Rethinking Approaches to Managing Change in Fragile States

CID Research Fellow & Graduate Student Working Paper No. 58

Frauke de Weijer

September 2012


In Afghanistan in early 2002, the emergency character of the situation was clear, its problems complex, and the international community’s understanding of the realities on the ground limited. In July 2002 a nascent new government was established and with it came the task of building the capacity of the state to perform its key functions. What these were, no one knew or no one agreed upon. But enthusiasm and levels of ambition was high. In 2012, levels of enthusiasm are down. Capacity building of the government had proven to be a difficult task, and the processes of policy reform were highly fragmented, disjointed and uncoordinated. The search for homegrown, contextual solutions seems to have been overshadowed by donor mandates and policy prescriptions. Among Afghans, frustration levels ran high on the billions of dollars spent, which little results to show for it. A culture of blame has developed.

Having spent nearly 10 years in Afghanistan, predominantly serving as an advisor to a number of Afghan government ministries, I have been able to observe these changes unfold. Through this experience, I have become convinced that the conceptual frameworks in place were not particularly well suited for solving many of the challenges Afghanistan faces. These conceptual models were based on importing institutional models and applying international best practices to the Afghan context, and were often severely disconnected from the reality on the ground. Much well-intentioned energy was spent, by some of the brightest people in the world, but effectiveness of most development programs remained low and their high ambitions remained unmet. This situation is not exclusive to Afghanistan, but few other countries have seen such an influx of resources paired with such low capacity in state institutions, which crystallizes out these problems quite clearly.

This paper can be seen as an attempt to explore alternative conceptual frameworks that could be used to look at how change unfolds in societies, and how this could affect our way of nurturing processes of change. To do so I draw upon insights stemming from systems thinking, complexity theory and leadership development, and aim to apply these insights on the challenge of facilitating institutional change and policy reform in a country like Afghanistan, or in fragile states more generally. An essential component of this way of thinking is to start from the premise that change is not as predictable and linear as most of our theories on development would like us to believe. Change proves much more stubborn, and whereas for some challenges we do have readymade solutions on the shelf, in many cases these seem not to work in the complex systems that human societies are.

In this paper, I will propose a distinction between technical and adaptive problems. Adaptive problems can be defined as those problems where the problem definition is not clear-cut, there are no set procedures, no recognized experts, and no adequate responses yet developed. These are the types of problems that are most resistant to quick fixes, as they are complex with many moving dimensions and interactions between them. Imported strategies are often not appropriate, have unintended consequences, and tend to lead to implementation failures. Attempts to tackle these problems often cause resistance in the social system, as values, perspectives and worldviews are at stake. Technical problems, by contrast, are more clearly defined and less context-specific solutions are required. Best practice solutions can be imported and may actually work. For adaptive problems, they most likely will not.

In my view, one of the main failures of international development is to differentiate between problems that are technical and those that are adaptive; e.g. between problems that have a clear – though perhaps complicated - technical solution, and problems that need to be worked through in more open-ended ways and where the solution is not always clearly in sight. Technical problems are well served by our current reductionist way of thinking, whereas adaptive problems are not. These latter problems are deeply embedded in complex systems, where change is not always predictable and often non-linear. Dealing with adaptive problems requires different diagnostics, different approaches, and different management and accountability frameworks.

This paper explores ways in which approaches for tackling adaptive problems can be institutionalized and managed in practical terms. It stresses the need for space for endogenous change, which can only be created through the adoption of a common language and conceptual framework around the dynamics of change. It points to new ways of overcoming resistance and finding opportunities for change. It emphasizes the need for a learning infrastructure for synthesizing different sources of learning that can feed into a process of continuous adaptation and fine-tuning. It explores principles of emergent planning and building flexibility and experimentation into program design, and discusses performance management frameworks that can contain such approaches and provide the necessary accountability.