Adapted from:
    When aid is mentioned in the media, it is generally messaged very simplistically. Children are starving. They need food. The same with earthquakes. Houses are destroyed and people are shivering out in the rain, so give them tents. These are the simplest of X = Y Cartesian paradigms.

The responding aid agencies appear to apply equally simple management systems: Need is assessed, the appropriate response defined,  goods procured, and then distributed. The linear procedure is followed. Simple.

Yet, when you look a bit closer at how aid agencies manage their response programmes, you will quickly see that we have created complicated management systems involving  ‘logical framework analyses’ that look at cause and effect and all the possible links along the way that we think need to be managed.

This is where management systems theory comes in. There are frameworks that draw on complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, anthropology and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology. Such frameworks “explore the relationship between man, experience and context” and propose new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making and knowledge management in complex social environments – environments such as the humanitarian perhaps ?!

The typical framework has five domains. The first four are:

Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all (we can apply best practice).

Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires some other form of expert knowledge (we can apply good practice).

Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance (we can sense emergent practice).

Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level (we can discover novel practice).

The fifth domain is Uncertainty, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists and therefore when people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision. Either way, full use of the framework sees the boundary between simple and chaotic as a catastrophic one: And one where complacency leads to failure.

Getting back to reality for a moment, it is evident that aid agencies have to operate in highly complex and usually chaotic paradigms. Even at best, stable chronic emergencies such as Darfur are fraught with feedback loops and inter-relations where causes and effects are not only highly dynamic and interdependent but constantly changing. The driver of that particular conflict appears to be ethnicity. But there are other drivers such as tribal loyalty, history, access to water and natural resources, each of which have complicated political, social, and economic implications. By providing aid to one group, another is inadvertently excluded or dis-empowered which shifts the planning landscape.

Worse are the large scale rapid onset emergencies we see as breaking news on our TV’s. Take  the  earthquake in Haiti. In the days following the disaster, nobody knew what was going on. There was no information on how many people had died, what resources were available, what access routes existed, whether the authorities still had any control. There was no clear understanding of what people needed, of the scale of those needs, or how best to respond. Uncertainty was rife. With the underlying criminal and political dysfunction, there was no way of knowing whether bringing food into the  city would save lives or create riots; whether blanket distributions of non-food relief supplies would fund black markets rather than reach the weakest and most vulnerable. Into this vacuum or reliable knowledge poured more and more aid organizations, all of which had to be managed, all with their own desires and resources, and all impacting on the context itself in an interrelated and entirely unpredictable way. Not simple at all.

So, humanitarian organizations have to operate in either chaotic or complex paradigms. However, they attempt to manage the response using tools that assume a complicated paradigm. And they talk about their programmes to the beneficiaries, the donors, and the media as if they were a simple paradigm. This doesn’t make sense.

Communicating to the world as though a situation is simple when it is anything but, has two major drawbacks. The first is that, by patronizing your constituents, you maintain ignorance rather than educate. And an ignorant public, while easier to manipulate over the short term when soliciting funds, becomes problematic in the longer term when the context shifts and no longer fits easily into a simple explanation.

The second is, that by doing so, expectations are created that cannot be fulfilled. This leads eventually to unhappy donors. “What do you mean my sponsored child is still poor ? I gave $35 a month didn’t I ?!”. Or, “why are people still without shelter ? What happened to those old clothes I gave to the charity shop  ?!”.

People get disillusioned when they feel their charity is being abused – although, usually, it isn’t – and most of this stored up opprobrium ends up at the door of the UN who is supposed to be coordinating the aid effort. This is hardly fair.

However, far worse from an organizational perspective is attempting to coordinate within a complex or chaotic paradigm using tools designed in quieter times for a simple or complicated one. What do you do, for example, when in a stressful, sleep-deprived, and chaotic working environment you need to decide whether to distribute one tarp or two per family? The international (Sphere) standard calls for two, but that will mean half the affectees going without. But to distribute one now and the other later will more than double the distribution cost. You want to engage knowledgeable people in the discussion but they are in the field. You want to arrive at consensus, but the organizations procuring the tarps have their own ideas. Simple systems fail.

Or what about the complicated systems that rely on careful analysis? Even when responding to disaster, established procedure suggest you carry out a needs assessment, taking into account gender concerns, environmental impact, human rights, long-term sustainability, early transition to recovery, and a ‘do-no-harm’ analysis, Have you looked into the regional context and explored cultural appropriateness properly? Is this the best possible intervention in terms of impact, and have other alternatives been assessed and discounted? Have you carefully mapped out cause and effect relationships through the chain, looking at what inputs are required to carry out the activities; what outputs will be derived from those activities; and what outcomes will come about as a result of delivering those outputs? Are the gaps known, and have the capacities of the aid agencies to deliver been mapped? And have the risks been managed?

In chaos, this pressure to conform to a complicated process expected of our thirteen point generic terms of reference is not just inappropriate, it is undoable. Not only does it take too long in a rapidly evolving emergency, but it takes disproportionate resources to achieve. This puts lives at risk. It is also entirely questionable in terms of its added value.

In chaos, there is no way to guarantee that analysis is accurate and there is too little time to ensure the results of even a rapid needs assessment are available in time to inform the response strategy anyway. There are also so many uncertainties in the system that any number of outcomes could result from your actions, and any number of other ‘known unknowns’ could input into your carefully devised response plan, throwing the result way off balance.

Yet we continue to try to do it all the time. For some reason, we continue to try to coordinate by managing complexity and chaos using complicated systems that don’t work in practice, that take weeks to put in place, and using simple assumptions that we later find out never did reflect the reality on the ground.

Realistically, we do need to find another way if the Cluster Approach is to remain relevant and effective. It’s easy to see how unnecessarily complicated bureaucratic systems conspire to choke an emergency response, making it slow and useless in the name of accountability. What we need are approaches to disaster management that are flexible, lightweight, and rapid.
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

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