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Filed under: Development

Sustainable development calls for environmental sustainability, together with social and economic sustainability. Sustainability requires that all three elements jointly move from an unsustainable to a sustainable development path. In other words: it’s not development if it’s not sustainable. (See: speech of UNDP regional deputy director Jens Wandel – well worth the read.)

However, insisting on social, environmental, and economic sustainability simultaneously brings complexity, and we are faced with substantial unknowns, including:

  • Assessing where we are,
  • Defining where we want to be,
  • Defining the path from where we are to where we want to be, and
  • Defining how UNDP can support our partners.

This requires a departure from the linear type of thinking that used to characterize our understanding of development. For instance, we note that sometimes our actions or those by others appear to have no measurable influence on development and all of a sudden they lead to marked change: the “tipping points.”

Or, we see similar actions in a similar development context in one country leading to positive change, while in other countries these actions do not contribute to anything – indicating sensitivity to initial conditions and the so-called path dependence. Combine the unknowns above with phenomena like these, and we enter into the world of complexity.

Like it or not, we do have to chew on some theory about complexity, before we can start relating it directly to our development work (See: Humans or bust: Will Rio + 20 be about people?).

Some claims have been made that our way of working will soon be history and that with the help of complexity theory a new generation of development practice will be shaped. But is this true? How far has complexity thinking actually gone to help explain our development context? And how far has it gone to help shape our action perspective?

We wrote a small paper to outline how we can come to terms with the complexity inherent in sustainable development, by asking some basic questions:

  • What is this three-dimensional sustainability concept actually about, and what is a sustainable development path?
  • What is complexity about and how would it influence the way we think about sustainable development?
  • How would complexity influence the way UNDP can support our partner countries to move along a sustainable development path?

At this stage, we sought to write enticingly about complexity, but without pretending to know more than we do and without providing answers.

We are planning to organize a virtual event in early 2012, involving some of the more experienced theorists and experts in sustainable development and complexity, to discuss how the complexity theory can help us shape the next generation of development work.

You are invited to comment on the paper (and any of the questions we’ve raised here), and we hope that the debate will help shape that event.

  • Paul Lundberg

    Gentlemen, I just saw your post. I congratulate you for taking this step. Let me offer a couple of relevant references to move you along in your learning.

    website for Samir Rihani’s 2002 book on complex systems and development

    Ben Ramalingam’s 2008 path breaking piece on complexity and development
    and his blog

    Elinor Ostrom’s 2009 Nobel lecture on the polycentric governance of complex economic systems

    Page on IDS website

    Eric Berlow 3 min TED lecture on complexity

    a couple of points:
    a complex system does not have to be complicated, the difference lies in the co-evolving nature of the interacting parts of a complex system
    chaos systems are strongly influenced by initial conditions.
    path dependence is an influence on complex system evolution, but is not a determinant…because of the co-evolving nature of the interacting parts.

    I’d be glad to continue this conversation on or off line.


    Paul Lundberg

  • Albert Soer

    Thank Paul for the links. I also share here the link you sent through e-mail:

    In fact, the USAID event on complexity (blogged about by Ben Ramalingam as well, see the link in Pauls message) inspired us and that a meaningful debate on the complexities of complexity is very well possible.

    What we hope to achieve with this blog+paper is to actually have this debate. As we mention we intend to organise an event later in the year, and the present debate would inform how to tackle that event. If we believe complexity thinking is relevant, then what does that mean? How will it influence our way of working? How will it impact the way we are organised, our competency profile, our service offering? We need to get our questions (like these?) right and have tentative answers before that event and then submit these stories for debate during the event. We hope that in this manner we will be able to come up with some actionable recommendations on what we need to change at UNDP; if we need to change….

    But before we are there, we need thoughts and contributions! What are the questions? And do we already have ideas what the answers would look like?

    • Paul Lundberg

      Dear EurAsia,

      Sorry it took me a while to respond to your full paper. I will submit a couple of key points here in what is a rather longish post, but there are many more issues to discuss.

      First, I appreciate your desire to re-unite sustainable development (environmental) with human development (social and economic). However, it appears you may not be aware that UNDP did this once before, about 20 years ago. Following the first Rio Conference, UNDP adopted Sustainable Human Development (SHD) as its guiding policy theme in the 1990s as a synthesis of the previous human development and the sustainable development concepts. The essence of this synthesis was described in the 1994 report of the UNDP Administrator as: “development that not only generates economic growth, but distributes its benefits equitably; that regenerates the environment rather than destroying it; that empowers people rather than marginalizing them.”

      Unfortunately, that holistic conceptual framework slowly disappeared from common use over the years (it only mustered a one sentence entry in the recent corporate Strategic Plan MTR). Why did it fade from memory to the extent that senior officers in a regional center are calling for its creation, seemingly without realizing that it had once been the dominant phrase in UNDP-speak? IMHO, the demise of SHD can be timed quite closely to the advent of the sectoral ‘practices’. Just as you propose, other sectorally minded professionals felt the SHD concept was too complicated for development programming. They felt more comfortable in reducing the concept into bite-sized chunks that could be fashioned into time-bound programmes with measurable results. Since it was those reductionist programmes that got the funds, SHD slowly faded from memory.

      Breaking a complicated task or problem into its component parts in order to identify key bottlenecks is a time honoured technique. It has worked in engineering since man began to build pyramids. However, while a building is a complicated system, a city is complex. Likewise, sending a rocket to the moon is a complicated problem, but teaching a child to read is a complex one. The distinction between complicated and complex systems is not related to the number of moving parts or bytes of data involved. They are entirely different types of systems…and chaotic system dynamics are not applicable to human systems—Rwanda was absolutely the result of complex human interactions. Patton is an excellent instructor on the use of complexity in evaluation systems, but there are few people who have worked on complexity issues who would agree that there are socially complicated situations that do not quickly become complex in an open society.

      A complex system is made up of diverse agents that are connected, whose behavior and actions are inter-dependent and who adapt to change. The immediate humanitarian relief efforts following the earthquake in Haiti represented a complicated situation to be addressed quickly and efficiently, but the development process that has played out over the subsequent months has been complex as the conditions of the natural environment changed and the human inhabitants, both Haitians and helpers from the outside, continually adapted to the situation.
      We can understand how complex systems work, we can learn how to work with complex systems, we may be able to act as a catalyst to change their dynamics, but we have zero ability to control what results after that intervention. Unfortunately, every time we “pull on a lever” we set off a non-linear set of reactions that cannot be predicted. National policies may work, some of the time and in some parts of a country. However, witness what has happened in the past two years in Hungary with a new government that came in with substantial power, not to mention everyone’s high hopes. We cannot consistently identify a path that is sustainable. but we can build the capability in a society to continually assess and adjust its current behavior to support a more equitable future.

      SHD was set up to be a useful holistic frame of reference to guide discussions and programming, but it did not represent the reality of the systems that UNDP was expected to assist. It can be useful again, but only if we stop to realize that SHD is neither complicated nor complex. It is a heuristic framework. In the real socio-ecological systems that are embedded in the countries of your region, people constantly interact with each other to solve their daily problems. Those interactions are not driven by a desire for sustainable development, but to address more immediate, and personal, needs. However, in a complex system, those micro-motives aggregate and patterns of macro-behavior emerge. In a closed system (or society) that macro-behavior can be more easily directed by elites, but most of countries of Eastern Europe have been in the process of steadily increasing the complexity of their societies over the past 20+ years.

      Another post on this blog has been talking about UNDP’s efforts in supporting an opening of Slovakia’s society. On the face of it, that approach is perfectly in sync with the basic tenets of complexity theory. Those interventions will not solve any problems on their own, but by increasing the complexity of interactions will improve the country’s ability to address its problems, both those that can be addressed internally and by expanding the Slovakian perspective on relations with the world outside its boundaries.

      Emergence is an important aspect of complex systems that has not been addressed in your paper. This is another fundamental distinction that separates complex systems from complicated or chaotic ones. Emergence is a phenomenon that characterizes macro-behavior patterns because those patterns are different in kind from those at the micro-level. The interactions among the parts of a rocket system serve to sustain the initial intent of the system…to maintain a course to a pre-selected objective.

      As I mentioned in my earlier post, in contrast to chaotic systems, the initial conditions of a complex system do NOT control its evolution. The interactions of the inhabitants of a particular socio-ecological system may be influenced by local synergies generated by permutations of factors involving history, geography, politics, social norms and, increasingly, by forces outside the porous boundaries of that system (climate change is clearly an emergent phenomenon). If initial conditions defined immutable paths then the human interactions in Eastern Europe would still be dominated by the ‘natural state’ concept of the Hapsburgs.

      Contrary to the belief expressed in this paper, I would argue that it is not ‘reasonably safe to assume that we know the areas that…contribute positively to sustainable development’. There is no single path to sustainability because there is no point that can be determined as sustainable. Sustainability comes about when a society has sufficient complexity to be able to solve each new problem as it arises. (This is what the eminent Central European, Karl Popper, proposed 70 years ago as the essence of an Open Society.) In the 1950s, the fossil fuel driven economies of the world saw no end to their seemingly inexorable path to progress. 1974 changed all that, but 40 years on the world is still clinging to that idea because of the millions of competing micro-motives that sustain the emergent macro-behavior of the global system. If you are seeking homeostasis then look no farther than North Korea. The contrast in the divergent paths of the two Koreas since 1970, illustrates what happens when a society opens itself to becoming increasingly more complex or closes itself off to preserve the conditions that benefit the elites.

      The driving purpose of UNDP’s engagement should be towards increasing the openness of a society so as to increase the complexity of its interactions. This increase in competition in decision processes reduces the potential for elites to extract rents that are derived from their ability to ‘pull levers’ through the creation of national policies and legal instruments that suit their purposes.

      Finally, Snowden and Boone is an inappropriate example as they are talking about the decision making processes of leaders inside a corporate system. For one, each one of the countries of the RBEC region is far more complex than any global corporation. Corporations allow only limited public involvement with considerable latitude for executive decision making focused primarily on the objective of making money. Secondly, UNDP sits outside any complex system with which it attempts to engage. It may advise, and possibly influence, a democratic leadership, but it can never be the decision maker.

      The key to improving external engagement with complex systems is to avoid attempting to pre-determine what are solutions, what is beneficial, or what is sustainable. A more significant paradigm shift is needed if UNDP is going to integrate the concept of complexity, and SHD, into its development approach. The summary conclusion of the recent USAID internal conference on complexity and development was: “The key is to build innovative platforms that unlock existing capacities, rather than deliver over-specified, top-down solutions.” UNDP must be willing to play a more catalytic role for this to work. Taking time to help the national government to understand and reflect upon the processes that generate the variation in responses to national policy made in different parts of a country or by different social groups can be a good start. Improving national monitoring and evaluation systems is vital. An area where UNDP is sorely lagging is in what the World Bank refers to as ‘citizen cartography’. This involves the combination of modern social media and geographic information systems to facilitate citizens from all over a country to record, assess and monitor change in critical social, economic and environmental aspects of their communities. The creation of common information platforms that everyone in a country can access is fundamental if Sustainable Human Development is to return as a workable integrating concept.

      Sorry I had a couple of charts, but couldn’t figure out how to upload from my computer.

      • Clare Romanik

        The conclusion of the recent USAID conference on complexity: “The key is to build innovative platforms that unlock existing capacities, rather than deliver over-specified, top-down solutions.” This reminds me very much of what a great facilitator taught me about adult learning – that the assumption is that 80% of the knowledge is in the room among the participants and the job of the facilitator is to bring out those various strands of knowledge.

        It would be great if both UNDP and central governments treated local governments as adults who have something to bring to the table in navigating a contextualized path to sustainable human development.

  • Millie

    Dear Albert and Balazs,

    Great article – very promising in terms of generating a discussion on where do we go from here and how do we actually build in concrete steps within our work to respond to various of complex systems we work with daily. I have few comments that I hope may be useful:

    Re: characteristics of the system:

    1. Being path-dependent, complex system is very sensitive to initial conditions, which implies that small changes to the context when the change begins can yield very different outcomes. I think this is important for us. I think that one of UNDP’s comparative advantages relative to IMF/WB is that we have on-the-field and outside-capitals presence – this implies that we, better than others, ought to know these initial conditions and are able to build scenarios based on manipulation of these conditions, in hope of construct various outcomes better (to the extent possible)

    2. Complex adaptive system features distributive and not centralized control, which implies that outcomes emerge from self-organization rather than direct design and control from external forces. Self-organization results in a system reproducing itself and a system establishing a new order, the characteristics of which are unpredictable and irreversible. I think that this is something that should be relevant for UNDP from the perspective of finding ways to utilize information and knowledge that already exists within the populations we are working with. How do we create incentives for regular folks to get involved, to participate in policy development and budget planning? Are we good at identifying and setting up incentives that will release this self-organization for a specific development purpose?

    3. Complex adaptive system operates within the boundary established by an attractor defined as a pattern, issue, person or area that draws energy of the system to it.
    International Center for Conflict and Complexity in Warsaw uses the concept of ‘attractors’ in analyzing intractable conflicts in a very interesting way (attractor is convergence of one side’s thoughts and beliefs about the other side in a conflict. In order to deescalate conflict, this theory implies addressing those variables that make the attractor stable and strong. It implies disassembling the existing, malignant attractor or moving the system toward a more benign attractor (Sadat’s visit to Egypt has had this effect in relations between the two countries; US support to Indonesia after the tsunami has had the similar affect in the improving the relationships between the two, which reached the low after 9/11 and subsequent Afghanistan/Iraq wars). For UNDP, I think this perspective can be relevant for constructing strategies in addressing entrenched, stable, yet malignant attractors countering progress in SD. For example, we could apply similar analysis to oil interests- analyzing oil interests as an attractor that pulls various influences against, for example, eliminating oil subsidies, which would unlock investment in clean technologies, first globally and then regionally/nationally. This could possibly offer an alternative way of looking at the problem and could yield some interesting findings, and maybe levers to pull that we hadn’t considered previously.

    Re: Scenario development instead of linear and fixed policies and strategies
    I think this is a great suggestion- it aims to address what I found in my reading described as ‘the compression of time and space.’ A great example is manufacturing and ‘just in time’ inventory systems that aimed to eliminate the need for storing, financing and managing inventories through creating real time order and delivery systems between suppliers and producers (another example was banking- the time lag between making a transaction and the moment when the cash was paid to the supplier is now completely eliminated with debit cards). If we accept that we live in the era of space/time compression and an era where social interaction takes place in a decentralized, self-organizing, independent way, then one way we could consider the role of politicians changing is from that of controlling the agenda to influencing it.

    In addition to scenario building though that inherently looks at medium to long term, and this comment is motivated by a book I recently read, recommended by a very brilliant colleagues of mine (Everything is Obvious Once You Know The Answer, Duncan Watts), it seems to me that complexity science is pushing us toward more being able to obtain more real-time feedback. The book talks of ‘react and measure’ strategies. Predictions about complex systems are characterized by the law of diminishing returns- the information we initially gather help a lot but then unless there are mechanisms in place that ensure continuous supply of the new info, you exhaust the potential for improving your prediction. So Henry Mintzberg, management theorist, suggests that planners rely less on making long term predictions and focus instead on reacting quickly on the real time changes on the ground. Relevant for our organization specifically, he urges to hone your ability to learn about what is happening right now, what is working right now instead of trying to anticipate what could work in the future. This way, you could react as quickly as possible to the emerging trends, abandoning alternatives that don’t work and diverting your resources to those that do. I wouldn’t abandon UNDP’s long term strategic planning but I feel that there is great value in us as an organization looking into various ‘react and measure’ strategies and employing them on the ground where we have a dense network in the field already.

    Ok, this is a bit long but hopefully somewhat helpful. Again, thanks very much for sharing the great paper! I look forward to future discussions on the topic.

    Best regards

  • Dear Albert and Balazs
    Excellent paper and topic to explore! Sorry, another long comment…

    Complexity, and the systems thinking skills for handling it, have not been widely cultivated so we’re in a tricky situation where lack of such skills are causing systemic problems that we then don’t have the skills to solve. When people do propose systemic interventions we don’t have the skills to recognise, appraise or advance them. On the other hand people have an innate sense of the world’s joined-upedness. When approached with an action perspective, the skill set and the opportunities to manage whole system challenges are enticingly within reach.

    A good start would be to side-step bear traps where complexity ideas get implemented with linear thinking, linear language and linear reductionism. Familiar metaphors such as here-to-there development paths don’t necessarily need to be discarded but vigilance is needed. Complexity co-explorers can help each other avoid traps.

    Then we need a map of the complexity territory where linear and systemic approaches are positioned so we can see how they each each fit in. The Patton picture on page 2 of your paper may be interesting for smaller systems (eg a business) but for an action perspective on larger systems we’d need to distinguish between the territory of complexity and the 2 possible responses to the territory. I’m not sure that simple control-based planning deserves its prime site given the levels of agreement and certainty with managing large systems (eg climate, money). With slightly different labels on the axes you could map both approaches onto the real-world of complexity.

    Lastly we need a way to inhabit and get comfortable with the non-reductionist approach. This would give us something we don’t have now – an escape from potentially irreversible system-wide instabilities. It would even help conventional planning. Patterns of stocks and flows can define fields of action that can tip into different positions. Eg stocks of useful resources flow into useless wastes+emissions. This field could be tipped so a regenerative economy does the opposite. Policy levers can be defined to do the tipping, so managing both the whole system and the downstream symptoms (eg climate instability). Sets of policy levers can work across interconnected fields to create change beyond what’s imaginable from past experience.

    Have researched this approach across development, sustainability and security topics for NATO Science Programme and would be delighted to discuss and work with you. Thanks for your great initiative!

  • Zack Taylor

    Great article. Very thought-provoking.

    The issue of path dependence is crucial. Development projects can sometimes be locked into project cycle”straight-jackets” with inflexible strategies, plans, projects and activities. Often times, we are so fixated on “delivery” that we lose sight of the changing world around us and our programming can lose relevance.

    Every UNDP Project has a Risk Log and most have risk mitigation strategies, but what they don’t have – to my knowledge – is proper scenario development or contingency plans, which allow development projects to continue to deliver even if the operating environment changes drastically. This may take some more thinking at the outset (as you point out), but the dividend might be higher in terms of better, more sustainable development results, particularly in crisis-prone environments. Some thought would have to be put into how to avoid this exercise making UNDP a more expensive organization which is a particular concern now.

    I would be keen to see a new evolution of this paper; one that looks at how we can pragmatically navigate complexity without boiling down all of our development projects to a “low-risk, low-reward” denominator which is anyway contrary to the ‘real world change’ we are seeking to affect and which may perpetuate the symptom of too many projects disconnected to big developmental outcomes. This (very welcome) debate is clearly also linked to better understanding of our institutional and contextual environment so we can better harness the “levers of change” you reference.

    Nice job.

  • Diana Brandes

    Dear Albert,

    I appreciate your efforts to encourage reflection and discussion around Sustainable Development. I hope that this will lead to a process of questioning our implicit view and values on what Sustainable Development exactly means and which may provide us with invaluable insights. It will be indeed interesting to allow space for discussions with a wider range of stakeholders, including our country government partners, to better understand and interact with UNDP on what they see as ”key Sustainable Development ingredients” such as policies, institutions and dialogue mechanisms that currently hamper and-or could contribute to a more Sustainable Development pathway.

    As a fresh MSc Sustainable Development graduate I felt encouraged to respond to the paper. My recently conducted thesis called “Partnerships in Local Service Delivery for Sustainable Development” accepted that Capacity Development and Partnerships are prerequisites for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development was looked at (in the context of a UNDP supported Public Private Partnership programme) as transformational processes that are initiated, generated, monitored and sustained over time, and managed collectively by those who benefit and have an interest to drive progress towards it. That being said, I applied systems theory and a systems framework to the research, somewhat linked to the complexity-chaos model you describe.

    The relevance of systems theory is that it highlights the importance of relationships and interactions of both formal and less tangible informal systems for Capacity Development and it acknowledges that learning, communication, experimentation and evolution are essential for improvement of systems capacity, performance and survival. A key issue is that effective organisations and institutions have some sort of shared identity (values, core beliefs, principles, and competences) as well as a shared understanding and meaning. From this shared identity, the pattern of shared values and social relations, the order arises which shapes and directs human behaviour and makes the organisations and institutions perform, in this particular case, towards conceptualizing and implementing Sustainable Development.

    While I’m following UNDP’s global discussions and am reading recent UN/UNDP/other papers that are out there on Sustainable Development, I found it remarkable that the “fabric of meaning” (as an important element of systems theory) about Sustainable Development is not really part of any substantive discussion within our own organization yet.
    I concur with Mr. Lundburg’s comments on the fact that we seem to forget that conceptual frameworks have been developed over the last years including these by UNDP (e.g. on Sustainable Development, then Sustainable Human Development and again back and forth). Yet, at the same time, I am myself not clear which path I should follow within UNDP, the Sustainable Development one or the Sustainable Human Development one?.

    I noticed that what has been formulated as Sustainable Development previously seems hardly been discussed and challenged by “us” development practitioners. What some of “us” agreed a while ago to understand about Sustainable Development should not per se be the starting point or, better said, reference point for current Sustainable Development discussions as this appears to me as business-as-usual without having a sense of shared (and agreed) “meaning”. Discussing other elements complementary to, and beyond the three dominant elements of Sustainable Development (the graph in your annex) may be also more needed by (systematic) encouraging and engaging a wider range of stakeholders in innovative thinking and at the longer run, implementing Sustainable Development.

    While nobody is a true neutral player, and in a development context where many people have vested personal and political interest to define (or not) Sustainable Development the challenges are enormous. Although more often the multidimensional aspects seem to come up (beyond the graph in your annex), there seems to be a lack of leadership, knowledge and vision to facilitate and advance emerged thinking of the agenda.

    My research showed that there are serious questions about who drives the Sustainable Development agenda; how well the different elements are understood and agreed; and how, at a later stage, Sustainable Development and its different elements should be measured based on an in-depth understanding of “normative visions” and comprehensive analyses of the complexity and dynamics.

    The research furthermore illustrated that particularly at the sub-national and local levels hardly anyone ever heard about Sustainable Development. A quote I often received at the national level may well relate to a “challenge of will” that we’ll have to overcome at the soonest: “We cannot be busy with this UN theory…..and on top of that there is suddenly a new buzz word….Rio+20……Rio+20 and Climate Change, Rio+20 and Social Protection, Rio+20 and Poverty Reduction”.
    In absence of an agreed Sustainable Development framework and indicators, systems thinking (in contrast to reductionist approaches) could play a supportive role to facilitate a real move towards developing capacities in human development systems; but this requires a paradigm shift away from the more, traditional “western” rooted view and limited tool-led individual, organisation and sector based Capacity Development view UNDP often practices. (Public Private) Partnerships are principally a multi stakeholder approach that fit well in systems thinking in terms of identifying and analyzing stakeholders with a significant interest in Sustainable Development; planning dialogue that allows for mutual trust and understanding to accommodate different responsibilities, interests and joint design of Sustainable Development “arrangements”.

    Certainly, partnership approaches may fail to include wider Sustainable Development and systems “elements” to accommodate the multiplicity of voices, conflicting interests, and differing visions and they can remove the “politics” from state, market and non-state actors’ interactions and may create and reproduce inequalities and exploit certain (in)formal groups. But these challenges should not hamper though looking into the potential of partnerships and co-management systems as it is evident that neither the public sector nor the private sector can determine meanings of Sustainable Development in isolation and deliver Sustainable Development results alone. My research showed that public-community partnerships and public-public partnerships have proven to support accelerating progress on Sustainable Development in local service delivery and environmental management programming and it would be worthwhile for UNDP to explore how these learnings can be applied.

    An approach to develop multi-level stakeholder capacities for Sustainable Development that we could formulate as “all forms of people centered engagements that involves public private dialogue, decision making and jointly agreed (collective) action, made in an open, transparent, accountable, equitable and responsive way, in order to achieve National and Local objectives through (in)formal partnerships of collaborating stakeholders who mutually engage to achieve Sustainable Development goals and objectives” has to be put more prominently on the agenda. In the Rio Declaration (1992, Agenda 21, principle 10) it was already stated that one of the fundamentals to achieve Sustainable Development is broad public participation in decision-making while calling also upon local government engagement and support through a process of careful engagement, bringing together the broadest possible range of community interests to decide what sort of future they want.

    Let me conclude with saying that there is vast relevance of Capacity Development, Systems Thinking, Partnership development and Sustainable Development that could be reflected in your paper. Whilst the literature debates about the sort of institutional, organizational and individual transformations that are required for Sustainable Development solutions can be brought into play if critical features of systems theory are linked to country lessons learned and good practice cases. I again concur with Mr. Lundburg who stated that UNDP should play a catalytic role to facilitate reflective processes that generates the variation in (concrete) responses to both policy and programming for Sustainable Development.

    After all it isn’t so complex, it is “just” providing guidance how to agree and translate “theory” into practice (and vice versa) and to determine the “rules and boundaries of the game” when we speak and write about Sustainable Development.
    Papers such as yours are contributing to seeking such guidance and I thank you and your colleagues for doing so.

    Warmly from Bangkok, Diana

    Diana Brandes – van Dorresteijn
    Programme Specialist Public Private Partnership for Service Delivery (PPPSD)
    UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre
    3rd floor, UN Service building, Rajdamner Nok Avenue, Bangkok, Thailand
    URL: and
    Tel.: +66 (0) 2304 9100 (extension 2710)

    p.s. some literature you may find relevant to have:

    Alawode, G., 2011. Sustainable Development Framework. Available at: [Accessed September 1, 2011].

    Aronson, D., 1996. Overview of Systems Thinking. Available at: [Accessed December 9, 2010].

    Brondizio, E., Ostrom, E. and Young, O. 2009. Connectivity and the Governance of Multilevel Social-ecological Systems: The Role of Social Capital. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34, 253-278.

    Capacity.Org, 2010. Facilitating Multi Actor Change, (41). Available at: [Accessed January 8, 2011].

    Capra, F., 2003. The Hidden Connections: A Science for sustainable Living, Harper Collins.

    Cornwall, A., 2002. Making spaces, changing places: Situating participation in development. Available at:

    Cornwall, A. & Eade, D., 2010. Deconstructing Development Discourse – Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, Rugby: Practical Action Publishing in association with Oxfam GB. Available at: [Accessed December 10, 2010].

    Elkington, J. & Hailes, J., 1987. SustainAbility. Available at: [Accessed December 5, 2010].

    Holmes, S., 2010. Systems Thinking, Knowledge and Action: Towards Better Models and Methods. Evidence and Policy, 6(2), 145-159.

    Kaplan, A., Soal, S. & Taylor, J., 2007. Dreaming Reality – the future in retrospect, South Africa: Community Development Resource Association (CDRA). Available at: [Accessed March 2, 2010].

    Lempert, D., 2008. A Sustainable development indicator for NGOs and International organisations. Int. J. Sustainable Society, Vol 1, No 1, 2008.

    Morgan, P., 2005. The idea and practice of systems thinking and their relevance for capacity development.

    Mukhopadhyay, M., Lodenstein, E. & Kamminga, E., 2010. Capacity for effective participation. Capacity.Org Aug 2010, (40), 12-13.

    Pauw, N., 2011. When growth is empty. The Broker, (25), 4-8.

    Reyes, C., 2010. To know is to be empowered. Capacity.Org Aug 2010, (40).

    Ross, A., 2009. Modern Interpretations of Sustainable Development, 36(1), 32-54.

    Segnestam, L., 2002. Indicators of Environment and Sustainable Development: Theories and Practical Experience, Washington: WorldBank. Available at: [Accessed November 30, 2010].

    UN, 2010. Commission on Sustainable Development – Eighteenth Session: “Partnerships for Sustainable Development”. Available at: [Accessed December 19, 2011].

    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, 2011. Sustainable Development is a top priority for the next 5 year Available at: [Accessed July 23, 2011].

    Vargas, C., 2002. Women in Sustainable Development: empowerment through partnerships for healthy living. World Development, 3(9), 1539-1560.

    • Paul Lundberg

      Dear Colleagues,

      I am glad this complexity discussion is growing.

      For Clare: I feel your pain! Many years ago I made a speech at an international local government conference where I laid out 5 key points for donors in dealing with locgov:

      1. Focus on capacity building through national initiatives
      2. Foster the development and use of modern information systems
      3. Encourage integrated development under local leadership
      4. Support national associations of local governments
      5. Encourage increased intergovernmental fiscal transfers

      I concluded with a point very similar to yours:

      “Whatever the method used to increase the funds available at the local level, the experience of a growing number of development professionals points to an almost limitless variety of innovative ideas that can be generated when local people have the final say over the use of financial and technical resources. Sometimes these ideas fail to come to fruition–but that too should be seen as a part of the learning process. Eventually, donors who are willing to work in this manner find to their delight that they can move substantial amounts of money and still keep it all focused on their goals of poverty alleviation and people-centered sustainable development.”

      Unfortunately, in the intervening decade+ very few donors have been willing to continue locgov funding programs beyond a few years at most.

      For Zack, back in the days when UNDP projects operated mostly on their own funding it was much easier to revise a prodoc. I created the first local government support project in Nepal after the people’s revolution in 1990 and revised it 9 times over the next 4 years before transforming it a completely different structure. The national governance framework kept changing, so UNDP recognized the need to change along with it. There was never an issue of maintaining some false ‘fidelity’ to the original objectives.

      For Diana, here is the granddaddy of complexity-in-development references:

      Learning from Gal Oya: Possibilities for Participatory Development and Post-Newtonian Social Science by Norman Thomas Uphoff, Cornell University Press 1992.

      Keep it up!


    • David Adediran

      Hi Diana,
      My name is David ADEDIRAN. I must say that I’m very impressed with your research and some of your findings addressed some of the questions in my current research. I’m just wondering if you could do me the favour of sending me a copy of your MSc. thesis. My email address is;
      Thanks and looking forward to receiving your response.



    Dear Albert,Quite provocative insights in this paper. Thanks. Thought I could chip in with a humble voice!The notion of sustainable development analyzed from the perspective of chaos theory reminds us of the actual challenge of elucidating the dynamics of complex change in the context of a global and interdependent world. Increasingly, the UNDP is framing this complexity in the sweeping narrative of transformational change. Undoubtedly, transformational change is central to sustainable development. We should strive to clarify its substantive meaning as well as its operational implications, both in terms of its occasion (contextual relevance, the intellectual resources available to support it (authoritative expertise, models of intervention, etc), its institutional base (locus in the market, state engendered or the public sphere) and the results to be attained.The argument is that the closer we get to clarity about transformational change, the more prepared we become to understanding the complexity of the sustainable development nexus (in its politico-economic, socio-institutional and cultural dimensions), and then the more likely we are to increase certainty/predictability in the formulation of “productized” solutions to issues of sustainable development.By now there is broad consensus that transformational change (in as much as we clarify what we mean) should be circumstance -sensitive and context-specific. However, there are still dark spots about the how of the process. Recognizing that development is also a historical process (path dependence), are we looking to radical transformation (rupture with the past) or incremental change (continuity with small adjustments)? For instance, do the popular concepts of best practices or stories of institutions enfold the quest for far reaching and revolutionary upheavals or celebrate the “butterfly effect” ( dear to chaos theory) according to which small changes in one parameter of the sustainable development nexus would unlock changes in other areas as well?Even if we had clear answers to the above, the issue of the ‘unknowns” settles in. It is more about the abundance of knowledge within the global interdependent system and who controls it and for which purpose. One can contend that the evil of the present is the asymmetrical distribution of knowledge (or information) characteristic of the global system. In respect to sustainable development, the UNDP can narrow the boundaries on uncertainty and help partners to do so in respect to complex challenges if it succeeds in tapping the available relevant data to devise appropriate authoritative policy advice. Is this the case? And in tapping knowledge, how often do are we faced with category errors through the recapitulation of best practices, where do we stand in terms balancing ethical dispositions, political ideologies and technical expertise?One could go on to enquire into the social-institutional grounding of the UNDP interventions (how good are we at political economy and agent-centered analyses? all of which would help our understanding of the complex development context in which the UNDP is engaged?……. But I will pause here….Alex

  • Mike

    HydroInfra Technologies creates
    Hydro Nano Gas that Makes any fossil fuel climate neutral.


    You may already be aware of Hydro
    Nano Gas (HNG) technology and what it can do to eliminate air pollution from
    power plants, shipping and other industries.

    Did you know that HNG is also being
    used to clean up the seas.

    Your readers need to know about this
    and the joint venture projects HIT is creating around the world with industry
    and governments.

    Please see the latest project news
    on the HIT web site for more info.

    Thank you.


  • Mike

    HydroInfra Technologies
    creates Hydro Nano Gas that Makes any fossil fuel climate neutral.


    You may already be aware of Hydro Nano Gas (HNG)
    technology and what it can do to eliminate air pollution from power plants,
    shipping and other industries.

    Did you know that HNG is also being used to clean up the

    Your readers need to know about this and the joint
    venture projects HIT is creating around the world with industry and

    Please see the latest project news on the HIT web site
    for more info.

    Thank you.