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Aid on the edge of Chaos – review of Ben Ramalingam’s book

Book review of
“Aid on the Edge of Chaos”



Ben Ramalingam

Oxford University Press



 This book is a remarkable collection of knowledge and scientific research on foreign aid. It advocates for less prescriptive and more fluid, dynamic and flexible foreign aid that recognises the complexity of the real world and does not seek to provide the “right solutions” – since it argues that these do not exist – but to ask the “right questions”. Aid should not be “denying complexity” but recognising the “value of a more systemic, adaptive, networked and dynamic approach”. As such, it sees every aid initiative as an “opportunity to experiment, prototype, and get a foothold in the new reality”. There are no panaceas and the more flexible and adaptive policy making is needed and evolutionary policymaking should be allowed to blossom.


Its over 360 pages are organised into three parts: how aid works, how the real world works and how aid could work. It also has a very extensive list of references (60 pages). For the practitioner, the last part is the most informative and interesting.


I have the following key observations about its content:


  • The almost total absence of any reference to European Union Development cooperation and humanitarian aid (except of only very minor references). This could be because:


o   Not many studies have been done focusing on our EU foreign aid and lessons that can be drawn from it

o   Or /and where studies and research does exist, they are not be well know in academic circles
o   For either or for both of the above reasons – the absence of references and lessons that can be drawn from an institution that has an annual disbursement of about 10 Billion euro of aid per year and is the largest single multilateral donor, from such a comprehensive overview of foreign aid is worrying.


o   To be noted that by contrast Member State aid agencies are often referred to and their projects are analysed in the book



  • Although the book draws together knowledge, experience and research from so many varied disciplines it does not tackle the one very real challenge faced by aid institutions – that of having to convince the political decision makers that funds for foreign aid are needed and should in fact be increased to meet the promises that countries have made under the relevant UN resolution to provide 0.7% of their GDP to development cooperation. I don’t think any practitioner would object with the general idea of having a more flexible delivery of aid to better suit national and local conditions in the field, provided that he/she did not have to face the challenge of being able to document – or as the author puts it to provide the “ accountancy and not the accountability ” – of what was achieved with the money spent. After all, if the policy makers are not convinced of the effectiveness and of the results of aid, then there will be no foreign aid.

While recognising in his analysis, the almost impossibility of saying which results were achieved as a result of a single project, rather than from a series of factors that reflect the complexity of the real world, he does not offer any alternative as to what arguments/data or other means the aid agencies can use to convince the general public and politicians of the importance of continuing and increasing aid to third countries.




A more detailed overview of the content and the arguments proposed by the author, is given in Annex below.


Androulla Kaminara

June 9, 2014





Book review of “Aid on the Edge of Chaos” by Ben Ramalingam

This is quite a remarkable book as it brings together information and data from so many different studies, case examples and disciplines – economics, organisational theory, psychology, engineering, etc. provides a wealth of information for all academics, politicians, policymakers, and practitioners of development cooperation. The underlining thesis is that simplifying the analysis of the problems faced, prescription of the “one-size-fits-all” solutions may have its usefulness but it does not address the complexity of real life as faced in the field. It advocates for both, top down prescriptive methodologies, indicators and targets but at the same time these have to be complemented by bottom up approaches that provide flexibility for adjusting to the local context and challenges as well as allowing and recognising the importance of the local structures and of the local populations. It promotes the use of new tools (e.g. the mapping of local networks, Companion modelling (ComMod) and the better use of big data and new technologies (e.g. dynamic analysis of mobile coverage and the movement of people in a crisis). Overall his plea is for more flexibility, more learning from experience and more openness in the practice and organisation of development cooperation.

It is very well researched, has many case study examples and a very extensive reference list which spans over 60 pages and expertise as varied as epidemiologists, historians, economists, behavioural scientist, engineers, organisational scientist, political scientist and others.

It is a truly very valuable compendium of:

  • the way aid works,
  • the way the world works and therefore what we have to take into consideration in proposing and implementing foreign aid initiatives
  • and the way aid could work.


Part I : The way aid works:

  1. “the Best practicitis epidemic” 

A series of examples of aid delivery are used to illustrate why the simple analysis and simple solution approach does not work.


The case of the DRC, for example, is considered as a classic case of “not war but not peace either”. The push for simple analysis, or of “best practicitis”, of the situation there has promoted three narratives on the causes of the problems:


  • primary cause of violence à the illegal exploitation of natural resources

o   However studies show that only 8% of all the conflicts in the DRC are related to natural resources


o   Therefore in conflict resolution initiatives, tackling corruption and administrative reform are often not addressed

  • main consequence à the sexual abuse against women and girls

o   media attention is focused on this point and the “EU police deployment focuses exclusively on the fight against sexual abuse”

o   “certain armed groups have been given orders to systematically rape, so as to draw attention and facilitate invitations to the negotiating table”

  • central solution à reconstructing state authority


  1. MDGs – Millennium Development Goals


“At their best, the MDGs are a courageous call for multidimensional poverty reduction and a set of indicators for holding international agencies and governments accountable to citizens. At the worst, they are a donor-led, top down, reductionist agenda – “the minimum development goals “- that pays little attention to locally defined and owned definitions of progress and development and the responsibilities of rich countries in bringing about change.” As such they focus on the coverage of education and not on the quality of the educational systems.


He says: “China has done more than any other country to achieving them, despite not subscribing to the MDGs or the accompanying tenets and principles of foreign aid.”


Although there are measurements on the “MDG indicators showing that they are being reached, we are none the wiser on what international efforts have contributed to these outcomes.”


  1. The poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSPs)


The author really rejects the usefulness of the PRSPs as indicatively he says:

  • a rare statistical study that reviewed the impact of PRSPs and which used non-PRSP countries as the counter factual, found that the net difference in poverty reduction or growth between the two groups are negligible


  1. Use of mobile telephone data for development


  • He also, interestingly, gives quite a number of examples of how, in areas of high mobile coverage, dynamic analysis of mobile telephone data could revolutionize the speed and accuracy of population movement assessment and therefore of intervention design.



  1. Logical framework Analysis


The most prominent tool used in aid planning and evaluation:

  • “the logical sequencing of activities, outputs, and outcomes that is seen as the advantage of the log-frame is also its downfall: a frequent issue is the highly linear logic, which suggests the world is much simpler and more predictable than in fact it is”


  1. Aid accountability, standards and codes of practice:


  • “significant conceptual and practical problems characterize every aspect of aid accountability mechanisms”
  • these mechanisms lack political “teeth” in terms of holding the aid agencies to account for their actions and performance”
  • “no rewards exist for agencies that meet (the standards) or penalty for agencies that don’t”
  • the type of appraisal, monitoring and evaluation procedures insisted upon by donors … distort accountability by emphasising short-term quantitative targets and favouring hierarchical management structure – a tendency to “accountancy” rather than accountability


He concludes:


“Whether for political expediency or administrative convenience, or because of conceptual small mindedness, there is a pervasive and long standing bias towards treating the world as a simple, predictable place in which aid can be delivered, as if in a global conveyor belt, to bring about positive changes. … We act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering”


“Aid agencies are increasingly dealing with a world for which their learning, strategic, performance, and organisational frameworks were not designed”



Part II: The way the world works


Introducing complexity


  • Complexity science is similar to a scientific continent, whose “borders are unguarded and inhabitants diverse”


  • In this chapter he tries to show how ideas of complex adaptive systems have been used to understand and navigate problems of organised complexity, such as climate change, food price spikes, conflicts, the financial crisis, the Arab Spring, power grids, forest fires, terrorist networks, urbanisation and ethnic segregation.


  • “Having stripped the study of complexity down to its bare essentials … we discover that it is all built on networks, interconnections between the simple parts that make up a complex system “


  • He looks at the systemic, behavioural, structural and the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. Particularly the dynamics of complex systems present some of the greatest challenges to existing sensibilities in scientific thinking and by extension to public policy realms, including foreign aid.


Part III: The way aid could work




In this part of the book the author looks at various new trends and technologies that can be used to enhance the effectiveness of aid. The “underlining logic is that in an open source development model, we will not always have the control that we have grown accustomed to exercising, and we have to get used to that.”


Traditional ideas of “best management practice” have overlooked the “fact that a particular solution may be good to be applied in a particular situation this year but due to the changing context within which it will have to be applied – it may not be the best idea for the next year.”


He uses Ricigliano’s theory which suggests that any conflict system comprises of structures, systems and institutions:

  • Institutions – such as rule of law, economy, and others intended to meet human needs;
  • transactions – the processes and the skills used to manage conflict, solve problems and move from ideas to action,
  • and attitudes – those beliefs, norms, and relationships that effect the level of cooperation between groups.


Conflict does not arise from any one of these elements in isolation, but is an emergent property of interactions and feedback processes between them.


The key is to focus on learning rather than on solutions…. The goal of a development project should not be to meet predetermined benchmarks but to learn which elements of one’s initial understanding of the system were right and which were wrong. Which elements of a project nurtured the system in positive ways and which did not?


System thinking as a response to panaceas should not be expected to be a panacea itself. A system approach need not induce paralysis, but actually it doesn’t guarantee success. (p.261). There needs to be care not simply to replace the simple panacea with more sophisticated one, which still assumes things can be planned, controlled, and managed with precision”.

He concludes that “from an institutional perspective, aid agencies are problem tamers that build almost all of their work on the notion of reductionism and simple cause-and effect relations. This bleeds into politics: taking such an approach enables them to prevent their solution and the solution.”


A series of methodologies on how to promote a more holistic and systemic approach are given, e.g. Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). Some of the most interesting that are described are the following:


ComMod: is based on the idea of combining participatory role-playing games associated with agent-based computer games. The value of participatory simulation modeling is that it enables stakeholders to create the strategic conditions and then act in ways that reflect their real-life situation, and to use the emerging patterns as a way of evaluating the potential impact of adjustments to strategies and policies across a range of scenarios. The wisdom that resulted did not mean being able to represent the order of things with objective certainty so that events could be predicted and controlled but that attention should be given to the need to balance between the various underlying approaches to strategy.


NetMaps can illuminate the process of aid and development. It is very powerful as a tool for understanding interactions within the networks, as well as the power of deliberate network-weaving strategies for developing sustainable networks that support flows of information, ideas, and resources among diverse stakeholders.


Mozambique flood disaster: Lessons learned from the detailed studying of the this disaster, are that:


–       the intervention of a single agency cannot be evaluated in isolation from what others are doing, particularly as what may seem appropriate from the point of view of a single actor may not be appropriate form the point of view of the system as a whole

–       networks within and between agencies are not the only networks that arise at the point of crisis. More important are the networks that exist, and emerge, among affected people themselves. Unfortunately, actors in the international system typically ignore these.

–       Some experts estimate that international aid accounts for no more than 10% of the actual relief actions on the ground in natural disasters – the rest of he relief actions being carried out by the local community immediately following a disaster (e.g. recovering of people under rubble immediately after an earthquake)

–       Lack of engagement with affected populations was, and remains, one of the most serious criticism leveled at international aid agencies.






About Androulla Kaminara

Ex SCR member of St.Antony's College, Oxford University, 2013-24 Academic Visitor and 2012-13 EU Fellow Ex Senior Academic Associate- Non-resident of EUCERS, King's College, London University Views are personal.


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