The elusive nexus of complexity and principles

It’s a busy time for the nexus word. The Guardian’s sustainable business section spent the whole of last Wednesday engaged in a “nexus live debate.” Tomorrow, the online consultation for “The World We Want post-2015” embarks on a new session called “the energy nexus.”

In the lexicon of sustainable development, I’ve come to associate “nexus” with the critical inter-relationship between water, food and energy, with climate change as a very ugly force for collateral damage to that delicate triumvirate.

This was indeed the subject of the Guardian debate. But the post-2015 consultation addresses the “energy-sustainable development nexus,” just one example of the rapidly widening use of the term.

So much is interconnected in the modern world that “nexus” may soon lose the subtlety of its meaning in the development debate. Some observers already prefer to pile all the connections together and blend them into a soup of complexity.

Owen Barder, Europe Director at the Center for Global Development, chose the emerging topic of complexity and development for a lecture to his colleagues in Washington last Thursday.

Barder argues that many advances in economics, physics and biology have come about through serendipitous behaviour of “complex adaptive systems” rather than the targeted “engineering” solutions much favoured by human control freaks. Development policy could take note of this evidence and accept that traditional structured field programmes are liable to flounder in unexpected and non-linear outcomes.

Instead of scrambling for ever more aid dollars for these programmes, we should concentrate on creating favourable conditions for global development by improving the rules that govern relationships between the institutional agents of change. Barder has written before about the unfairness of the rules of globalisation, such as the over-protective stance on intellectual property rights by industrialised countries.

My reservation is that Owen Barder spoke about complexity and development for almost an hour without once mentioning the environmental limits that menace a billion poor households around the world, nor indeed the individual human rights of those families.

In isolation I could live with this – the stimulating presentation was about ideas, not programmes. But Barder crossed the divide into politics, informing us that:

David Cameron has a development policy that is pretty interesting and consistent with a complexity view of development…..he and his advisers in number 10 are really getting this idea……about trying to figure out what we can do that will accelerate the evolution of systems and accountability mechanisms of relationships within society

Barder cited the UK prime minister’s interest in tax, trade and transparency reform within the agenda for the G8 summit later this year.

Fair enough, but what outcomes might such reforms be designed to achieve? Listening to what Cameron and his new minister for international development had to say over the last ten days has left me far from convinced.

Cameron is co-chair of the UN’s high level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. Speaking after the panel’s latest meeting in Liberia, he gave the impression that he prioritises economic growth in poor countries above other outcomes such as reducing inequality or creating resilience against global environmental change.

Justine Greening laid out new priorities for the Department for International Development in a speech on Thursday. She repeated Cameron’s mantra of economic growth as the path to poverty reduction and declared her top priority to be gender rights.

Gender sounds rather like the traditional development engineering that complexity theory rejects. Greening’s advocacy of greater foreign direct investment, with the big UK NGOs invited to smooth the access of British businesses, was nearer the mark but her timing was awful. The day of the speech coincided precisely with a protest against one particular stream of global foreign direct investment  – the International Day of Action on Land Grabsin which Oxfam and other major UK NGOs were actively involved.

I sense that UK policy may turn out at best to be a rather selective ambassador for the complexity view of development and, at worst, a loose cannon rolling around the elevated decks of UK aid.

I hope that Owen Barder can offer more depth to his complexity theory by mapping it on the post-2015 agenda of economic growth, equitable sharing of wealth and sustainable use of resources.

Those three branches of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – are indeed a nexus, each very sensitive to the other and recognised as such in international human rights law and in the 1992 Rio Principles.

An illuminating demonstration of how to connect complexity with principles has emerged from the unlikely source of the departing US Energy Secretary. Over the last four years Steven Chu has conducted his business largely beneath the international radar. However, a revealing letter to staff explaining his decision to quit was published last week.

His emphasis on the “convening role” played by the Energy Department in stimulating technological innovation plays well to the complexity perspective. Then, in a telling section calling for action on climate change, Chu keeps in focus two fundamental Rio Principles that his government colleagues have tended to overlook. Having first reaffirmed the precautionary principle in science, he goes on:

Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born.

Let’s hear more about this nexus of complexity and principles in President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday.


Complexity and Development – Owen Barder’s lecture in Washington

Letter from Secretary Steven Chu to Energy Department Employees Announcing His Decision Not to Serve a Second Term

Development in Transition: speech by UK Development Secretary Justine Greening