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Q&A: Navigating the complexities of development interventions with Matthew Osborne

Development interventions meant to make life better and more sustainable can sometimes go wrong – especially in regions where conflict is the backdrop for people’s lives. The LOCACONS Conflict Prevention and Low-Carbon Development project, funded by Formas and other organizations working with SEI, worked to determine how to avoid unintended consequences.

Matthew Osborne, Ylva Rylander / Published on 30 March 2023
Katse dam wall in Lesotho.

Mist rising above the Katse dam wall in Lesotho. Photo: deldew / iStock / Getty Images Plus.

In an interview performed within SEI’s Development and Aid Policy team, SEI Communication Officer Ylva Rylander posed questions to SEI Research Fellow Matthew Osborne.

What is the most important outcome from this project?

The importance of accepting how the dynamic nature of the system makes outcomes difficult to predict. Specifically the importance of understanding how actions can affect the systems over time – so even if something seems to be effective at the start, that doesn’t guarantee it’s going to really be a sustainable solution a few years down the line.

So many factors can interact in different and compounding ways over time – whether these are social and political factors, such as community preferences or wider market forces, or environmental conditions that influence farming practices and land use patterns, etc. All of these together mean that no single or simple solutions can be relied on, but rather intervention planning and operationalization requires ongoing iteration and redesign to drive effective sustainable impacts.

How do you see policymakers and other relevant actors using these outcomes?

We have produced a range of analyses, data and tools to help policymakers and planners to incorporate system complexity into their planning and programme management. Specifically, these tools allow for different sources and levels of information to be absorbed in a manageable way, to better understand how different system components may influence different outcomes.

But the truth is, these things can be really hard to understand or anticipate. So, one of the things that myself and my co-researcher Naho decided to do was to produce different types of outputs and communication tools that policymakers and others could engage with in a more accessible form than traditional academic journal articles. Our intention was to allow non-experts to capture the central findings and arguments we were making without the need to deep dive into the project’s scientific articles, if they didn’t have time or interest.

Some of the most effective were the animations we produced which act to both introduce the motivation and findings of the project as a whole, but also provide an example of a visual ‘version’ of one of the project’s journal papers that looks at flood-recession farming:

Videos: SEI / YouTube. Design by Coralie Legrand.

What would you like to see regarding future research?

In general, we argue for the need to avoid the temptation to design programmes that are inflexible and realize that you are going to need to be updating, reassessing and changing what you’re doing over time. Accept that any programme or intervention will undoubtedly create some winners and some losers in a particular context, regardless of how beneficial the overall policy impact may be.

Because having both winners and losers is unavoidable, these difficult outcomes need to be acknowledged and engaged with early and often, so that such negative impacts can be appropriately managed. We would love to see a greater willingness of researchers to explore these negative impacts of programmes, rather than focusing too much on the “good news” impact stories, since collectively this is the only meaningful way we can drive sustainable systemic changes.

Learn more

SEI team

Ylva Rylander
Ylva Rylander

Communications and Impact Officer

Communications

SEI Headquarters

Janet Vähämäki
Janet Vähämäki

Team Leader: Development Policy and Finance

SEI Headquarters

Fiona Lambe
Fiona Lambe

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Design and development by Soapbox.