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No coups please, Professor Collier

UPDATE 10:30AM 1/15: Chris Blattman has a thoughtful response to my blog. The Complexity tribe is still upset that I didn’t do their sacred idea of Complexity justice.

On the Guardian Global Development blog, I tell Paul Collier that he’s crazy to recommend a coup in Cote d’Ivoire. But the use of complexity theory allows me to be very nice about it.

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  1. i agree. plus how annoyed would americans be if someone from another nation recommended a coup here?

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  2. Rebecca wrote:

    That was by far, the WORST suggestion I have read for the situation. What was Collier thinking? That move would surely bring about MORE violence on the Ivorian community. His suggestion ignores the local reality entirely and is incredibly irresponsible.

    He clearly misunderstands the conflict entirely by his words that paint the “ethnic strife” in this country as rule by majority excluding some groups from power, as Gbagbo’s Bete ethnic group is not a majority. He misunderstands that the ranks are largely stacked with the Bete people who are favorable to Gbagbo and that it would not be an increase in status for them to install Ouattara. If anything, they would lose status and responsibility in a Jula-run government. They would have NO incentive to put Ouattara in place once they were to remove Gbagbo. Also, ambitious armed persons capable of carrying out a coup rarely slow their ambition and remain content with mere placation of army postings. Once they get a taste of power, they are likely to want to keep it.

    Any country or international body that supported this would lose all credibility in the diplomatic realm, and what kind of precedent would this be setting??

    The international community has to be careful with its actions as they could have tremendous consequences. I wrote about the current options being explored and their possible effects here:

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  3. Oliver Bass wrote:

    You gays are very right saying that they shouldn’t use power to solve this problem, but are you gays living here in Ivory Coast? are you passing through what we are experiencing everyday? So, Gbagbo have the right to kill innocent people and we should not call for help when we are without defender? If possible I personally will like Gorge Bush to handle this situation. Gbagbo is not willing to hear anything. should we leave him like that. You gays have to find out what is exactly going on here before giving any piont of view. Please we are matured and President Ouattara is also matured. If he is called for

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  4. Orlando Roncevalles wrote:

    Things are complex when we don’t know how to simplify. This must mean that complexity theory, if it is even a theory, is just another way of saying we don’t know and we just say it’s too complex.

    The Hippocratic Oath is the relevant thing…. If we don’t know, then, based on what we do know, we ought not do any harm. Perhaps this means we don’t do much or anything until we become convinced that doing something is the better thing.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  5. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Orlando, I think complexity theory gives some guidance as to WHEN we don’t know. Bill

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  6. Orlando Roncevalles wrote:

    Bill, I always thought that good theory cuts through the muddle and opens up a new way of looking at the old “complex” things. If I’m right, then of course, complexity theory tells us when we don’t know, but it can’t tell us how to know. Or is this a “deep” philosophy of science question?

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  7. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Orlando, yes good theory does that in many situations, but the idea of complex systems is that they cannot be reduced to a theory that will generate usable predictions.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  8. Moussa P. Blimpo wrote:

    I always think that democracy should emerge from internal struggles and endogenous balance of power. That might take longer time, but if that is what it takes, so be it. After all, slavery has lasted 4 centuries and Colonization nearly another century. Without the support of the West, most of our dictators would not have survived that long. When the Western support to dictators “stopped” with the end of the cold war, many of them have fallen like rotten fruits from trees and we can see that there has been a huge progress toward democracy and better governance in only 20 years! The people are not hopeless, the people can do it when they decide to.

    As I am reading this post, there is a breaking news right now that the Tunisian people may have ousted their dictator. If true, this happened far more efficiently than the UN or any outsider could have ever dreamed of. Only a couple of weeks back, no informed analyst would have thought that ousting Ben Ali is remotely possible. In 2009, president Ben Ali won the (rigged) election by 89.62% with a voter turnout of 89.45% after 22 years in power. He has virtually all the powers with a tight control on information.

    Let’s the Ivorian alone deal with their problems. Prof. Collier’s recommendation is a good game theoretical analysis that can get students excited. But, these countries aren’t toys to play with. This whole mess that Cote d’Ivoire is in right now started with a Military Coup on December 24 1999.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  9. You can distinguish between complicated and complex issues by looking carefully at the features of the problem you’re facing.

    The classic example made in the literature on social complexity theory is between sending a rocket to the moon and raising a family. As thinkers such as Brenda Zimmerman and Dave Snowden have suggested, it’s complicated to send a rocket to the moon.

    It requires blueprints, math and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. It involves setting up a machine-like system of linking many many small tasks together and then coordinating across them. It involves a Newtonian solution to a Newtonian problem, one where assumptions of predictability, linearity and control hold out, and do not distort outcomes.

    It involves engineering – as Bill suggests in the title of his article -routines, equilibrium, stability and order.

    Raising a family, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, where each element is interconnected and you cannot just deal with one part and ignore all the others. The diversity of each person – and their needs – matters enormously.

    The system is not closed but an open one, constantly interacting with a wider environment, leading to a fluid, often unpredictable dynamic, where outcomes are fundamentally shaped by external factors.

    Blueprints and best practices will be of little use, and the desire for precision will not last long. Instead, principles and relationships matter, experimentation matters, respect matters, values matter.

    Perhaps most important is an openness to constantly shift ones way of thinking – in complex systems, everything is a passing phase, and equilibrium is constantly just beyond your reach.

    I argued on my blog recently ( that some of the greatest failures arise when people or organisations take a complex messy situation, analyse it as if it was a complicated problem, then carve off a piece and then start to apply puzzle-solving approaches, all the while ignoring the interconnection and relationships with the wider system.

    This seems to resonate pretty closely with Prof Easterly’s critique. This kind of bias towards simplification happens in all contexts and sectors, of course. But it takes on some especially startling and troublesome manifestations in international aid and international relations.

    Complexity science can help because it invites us to examine the interconnected, emergent, nonlinear, unpredictable, evolutionary aspects of the problems we face. It gives us a set of questions to ask about the world, which can help better understand its shifting dynamics. It can also suggest the kinds of approaches that might help navigate these dynamics.

    Perhaps the biggest challenges to the wider take-up of complexity-inspired suggestions is that, if they stay both sensible and true to the principles of complexity, they tend not to provide recipes which can be followed. This is their limitation, but it i also their strength – they require us to think and be engaged with emergent realities.

    As Cynthia Kurtz, one of the co-developers of Cynefin, recently wrote in a wonderful essay:

    “Emergence requires presence. It requires awareness, negotiation, the building and verification of trust, the mending of fences when they need to be mended and the removal of barriers when they obstruct. Most people do emergence well, but rarely without effort. If it is without effort, it is more likely to involve following instructions, not participating in emergence.“

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Reuben wrote:

    I’ve been following this discussion on complexity on the blog, and I’m impressed with the superficiality of the treatment. The use of complexity theory in the social sciences— and in economics mainly by Austrian economists— reminds me of uses of evolutionary theory by social darwinists (and most evolutionary psychologists) and of quantum physics by some cognitive scientists (and philosophers of the mind, among others).

    I believe that one can make a good point against Collier’s policy recommendations without appealing to Murphy’s law (aka. “the law of unintended consequences”, or the more pedantic term “complexity theory”).


    Posted January 14, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  11. William Easterly wrote:

    Reuben, I think you are misunderstanding the issue. The first step to knowledge is understanding when something IS a complex system (for which Ben’s examples are very good), and that is the main relevant issue for a recommendation like Collier’s. The issue at hand does not require us to develop a primer on all the more subtle issues involved in complex systems. It’s surprising that economists that should understand the economy as a “spontaneous order” do not understand that the far more complicated and less well understood systems of politics and violence are even more “complex.” Bill

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  12. Clusterfunk wrote:

    OK. it’s all really complex and complicated and we don’t know how to fix it in a fashion that guarantees a successful outcome (which in itself is complex and complicated to define in such a complex and complicated situation).

    So let’s just not do anything and merely agree that the number of people being killed would be higher if we did something in such a complex and complicated situation.

    That after all is guaranteed to work for us: It is a tried and tested approach for the international community in rigged elections the world over.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  13. Reuben wrote:

    I partly agree with your point, but not entirely:
    1. You claim that “(b)ut the use of complexity theory allows me to be very nice about it.” Well, I’ve read the original post several times, and I still don’t see the “use of complexity theory”, except for just a few uses of the word. That, to me, sounds like the perfect example of a superficial argument, one that fits better in coctail talks, but not in a blog that is supposed to give reasoned arguments on the topic of foreign aid.
    2. You also say that “(t)he first step to knowledge is understanding when something IS a complex system”. Have you done so? Is there any research that allows us to dismiss Collier’s arguments on the grounds that this is indeed an example of a complex system?


    Posted January 14, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  14. William Easterly wrote:

    Clusterfunk: who is we, please? Do Ivorians recognize this we as a neutral, disinterested, benevolent force?

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Reuben,

    There was a 2009 paper published by the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Department for Peace Studies at Bradford University, probably the leading conflict researchers in the UK, which you might find of interest.

    Summary and link here:

    It specifically looks at the benefits of complexity analysis for conflict situations, and argues that the complexity sciences can,

    “at a basic level… [complexity thinking] contribute[s] to a reduction in the prevalent tendency to over-simplify in conflicts by drawing the boundaries too tightly around the conflict parties or excluding factors at another level that may be relevant but are left out for ease of analysis….”

    The author goes to outline more elaborate levels of analysis, which include: “…a comprehensive analysis of factors in complex systems that may account for processes observed and may influence outcomes…”

    Regardless of the depth of the analysis, the key is for “a complexity approach [to] sensitise the analyst to the potential impact of his or her actions and thus serves as an aid to consciousness-raising. Seeing the intervention… as perturbation within the complex system, characterised by non-linear relationships and processes and therefore productive of surprising emergent outcomes, makes evident that the analyst, let alone the intervener, cannot be seen as external to the conflict system under consideration… The mental models that we possess about what conflict is, or what constitutes conflict transformation and how that should be implemented… need to be explored wherever [possible]…”

    Given the above, I think Bill’s piece does a good job. It’s not an in-depth application of complexity theory – what newspaper article could be? – but it does draws on and explore potential insights in a light touch way.

    Just my $0.02 worth… am interested in your response.


    Posted January 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  16. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    A couple of points: What Collier seems to be suggesting (at least as I read it) is not direct intervention on the part of the west, but encouragement to junior officers to stage a coup along the lines of the coup that ended the violence and Moussa Traore’s regime when Amadou Toumani Toure took over and transitioned to a democratic leader. (Yes, there is a precedent for what he is suggesting.) Would that be seen as intrusive by Gbagbo’s supporters? Of course, but not more so than everything else the UN is doing to recognize Ouattara and his election and sanction Gbagbo.

    It seems to me complexity theory implies that our lack of knowledge also means that we don’t know all the possible consequences of doing nothing just as it casts doubt on the consequences of a particular sort of intervention. In this case, doing nothing certainly has to consider the 250 deaths from Gbagbo’s death squads and repression and the likelihood that those will continue, to say nothing of the damage to the Ivoirian economy and people if Gbagbo retains power and continues to disenfranchise the majority of the Ivoirian people.

    Posted January 15, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink
  17. Clusterfunk wrote:

    “Who is we?” A complex and complicated question for sure.

    And who are those Ivorians of whom you demand to know whether they recognize us as benevolant or not?

    Are they those who consider Ivoirité the best thing since sliced bread? Then the answer to your question might well be No. For many of those pesky Northerners gentrifying the country starting from the North and partially slaughtered in Abobo these days, the answer might well be Yes.

    I guess I agree there are no easy answers, it’s a difficult situation. I agree trying to incentify for a coup means taking risks and that most of these lie with people living in Ivory Coast, not so much with us.

    But so does any of the following:
    (1) trying to “starve” regime via sanctions while it keeps killing people
    (2) invading the country
    (3) assassinating Gbagbo
    (4) not doing anything
    (5) anything else we could think of.

    Posted January 15, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink
  18. Bill’s above link to the complexity tribe being upset is to an article that makes the good point that the scientific work in complexity theory is about how even simple deterministic systems can lead to very complex and even chaotic behavior, and that this is quite distinct from the uses of complexity in Hayekian social science which is surely where Bill is coming from. But that writer is only talking about “high-brow” complexity theory, not the “low-brow” complexity theory that pervades the popular science literature and that might make more substantial contact with the earlier “Austrian” notions of complexity and spontaneous orders.
    My problem is more along the lines of Reuben’s comments which I thought were well taken. When one considers specific recommendations of the low-brow complexity theory from Bill or Ben R. (whose blog focuses on the topic), then they are either obvious truths (aka, banalities) or rather old bits of wisdom, e.g., that knowledge in such matters starts with the Socratic ignorance of knowing that one does not know or the old principle of unintended consequences (such as the strengthening of Iranian influence in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). This raises the old issue of social scientists straining to invoke tidbits from (popsci renditions of) the harder sciences (evolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, catastrophe theory, complexity theory, etc) in order to bolster their views. Another example would be, say, invoking the uncertainty principle from QM to “explain” the unintended consequences of interventions. Surely there are better ways to show the foolishness of Collier’s suggestion to reinforce the tradition of “Govt transition = coup” than the admittedly offhand reference to “complexity theory”–which generated so many comments including this one.

    Posted January 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  19. Dear David,

    You might find it interesting to take look at an 2008 ODI working paper which I led on which looks at complexity science and international aid in detail, and explores the issues around the take-up of these ideas in social, political and economic contexts.

    All best,


    Posted January 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  20. Troy Camplin wrote:

    There is complexity narrowly understood as complexity theory (in the sense Wolfram uses it, for example), and there is complexity broadly understood to include dissipative structures and self-organizing systems. It is also a description of scale-free networks. It is no doubt the broad sense in which the term is being used. Used in this manner, the arguments made about aid are indeed valid.

    Posted January 16, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  21. You might find it interesting to take look at an 2008 ODI working paper which I led on which looks at complexity science and international aid in detail, and explores the issues around the take-up of these ideas in social, political and economic contexts.

    Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

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  3. […] Bill Easterly gives a very light touch reference to complexity thinking on engineered solutions in Cote d’Ivoire […]

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