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Improving the fight against poverty by embracing complexity

Owen Barder

There’s a lot of argument these days within the aid and development community over what works, what doesn’t and what we could do better in the global war on poverty.  It’s healthy, but also a bit disturbing to us laymen to see members of the highly regarded pundit class say things like “aid doesn’t work” or argue over the meaning of such fundamental terms as “growth” or “development.”

As Albert Einstein reportedly said, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t first define it accurately. So, how do we fix a problem like poverty?

Owen Barder, an economist and development expert who heads up the European office of the D.C.-based think-tank Center for Global Development, is one of the leading proponents of employing ‘complexity theory’ to the fight against poverty and inequity. Now, before you roll your eyes and click away thinking this is going to be way too wonky (which, I admit, was my first reaction), I can promise you it will be fascinating. To begin with, Barder has a very nice British accent.

Complexity theory, put very simply, is about approaching a problem like a biologist might try to influence the evolution of an organism. Much of aid and development today is done more like an engineer building a bridge – with a precise blueprint, clear end goal done according to quantifiable steps. Barder, who is a big fan of metrics and quantification, nevertheless thinks we need to approach the fight against poverty more like the biologist, letting the process of change unfold, adapting and learning along the way. It’s a discussion that also reveals why the semantics of aid and development are part of the problem.

Before we delve into this new organic strategy for development, we discuss some of the week’s big news, beginning with Bill Gates’ annual letter (which, for the first time, Melinda Gates contributed to) devoted to busting three myths that the Gates Foundation believes holds back progress. One of the myths Humanosphere would have liked the Gateses to attack is the concept that today’s stunning level of inequality – the global gap between the rich and poort – is a natural outcome of the free market.

And the global elite met this week in Switzerland to wring their soft hands in worry over inequality, but what will they do about it? We take note of an Oxfam report that, among other things, found that 85 people own as much wealth as the bottom half 3.5 billion people in the world.

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About Author

Ansel Herz

Ansel Herz is a freelance multimedia journalist whose objective is to “go to where the silence is." His work has been published by ABC News, The Nation magazine, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera English, Free Speech Radio News, Inter-Press News and many other publications. A Seattle native and survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ansel is producer of Humanosphere's podcast, among other things. You can contact him at ansel.herz[at] or follow him on Twitter @Ansel.