Complexity Theory and Non-Governmental Organizations in Development

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS325

Quiz: Are NGOs a constructive force in the development enterprise? Is their impact destructive? Or is it neutral? Discuss in terms of Owen Barder's lecture on complexity and innovation in development.

In the system of international development, Non-Governmental Organizations are destructive to the stated ends of development. Owen Barder, in his talk "Owen Barder on Complexity & Innovation in Development", defines development as "enlarging people's choices, capabilities, and freedoms so they can live a long and healthy life, have a decent standard of living, and they can participate in the life of their community". Through the frame of complexity theory, NGO's as they currently operate do not succeed at this — rather they introduce large distortions in the structure of a country that inhibit natural growth, rather than accelerating it.

In complexity theory, development is what's called an "emergent property" of the system. This means it's built in to the way the system operates — it's not some aspect that can, through reductionism, be separated from the system as a whole. Development, because it's a part of the system in which nations, institutions, organizations, and people exist, will happen whether or not we intervene. It isn't a product of aid money or NGO intervention.

The primary failings of NGO's, according to complexity theory, are this: NGO interventions fail to embrace creative destruction, the work they do distorts the system rather than accelerating evolution of that system, and their interventions are primarily economic in nature.

In complexity theory, creative destruction is the process by which old, antiquated system functions are replaced by newer, more efficient, more effective functions. This usually means a new company comes along with an innovation so disruptive that it eliminates the need for an entire industry's worth of corporations, or an entire department of government, or an entire class of NGO's. As Barder says, "it isn't corporations that evolve, it's industries". In the video, Barder tells a story about this, where a person was brought in to make a better soap nozzle, and through evolution of the object he created one that was over 1000x better than the one he started with. Anecdotally, Barder could only identify one NGO that had declared their work ineffective and shut down — but we know more than just that NGO was not effective in their work.

The work NGO's do in underdeveloped nations also distorts their systems. It isn't always that they have no institution to serve some function, but that the institution they have is ineffective. When someone destroys that system and replaces it with an exogenously created one, there are huge issues because the outside group doesn't have the same assumptions and evolutionary path as the underdeveloped nation has, and thus the system won't have the same effects as if it were installed in, say, a developed nation. This results in systemic distortions that take energy away from the system that could have been spent on development, because the system has to correct for those distortions elsewhere and in ways the developers can't see. It would be much more helpful if the NGO's were stepping in to help accelerate the natural evolutionary process of the systems a country already has, and to create new ones (and then accelerate the evolution of those!) where institutions don't already exist.

Another issue with NGO interventions in underdeveloped nations is that they are often (but not always) primarily economic in scope. This is very problematic even outside of complexity theory, because there's a tacit assumption that economic growth is somehow correlated with development. This puts the cart before the horse — as development is a property of the system, long term increases in economic productivity are better sought from evolving the infrastructure in a country that enables more efficient production systems to be created. It isn't enough to add cheaper labor or a lax regulatory environment, there's a whole environment that is necessary to produce high-tech products and if you only tweak a few things you won't have that environment, you'll have only those few changes. Economic development does not a more mature system, make — it's a larger problem than something so narrow in focus.

If NGO's don't embrace complexity theory and use it to design their interventions, as they currently don't, their targeted interventions will distort whatever system the developing nation already has. It's rather like a spider web, where if you poke it really hard with your finger, it drags the whole web, destroying it in the process. Development is similar in that if an NGO enters a country with the intention to solve X problem, they may succeed within their own definition of success, but they will never know the full extent of the effects their intervention had on the larger system. This makes it extremely challenging to intervene in a country and have any real idea what's going to happen.

Due to the failure of NGO's to embrace creative destruction, the distortive nature of their work, and the single-track focus of their development programs, they have had a net-negative effect on the development of underdeveloped countries. If NGO's haven't worked themselves out of a job, they're failing at development.


Barder, Owen. "Owen Barder on Complexity & Innovation in Development." Ustream. Kapuscinski Development Lecture Series, 15 May 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. link.