Constrained by an ageing model of “North-South” assistance and linear thinking, development organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the complexities and interconnectedness of global challenges, from climate change to communicable diseases. However, the convergence of three trends promises a structural change in the way development organizations operate: new ways of framing development problems (complexity theory), new information technologies and new types of coalitions. How can development organizations reform themselves to become more effective at improving the world?

Development organizations exist to help reduce poverty and inequality, and improve human well-being. These problems are becoming increasingly complex as the world grows more connected and volatile. Cross-border flows of goods, services, people and ideas are expanding. Shocks and crises, whether social, political, economic or environmental, are increasingly frequent. As issues become more interconnected and uncertain, the outcomes of development interventions are harder to predict or explain and it is less possible for one actor alone to get things done.

Despite these changes, the operating model of development organizations is constrained by its legacy. This includes centralized assistance from “developed” country governments to “developing” country governments and practices that largely rely on linear models to understand risk and to plan, execute and evaluate action.

Can development organizations be more agile and adaptable in today’s context of constant change? The combination of three trends that can help frame, understand and respond to complex problems differently offers an opportunity.

First, complexity theory is shifting attention from linear cause and effect relationships to dynamic processes of change. Complexity theory has been used in physics and ecology to study how systems adapt to their environment and cope with uncertainty. Many development scholars argue that complexity theory can strengthen development organizations’ ability to understand dynamic and interconnected development problems and respond more appropriately.

In Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam shows how this approach can be applied to household food security. Traditionally, most of the work concentrated on predicting the occurrence of a food crisis in order to best respond. Analysing and modelling food systems and the multiple connections between socio-economic and ecological factors that contribute to their stability helped create an understanding of households’ capacity to respond to the negative effects of unpredictable climatic shocks. Analysing these variables, which change over time, can support policies to strengthen household resilience and adapt aid interventions more strategically in crisis situations.

Second, new technologies are opening the door to understanding and anticipating complex development problems through the so-called “data revolution”. New types of data and analytical tools have the potential to provide real-time information on complex situations or sudden change and enable quick feedback loops to inform planning and adjust operations. They can also be used to collect citizens’ voices and feedback and integrate them in programme design.

For instance, mTrac, a Ugandan platform supported by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the UK Department for International Development (DFID), surveys local health workers via mobile phone text messaging and then alerts national public health officials about malaria outbreaks and medicine stock situations to anticipate and resolve shortages. The share of health facilities that have run out of malaria treatments has fallen from 80% to 15% since it was introduced. The platform also includes an anonymous text message hotline that citizens can use to report any service delivery problems they face.

Third, new kinds of coalitions and movements are emerging as the multiplication of development actors provides opportunities to redefine partnerships. A growing number of actors operating in the development space, from businesses and municipal governments to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities, are starting to figure out how to work together on a voluntary basis to solve specific issues. These coalitions of diverse actors bring information, expertise and funding together in ways that cut across domains, geographies and interests. This can lead to new solutions to old problems, e.g. by presenting development challenges as investment opportunities.

Examples of such projects already delivering results include the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative. SUN brings NGOs, businesses and the UN together to accelerate global efforts on under-nutrition. Organized in a global network, each group of actors supports national efforts to improve nutrition by providing funds and expertise. For actors engaged in the SUN initiative, improving nutrition for women and children is no longer only a moral objective, it is also a way to strengthen the workforce and thus contribute to the growth of markets and nations alike.

None of these trends are completely new in themselves. But their confluence could transform the operating model of development organizations in ways that include more effective delivery of essential services for the poor; changing engagement with the private sector, from donation providers to partners for supply, investment and solution design; changing engagement with citizens, from intervention recipients to agents of change; enhancing knowledge and data systems co-created by a diversity of actors to inform decision-making; and a growing capacity to tackle multi-dimensional problems and operate effectively in uncertain contexts.

The opportunities presented by these changes come with challenges, notably, that of changing the culture of development organizations to encourage experimentation and value adaptive strategies. The use of big data raises issues of privacy that could, if mishandled, exacerbate discrimination and inequalities. The growing number of actors, coalitions and movements also raises leadership and coordination challenges, in particular for the intergovernmental decision-making structures created for these purposes.

However, development organizations exist to solve challenges. Leadership from within to overcome existing political and technical tensions could help mobilize these trends and make development more effective.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Katell Le Goulven is UNICEF Policy Planning Chief.