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Snapshots from my journey into systems

When did I start to think about systems?

It goes back to mid 2017, when I was finishing writing with some colleagues the concluding chapter of Knowledge, Politics and Policymaking in Indonesia.

While the whole book is about the evolution of the knowlede sector in Indonesia (i.e. the institutional landscape of government, private sector, and civil society organisations that provide research and analysis to support the development of public policy), when we were writing the final chapter we realise that instead of the knowlede sector we had been writing about the knowledge system in Indonesia.

“This is a subtle but significant difference. The term sector, particularly when applied to actors, systems and processes related to evidence-informed policymaking, is reminiscent of a linear approach to the design and implementation of policy reforms and programmes to tackling persistent problems. This approach has often resulted in technocratic interventions that are solution-driven and measured by inadequate behavioural indicators. Utilising the sector definition of Indonesia’s knowledge sector carries the risk that the design of programmes and reforms by the Indonesian government and development partners will reflect traditional bureaucratic structures and accountabilities. Traditional sectors such as health and education have a ministry in charge of designing and implementing policies and managing the policy cycle for specific reforms. However, this is not the case for the knowledge  sector which, as mentioned above and in Chap. 1, is horizontal in nature with no one ministry or department responsible. The complexity, the politics and the diversity of actors and types of evidence in the knowledge sector are more reminiscent of a system or, to borrow a term from big data, a knowledge systems or evidence ecosystem.

Why is it important to see the knowledge sector as an evidence ecosystem?

First, to see the knowledge sector as an evidence ecosystem means to accept that the actors in the system are linked in a complex web of interlinked relationships whereby they not only want to produce and use evidence but also want to influence each other. This web cuts across policy areas and policy sectors. It is wider than any individual sector.

Second, it is because changes in capability within the evidence ecosystem are evolutionary, rather than linear and based on the principles of engineering, which are so common in development programmes (Green 2017). The evolution of a system, as noted by Jacobs (2000), involves a process that constantly produces increasing diversity and co-development relationships. As it evolves, it generates greater complexity. Importantly, the evolution of such a system is governed by uncertainty, rather than the certainty and linearity of results-based programmes.”

To be continued

Photo credit: Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

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The 72.000.000 question

The US presidential election, our digital future, and a question for the friends at ODI’s Digital Societies programme

A week has passed since Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the US presidential election. Donald Trump has not yet conceded and has launched a flurry of probably ineffectual court cases. Votes are being recounted in Georgia but they are not going to change the outcome.

I listened to many commentaries since the election: NYT’s The Daily, the Guardian’s Politics Weekly and Today in Focus, Talking Politics with David Runciman. They all agree that the support to Donald Tump has not changed since 2016, it has even increased. On the other hand, a huge number of Democrats have cast their vote for Biden and Harris which has tipped the election in their favour. That shows also in the popular vote where Biden has received ca. 77.000.000 votes vs. the 72.000.000 for Trump.

During the last few days I found myself thinking about those 72.000.000 people who voted Trump. The large part of those voters are older, white, non-college educated, and living smaller towns and rural areas. They are angry. They believe that the economic and political system has let them down. Their factories have closed. Their jobs have gone overseas or have been taken by immigrants. Trump listens to them and speaks to their anger and fears.

The economy of today (and tomorrow) is marked by an increase in productivity and a decrease in the demand for labour. This trend is pushed by digital technologies and automation and will only accelerate during this century. So, what will happen to those 72.0000.000? Early retirements for tens of millions? Not likely. Tens of millions of bullshit jobs, in the word of the late Prof. David Graeber? Probably.

If this is the trend, are we going to see more populist and right wing leaders being voted in office as hundreds of million of citizen are left stranded by the digital revolution around the world?

I realise this is quite a bleak view of the future, but that number, the 72.000.000, left me with questions about our democratic future which are not simple to answer.

So, I turn to the friends at ODI’s Digital Societies programme: what do you think?

Photo credit: Trump rally in Wildwood NJ by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash.

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Solving problems versus changing systems

I went for a run last week and listened the interview with Nora Bateson on the New Books in System and Cybernetics podcast.

Nora Bateson is the President of the International Bateson Institute and her web bio mentions “she is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator based in Sweden. Her work asks the question: How we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world? “

The interview was about the book she published in 2006, Small Arcs of Larger Circles, a collection of essays, reflections and poems where she writes about systems and ecosystems and where she applies her own insights and those of her team at International Bateson Institute to education, organisations, complexity, academia, and the way that society organizes itself.

There are several points that struck me from the interview. One is that, solving probelms requires seeing the system in which the those problems emerge. This goes beyond understanding context and circumstances that produce a certain problems. The solution to a problem requires looking at the contexts / systems that contribute to the problem.

Here is an example. Say, I want to get or stay fit and decide to go for runs every second day. That is good for my body (system A). However, if the neighbourhood where I live (system B) has no green areas, just asphalt and cement and the air is polluted by the factory at the outskirt of the city. That will affect how fit I can become. If I struggle with finding a job to due to a recession or maybe robots taking up my job (system C), I might put running and getting fit on the back burner. So, in this example there are three systems that interact and in which my running will be part of. In reality the systems would be many more.

I need to change my behaviour to get fit and stay fit through running. But the systems around me, or better, the systems in which I exist determine how fit I can be. They can help me become more fit.

Photo credit: Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

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The evolving higher education system is Somalia. In conversation with Guglielmo Giordano, Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation in Mogadishu

War and conflict have systemic impacts on higher education: there is physical damage as universities are attacked or occupied by armed groups; loss of life and forced displacement of academic staff and students; and institutional weakening as post-conflict financial resources are allocated to basic services first. Although this is slowly changinghigher education systems are often not a priority during post-conflict recovery.

So, how can we support higher education systems damaged by years of conflict? In this blog, I suggested a portfolio approach, where different funders support experimental solutions in different areas of the higher education system. The key is to see these experiments as a portfolio of interlinked initiatives that, together, and in close collaboration with policy actors at federal and state level, can help accelerate the strengthening of governance and research capabilities of the higher education system, not only individual universities.

To discuss these ideas and problems in the higher education system in Somalia, as well as the role of Italian development cooperation, I reached out to Guglielmo Giordano, the Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation at the Italian Embassy in Mogadishu

Arnaldo Pellini – Let’s start with your background. Can you tell me about your experience in international development and your work in Somalia?

Guglielmo Giordano – I started working for development cooperation as a volunteer in South America immediately after my graduation, for almost three years. Then I worked for nearly 10 years in Haiti with the United Nations (i.e. FAO). Later, I was appointed by Italian Cooperation (at that time IC was under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and remained for almost 16 years at HQ as a regional desk officer for the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq) to which were added, in the latest period, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since February 2015, I’ve been serving in Somalia.

AP – What are the policy priorities of the Italian development assistance to Somalia?

GG – The action of Italian development cooperation in Somalia considers several factors, among which it is useful to recall the alignment with national development plans, cooperation with local authorities, and coordination with other donors. This said, the very first priority is enhancing employment, as 75 percent of the population is under 39 years. Contributing to the employment of this huge mass of young human resources means to contribute to stabilisation. Somalia needs, in a very short term, a new generation of managers and officials.

Bilateral action is necessarily limited due to the extreme fragility and unreliability of security conditions. The bilateral activities are therefore, so far, limited to the important commitment of contributing to the reconstruction and adaptation of the infrastructure of the Somali National University (SNU). This support has evolved from an initial phase of exclusive professional updating of the teaching staff to the current infrastructural support. It is useful to remember that Italy is currently the only donor involved in the development of state university education for the formation of a new managerial class and officials.

A second program is the creation of a digitalised archive (Somalia Archive) that will make the important number of documents present in Italian archives (audio, video and paper) accessible to everybody via the internet. A second phase is now underway, aimed at networking the body of Somali legislation, which is currently unavailable in the country.

An integral part of the bilateral action of Italian Cooperation in the country is humanitarian and emergency aid, mostly carried out thanks to the collaboration and involvement of Italian Civil Society Organizations present in the territory. This ensures an excellent cost/benefit ratio and enhances the Italian Cooperation System in Somalia.

On the multilateral action front, the thematic focus is then maintained on employment through activities aimed at professional training, and in consideration of the widespread youth unemployment and irregular migration through dangerous routes and trips. For this reason, support to the development of primary sectors, such as agriculture, zootechnics and fishing is foreseen, together with commitment in the private sector for the development of processing and export activities, promoting the full participation of women.

Even when intervening in emergency situations, an approach linked to development activities is preferred, with a view to improving food security indicators through the use of appropriate agricultural techniques and the construction or rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure. This is intended to promote resilience building for the local population, whose vulnerability to recurring adverse climatic phenomena (climate change) remains unfortunately too high.

Another sector of essential importance on which the Italian Cooperation’s action continues to focus is the development of infrastructures, in particular productive ones (ports and airports). This is done through support to the multi-year program of the African Development Bank and other essential initiatives to foster the recovery of the local economy. It is aimed at economic and commercial integration within the country (north-south axis) and fostering regional trade, in particular with Ethiopia (east-west axis) and with countries of the region.

The health sector is one of the traditional sectors of excellence of the Italian commitment in Somalia. This is of primary importance in a country that is among the lowest placed in the world for quality of life indicators. In this sector, investments are made with an ‘all-inclusive’ approach, considering both the provision of medical, essential and emergency services and the rehabilitation of health facilities. This is an essential requirement for the provision of services, with a focus on maternal and child health and the abolition of traditional practices harmful to women’s health, such as female genital mutilation.

In line with the priorities of the Somali Government set out during the Somalia Partnership Forum (Mogadishu, 1–2 October 2019), the primary importance of promoting the rule of law and strengthening government institutions is recognised as part of the broader ‘forces generation’ discourse in Somalia. The AICS intervenes with programs for the advancement of rule of law, for the promotion of human rights, of which women’s rights and children’s rights are an integral part, and in the consolidation of democratic processes. This is in order to contribute to institutional strengthening for greater stability and peace and promoting long-term development.

Finally, confirming the financial commitments made within the funds managed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, support is maintained for the process of institutional and regulatory strengthening necessary for macro-economic development. This, combined with progress in the rule of law, respect for human rights and respect for democratic processes, is among the conditions that can enable Somalia to access debt cancellation.

AP – Italy has had a long presence in Somalia. When researching for the report for SIDA I learned that in the 1950s Italy was involved in establishing some of the first semi-professional schools for high-school graduates. These included the School of Politics and Administration (1950), the Higher Institute of Economics and Law (1954) and the Scuola Magistrale, etc.  How has Italian support to the higher education system evolved since the end of the civil war in 2004? What have the priorities been?

GG – Italian support to the Somali National University has deep roots of more than 50 years and is still today the main reference for the future readjustment of the Somali university system. It should be remembered that Italy is currently the only financier of higher education in Somalia.

There was already Italian support in 1954, with the creation of the Istituto Superiore di Discipline Giuridiche, Economiche e Sociali (Higher Institute of Legal, Economic and Social Disciplines), an institute that produces almost all of the Somali intelligentsia currently in the country and around the world.

In 1969, the Somali Government, in collaboration with the University of Padua, established the faculties of Law and Economics, and later in 1973, the Italian Cooperation and the Federal Government of Transition of Somalia established the Somali National University (SNU). This had the faculties of Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary, Engineering, Chemistry and Geology, and later, Languages. 

In the 1970s, the Italian Government donated 90 hectares of land to SNU in Gaheyr, within the territory of the Municipality of Mogadishu, on which the academic structure called Campus Gaheyr (at the time financed by EU funds) was established. In the design, carried out by renowned architects Quadroni and Dierna, the campus included the Rectorate, buildings housing six faculties, services and accommodation for students and teachers. The campus was inaugurated in 1985, however at the end of December 1990, activities were interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war and could only continue through forms of assistance to Somali refugee teachers and students in Italy. Students who graduated from the SNU travelled all over the world, occupying responsible professions and becoming highly respected managers or professors. Most of the Somali presidents graduated from the SNU. It must be stressed that such a program should be considered the biggest effort of Italian cooperation in its history. 

Subsequently a scholarship program funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled to continue the collaboration and exchange between Italian universities and SNU.

Following the establishment of the Federal Government of Somalia, and therefore greater stability in the country, in 2014 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the first of the new programs to support SNU, a financial contribution to the realization of the project ‘Somali Web University’ promoted by the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’. As part of the project, which is still in progress, the Italian-Somali Scientific Committee, hosted by the Italian Geographic Society, was set up, with the participation of several Italian universities (Bari, Florence, Roma Tor Vergata, Roma Tre, Pavia, Trieste, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino) and in strategic coordination with the Conference of Rectors of the Universities of Italy. Another two programs, proposed by the University of Roma III and including 16 scholarships for the first SNU graduates, followed in rapid succession, again as programs exclusively related to the training and updating of Somali teachers in Italy, as well as some instrumental equipment (technical-scientific laboratories).

In the meantime, the situation in Mogadishu has gradually evolved, first with the ability of the SNU to secure a temporary physical location downtown, with some classrooms, teachers and already two sections of students admitted to the preparatory semesters, and then, in July 2017, with the return of the Gaheyr Campus, occupied by AMISOM for about 10 years and returned with about 15 additional buildings (barracks and offices of AMISOM). These are now used as classrooms and temporary offices. 

It was therefore deemed necessary and feasible to move to a more concrete phase of real reconstruction of the campus and, to this end, the best Italian engineering institution, the Politecnico di Milano, became involved. As part of this project, PoliMi, in collaboration with SNU, will define the general master plan of the campus, and will technically support the renovation of the remaining faculty blocks (Law, Economics, Political Science), as well as the construction of the new rectorate and new buildings that will host the other faculties of the campus (Veterinary, Science, Engineering). The program also plans to give continuity to the scholarships program in the years to come.

AP – An interesting finding from our study that separates Somalia from other post-conflict countries is that the number of universities has boomed since the mid-2000s. In other countries the higher education systems have struggled to re-emerge from conflict because of a lack of resources. What do you think are the drivers behind this rapid increase in the number of universities in Somalia and Somaliland?

GG – Even though there are, at least nominally, more than 120 private universities in the country (or so they claim), there are no systematic data to assess the level and real situation of tertiary education in Somalia. These are mostly paid technical vocational schools, very often of an integralist religious matrix and with low or limited female participation. Our intervention responds to a specific need of the Somali Government for a rebirth of the SNU as accessible, public and secular, and an alternative to the above-mentioned institutions. In this light, and also in light of the progress made by the Somali Government in terms of stability and security in the country, in October 2018 the Minister of Higher Education invited the Italian Government to sign the Scientific, Cultural, Technical Convention between Italy and Somalia, the latest version of which dates back to 1970.

AP – In your opinion, what are the main problems in the higher education system and where do you think there is greater political room to address some of these problems?

GG – The whole higher education system is managed by the private sector without any actual control by the government. A few years ago, a unique final test for high schools was approved, which represented a great step forward. The monitoring of the whole education system is mandatory, in order to assure a homogeneous quality level from the primary to the tertiary level. Higher quality physical institutions and facilities, demanding more preparation of the teachers and professors means more investment. But this will permit the users (students and their families) to focus their investment (money and time) on something valuable. Currently, too many institutions are just ‘typography’ of certificates and diplomas, without any actual value.

AP – Where is the focus of the Italian development assistance to the higher education system?

GG – To support the SNU to reform its curricula to join the international educational university system. To improve research capacity, with the aid of Italian universities for the moment, but the final aim is to join the international research network, 

AP – Supporting the capacity development of academic staff and researchers is important, but it addresses only one area of the higher education system’s capability issues. How do you see development partners coming together and collaborating with the government to address the problems with a systems approach?

GG – The master plan we are preparing has the ambition of serving other donors to discover their opportunities to invest in the SNU. More than 10 years ago, Italy was the founder of the ISTVS in Sheikh, Somaliland. This is an international tertiary institute for veterinary sciences and agronomy in dried land. Now, the Institute is also funded by Denmark and the EU. 

The Italian cooperation is very conscious of not doing everything alone and a bilateral partnership has to be considered as an impediment to the full expansion of the SNU. Nobody in any sector can imagine standing alone in the present globalised world. The Italian initiative must be considered as facilitating the joint working of a European initiative, where Europe has dialogue with our Somali partners and institutions.

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What is a system?

I am working with some colleagues at the EdTech Hub on defining EdTech systems. We are reviewing general systems literature as well as literature on systems more specific to EdTech. I went back to read something I wrote on knowlede to policy systems (or evidence ecosystems) three years ago in the book I co-edited, Knowledge, Politics, and Policymaking in Indonesia.

I quoted Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and her definition of systems:

‘Donella Meadows defines a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’. In brief, a system consists of elements, interconnections and a purpose. The elements are the easiest parts to see, because they are visible and tangible. In the knowledge system, elements include, for example, universities, policy research institutes, policy analysis units, ministries, local governments, civil servants, researchers and data scientists.

Interconnections are the relationships that hold these elements together. It is more difficult to understand these interconnections and why elements are linked as they are. Interconnections often reflect information flows. The government, for example, needs information about the economy, social problems, education and health to decide on policies and fund programmes. The purpose is the hardest part of a system to spot, as it may not be articulated orally or in writing. The purpose must be deduced from behaviour, rather than rhetoric or stated goals, for example, a commitment to use more research-based evidence in policymaking followed by the establishment of new funding mechanisms for think tanks and policy research organisations.

Changes in a system require mapping and understanding all three aspects of the system. Government interventions and development programmes often focus on changes to the elements (e.g. new research organisations, trained civil servants, etc.) − which usually have the least impact on the system but are easier to measure and report on. Some interventions venture further, looking at ways to change or influence interconnections in the system (e.g. forums between researchers and policymakers, coalitions among advocacy organisations and knowledge producers, etc.). This can have a positive impact on the system but may not last. Very few interventions venture so far as to try to influence or change the system’s purpose, which is the level capable of instituting the most profound changes to the system.’

Photo credit: Tiplada Mekvisan on Unsplash

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The real world of evidence-informed policymaking

Extracts from Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge by Sam Freedman (Read the full article)

“Lord Fulton’s report on the civil service, back in 1968, noted the lack of specialists, particularly those with scientific training, in key roles; the tendency to rely on generalists and the absence of modern project management techniques.”

“One reason the problems identified by Fulton are so endemic is the lack of incentive within the civil service to reform. But there’s another, bigger reason, that Cummings largely ignores: it suits the way politicians like to work. The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.”

“There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.”

“For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.”

“Not only are policies typically driven by political imperatives rather than evidence but they’re not even internally coherent within departments, let alone between them. Again, this is not a function of civil service failure so much as incompatible ministerial agendas. “

“As Cummings has acknowledged in his blogs, this centralisation of power has not been matched by a growth in the administrative capacities of central government. Instead, increasingly, Whitehall has become reliant on procuring large private companies to provide services.”

Photo credit: Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash