour which emphasise standardisation, routines and regularities in response to or assuming predictabilities are more dominating than adaptive pluralism, which demands creativity, invention, improvisation and originality in adapting to and exploiting change. As a rsult the latter do not get due space for the the paradigmatic win-wins situation. It is always been so far challenging to sustain positive changes for a longer period at the same pace.

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    One aspect to this that often goes unnoticed is people’s different capabilities to manage, navigate and tolerate uncertainty. These can be ‘stretched’ by providing people with supportive contexts to navigate emergent change but can limit the adoption of more adaptive practices.
    A good illustration will be the protests emerging in the Middle East. Early adopters create social spaces that enable more risk adverse participants to create a momentum for scaled protest. But look when violence at the margins that can legitimate counter-violence on the part of the state helps disintegrate those safe spaces and structures: momentum can be lost, change forestalled. A greater grounding/training in the strategies/tactics of non-violence can be a ‘Newtonian’ frame to the ‘adaptive pluralism’ of creative protest. The two can be seen to mutually reinforce the other.

  5. I think Robert’s diagrams are good summaries of two paradigms, which might also be labelled (very roughly) the Institutional and the Community paradigms, or the Culture and the Counter-Culture paradigms. Or Big Money and Small Money.
    I’m not so far convinced that relating this divergence in approaches to complexity is a good idea at all. This article, by a specialist,gives many of the reasons why:
    What Is Complexity Science, Really?
    It argues, among other things, that attempts by lay people (non-mathematicians) to relate their work to “complexity science” is generally an attempt to borrow authority from the natural sciences. The author then describes three forms of such borrowing that are NOT complexity science. The third is “a set of metaphors or analogies based on resemblance thinking.”
    Most complexity talk in development seems to be of this third type.
    The problem is that it by casting this debate in terms of “complexity”, which it is not, (a) we get off the track of arguing the real differences, whatever they are, and (b) an appeal to “complexity” convinces no-one but the faithful.
    I agree with Irene that causality is an important area of investigation. Much of Institutional thinking does indeed feed on the Newtonian paradigm of the motion. It presumes that human societies can be made as predictable as billiard balls. I think we who lean towards the community paradigm might argue that it’s not.
    But though complexity science might explain why billiard balls aren’t as predictable as we might once have thought) that doesn’t mean that human societies are unpredictable for the same reasons.
    Complexity science is deterministic. So, to call on complexity is in a way to fall back into the Newtonian trap, in that it stays within the paradigm that the universe, and therefore human systems, operate in machine-like ways, a point beautifully made in this documentary:
    The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts
    part of
    All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
    Why do we need to leave (or at least supplement) this visions of mechanistic development look like? That’s the argument that we have to make.