Complexity & Elinor Ostrom

Aid on the Edge of Chaos has a wonderful tribute to Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize-winning academic who, sadly, passed away in June. Her work was in complexity science, and Ben Ramalingam shares the transcript of his interview with Prof. Ostrom on complexity and a systems approach in development aid. Fascinating food for thought from a brilliant and articulate mind! Some quotes from her responses:

Development aid asks the question: where can we pour money in to make the most difference in the most visible way (laughs).

In complex systems, there are many different areas, all moving in different directions and at different speeds, doing localised things which are relevant. The idea that a central processing unit that can gather up all of this information and make decisions about the whole system… the theories fall down.

Look at Grameen Bank, that started off slowly, and if it was cut down after 2 years it would never have turned into the institution it is today. But it worked because it was a system within a system within a system. It didn’t have public official waiting for a report on a Friday afternoon before they could go home. It had lots of people in localised situations who presented and developed rules for how things would work, providing some basic structure for example, you have to meet every week, we have to put money on the table, we have to be forgiving at times… These small-scale units proved to be very innovative and creative.

If there is one thing I think I have learned it is that just because we have a certain emphasis in our institutions today, it doesn’t mean we are stuck with it forever.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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