It’s 16 years to the day after the attacks on the twin towers and I’m sat in a chilly Nairobi café eating a limp croissant with Gaëlle Le Pottier and trying to work out what it really takes to provide leadership in the face of one of today’s pre-eminent complex problems – violent extremism.

In this blog we look at complexity – not in theory, not in books, but in messy, live, reality. Hamish Wilson interviewed Jarso Guyo Mokku, a pastoralist leader from Northern Kenya, about his perspectives on the changing dynamics of peace and conflict in the region and the increasing complexity he finds himself living in

If there is one thing I’ve learned recently, it’s that violent extremism is a complex problem. Here in the Horn of Africa, a vast number of potential causal factors exist to incite someone to violence and the connections between them are often hard to see.

And yet, despite the complexities, we (the international community) often fall into the trap of trying to design responses to such threats using tools and approaches built for simpler, more conventional problems. This is fraught with risk.

On our quest to learn more about how complexity theories can be applied to real-world problems such as violent extremism, we’ve been grappling with the question of how to construct more adaptive tools (such as theories of change and results frameworks) for CVE.

In doing so, we’ve drawn heavily from thinkers such as Ben Ramalingman, Duncan Green and Marcus Jenal who have broken new ground in the field. Below we offer a compilation of (mostly their) thoughts to stimulate more discussion. Let us know what you think – we would love to hear your thoughts!

A number of problems with conventional approaches to creating theories of change and results frameworks

  • They assume that causal pathways are known in advance of implementation. The assumption that there is sufficient knowledge about the chain of results can be highly dangerous when applied to the uncertainties of violent extremism (VE).
  • They over-simplify messy realities that then become entrenched in implementation. Defining the causal pathway at the outset ignores the dynamic interactions among various parts of the VE problem.
  • They assume the problem can be treated in reductionist ways. Conventional approaches risk assuming that the problem can be separated into its component parts and that solutions can be applied in a replicable and reproducible fashion.
  • They typically engage with contextual factors in delivery only, rather than in design. They can often assume certainty about the design of an intervention from the outset, which is nigh on impossible in relation to the nature of VE.
  • They reduce the willingness to adapt the design over time. They create strong incentives to stick to and report on what was agreed from the outset.
  • They impose limitations on capturing unexpected outcomes. Further to the point above, these can impede the ability of CVE programmes to explicitly look for wider outcomes and results.

Some thoughts on creating an ‘adaptive Theory of Change’[i]

  • A Theory of Change (ToC) is only useful if it actually informs decision-making. Sounds self-evident, however many Theories of Change gather dust once they have been created to sell the concept of a project.
  • A ToC can never be perfect or fixed, at least for CVE programmes. A ToC should be an idea that is alive and dynamic. A ToC has, in the first place, to be useful for the people who work with it. It is a tool to discuss, debate, experiment, learn, change.
  • We may never figure out how change will happen in complex systems. Not only can we not know the pathways, we are also unable to predict the exact shape of how the change will look. In some cases we might even not know what a good outcome would look like before we see it. Complex systems can only be understood if we interact with them.
  • We may need to start with, and test, multiple Theories of Change. For complex problems such as VE, there may be multiple competing hypotheses of how the intended change could be achieved, or what it could look like. The available evidence may support different and even competing perspectives.
  • A well-designed ToC cannot change complexity. The complexity of VE cannot be simplified or reduced with a nice, neat, logical model or theory. Recognise the dangers that any ToC is a potentially dangerous simplificiation of the real world.
  • In a complex system, different people will have different perspectives about how things work, which may not be amenable to analysis with a single, simple model. On the contrary, it is important to understand where there is agreement on causalities among the stakeholders and where there is not – this gives us important insights on the complexity of specific links in the logical chain.
  • The ToC needs to be presented as an overarching framework that explains how the programme intends to work, but without detailing the specific mechanisms of change (i.e. interventions). This will help ensure the theory of change remains valid even if individual interventions are adapted, closed down, or scaled up.
  • Mini Theories of Change may be required to allow adaptation and testing. In conditions of significant uncertainty, an adaptive, learn-as-you-go approach is essential. It makes sense for programmes to include a range of exploratory interventions that can be scaled up, or brought to an end. These projects may run independently of each other, and each should be thought through with its own mini ToC.
  • Design it to evolve over time based on new evidence. Recognise that any Theory of Change is just that – a theory. Given the (a) lack of data and (b) debate over what data there is in the world of CVE, we should expect current theories to evolve, and quickly. We must apply this thinking to the ToC from the outset.
  • Its possible that the most important goal may be about how responsive the programme is to the local system. Given the outcomes of intervening in a complex system may be unknowable, it is worth considering that the actual goal of the intervention itself may be the extent to which it is responsive to the problem (rather than defining the impact it will have).

Adapted from Essays on complexity and Theories of Change. Marcus Jenal. 2016

Also see Navigating Wicked Problems in Development




Scott Hinkle recently joined Wasafiri as our Team Leader for the Regional Countering Violent Extremism Research Unit (RRU).  He started his work with Wasafiri with a quick trip to Washington to attend the CVE Symposium (April 6-7, 2016) and did a great summary write-up for the rest of us left at home. We thought it would be worth sharing more generally, so here it is:

On April 6-7, 2016 I attended a two-day CVE Symposium hosted by the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI) and Creative Associates in Washington DC. There were around 200-225 CVE analysts, practitioners, and leaders in attendance. It was a very impressive, well-organised and participatory conference with multiple break-out and small group sessions. Here are some of the key themes that resonated for me:

  • Conflict prevention is key. Some of the key speakers were Special Operations Commander of SOCOM, US Senator and Cory Booker, the Secretary General for the US Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson and an introduction presented by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. All emphasised the need to increase violence prevention measures and capacities of vulnerable communities to address VE.
  • CVE is largely undefined, misunderstood and underfunded.Resources are the fundamental expression of priorities.” Conflict prevention has been advocated in the VE arena for some time, but only recently has it gained funding traction in the US. Still, compared to Counter Terrorism, CVE is a tiny drop in the bucket of the billions spent per year on the military and intelligence sectors. CVE also suffers from the growing pains of a burgeoning and newly funded field. Lastly, there was little discussion on overarching definitions of VE, or even CVE. Recognition was given to the difficulties in defining both, but that all programmes should operate around what VE/CVE mean at the micro-level.
  • Working in and on the local context was the most prominent point of the conference. Trust is the strategic and operational capital for CVE programmes.” Understanding the micro, or community-level, environments is the only way CVE is effective. Literally every speaker and discussion mentioned that the local perception of the push factors and, importantly, the “how” of the pull factors, is unique to every area and vulnerable population. Thus, CVE programmes must be community-led, targeted and intentional.
  • Well-thought-out framing of CVE programmes is key to local and international acceptance. Never use CVE to frame a programme.” “All CVE efforts should be integrated into other community-led programmes.” I completely agree with the first quote, as labelling a programme CVE increases the risk to the community and CVE practitioners. Framing a programme as CVE also has many unintended negative connotations linked to militarisation, oppression and even neo-colonialism that limit community, government, NGO and international cooperation. It is important to bring in broader development and humanitarian coalitions and a CVE label will instantly isolate the programme.
  • CVE programmes must be agile. The flexibility and adaptability of CVE programmes was consistently and boldly emphasised. In VE and fragile contexts, change is the norm. CVE programmes will always be operating with a deficit of information. Thus, programmes must have systems for local contextual analysis and organisational learning that consistently integrate new understanding and contextual changes. 
  • Difficulty of M&E in CVE. Obtaining specific metrics for local-level context and conflict prevention is essential for success and future funding of CVE. However, everyone recognised that utilising tangible and quantifiable indicators expressing “prevention” was often (but not always) difficult to achieve. Avenues to explore, and that donors seemed amenable to, were “plausible correlations” of precursors to violence and the USAID Learning Lab indicator free M&E approaches, such as outcome harvesting and most significant change. 

  • Complex systems thinking is the logical approach for CVE but difficult to implement. The intent is to learn and improve activities by learning with the community. The overall question should be, “how does change take place in that community/system?” Once that is understood, then CVE programmes would be effective at integrating into, and thus influencing, the system of change. Below are some bulleted thoughts on this subject:
    • Investigate geographic-focused pull factor systems.
    • Use real-time operational research to identify gaps between project designs and outcomes and inform a learning-by-doing approach.
    • Focus on listening and learning over solutions to problems. The goal of CVE projects should not be to meet predetermined benchmarks, but to learn which elements of one’s initial understanding of the system were right and which were wrong.
    • Use systems thinking and visualisation to demonstrate the multiple and parallel entry/focal points for interventions in a targeted community.
    • Use a continually evolving portfolio of interventions.
    • Answer the questions: 1) How do we gather data to represent the complex environment?; 2) How do we programme better in a complex environment?; 3) How are we going to get quick wins using complex theory?
    • Use mixed methodologies/theories besides and with complex systems.
  • Linear or “problem then solution” Theories of Change (ToCs) are difficult to utilise in the complex and ever-changing VE environments. Thus, the following concepts enhance the effectiveness of ToCs in the CVE arena.
    • The ToC needs to be presented as an overarching framework that explains how the programme intends to work, but without detailing the specific mechanisms of change (i.e. interventions).
    • The first version of ToC should still be fairly general since we cannot yet know much about the intricacies of how change happens. It essentially is the representation of our knowledge and hypotheses we start off with.
    • There should be a ToC that is specifically centered on the flexibility, adaptability and learning of CVE programmes.
  • Use technology to capture local and national context, sentiment and narratives. What’s in people’s minds becomes actions.” The importance of social media analysis as a component to any CVE programme cannot be understated. The tech analysts expressed over and over that there are so many inexpensive and open-source (free) software programmes that are under-utilised. E.g.
    • Agolo: Summarises large amounts of text in seconds, plug in news sources and subjects and it creates daily/weekly news letters, performs social media analysis. This is one that I have already started the process for.
    • Symantica Pro: network and link analysis, quite complicated.
    • Recorded Future: Sentiment and social media analysis.
    • Open Situation Room Exchange: hashtags that are driving in social media.
    • ICCM Project: collects multiple sources and identifies overlaps.

If you were there then please feel free to share any thoughts, comments and reflections below. These notes are just Scott’s initial reflections and we will share more of our thinking and current work over the coming weeks. As ever, feel free to get in touch if there is anything you’d like to discuss further with us

The nature of war is changing. Two years ago, the State Council declared that global conflict was becoming “more integrated, complex and volatile”. Their view would appear prophetic given the recent spate of hostilities in countries such as Libya, Ukraine, Palestine and Syria, all fuelled by highly combustible combinations of social, political, geographic and resource-based triggers for violent competition.

Against this alarming trend, we also see a proliferation of the responses devised to counter what is perceived to be a growing threat to national interests. Such reactions are driven by an increasingly disparate assortment of political, economic and security agendas, backed by an dazzlingly diverse array of actors, from emerging economies seeking to flex their international muscle to enterprising private companies exploiting frontier markets.

As a result, we find ourselves witnessing the birth of whole new industries, sparking an explosion of the acronyms used to describe increasingly complex “solutions” to counter increasingly complex threats; Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), Serious & Organised Crime (SOCA), Security Sector Reform (SSR), Counter-Terrorism (CT) and Counter-Insurgency (COIN). All these and more, crowding the spaces traditionally reserved for more “conventional” military, development and humanitarian interventions.

Among such approaches now at the disposal of foreign governments is “Stabilisation”, a poorly understood and often contentious term that has been used to define western responses to a multitude of crises over the past decade. But fundamental questions have emerged to challenge the orthodoxy; what is it exactly? Is it relevant or even effective? And what of its future? Such questions were the subject of a recent international conference hosted by the Danish and UK governments.

“Stabilisation” as a mandate first formally emerged with the appointment of the Stabilisation Force for Bosnia and Hezogovnia (SFOR) in the early nineties. It has since been practiced most explicitly in military-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming firmly wrapped up in the hubris of the US-driven War on Terror. Over that time the concept has increasingly become muddied in the waters of counter-insurgency operations, consent winning military activities, counter-terrorism initiatives and wider state building ventures. Often it has been derided as a callow attempt to ‘win hearts and minds’, an approach reduced merely to the delivery of notoriously expensive and often counter-productive ‘quick-impact projects’.

Its usefulness in tackling conflict has been further undermined by institutions – military and civilian alike – adopting a confusing patchwork of interpretations to suit their own purposes, and badging increasingly varied, even contradictory, activities under the moniker of stabilisation. Conduct a quick survey (as we did of our international partners in Somalia) and you will immediately encounter the ugly truth; “Its too difficult, we shouldn’t bother.” “Its everything, and its nothing.” “It’s had its time”.

Yet whether we like it or not, stabilisation appears set to stay. Since the mid-1990s, twenty-nine multi-lateral UN, NATO and EU missions have worked to peacekeeping, peace enforcement or political mandates which include the promotion of stability. These include the Central African Republic, Liberia, Mali, South Sudan and Kosovo. A further sixteen multi-lateral missions have been explicitly mandated to use stabilisation to achieve their strategic objectives in countries such as Afghanistan, DR Congo, Somalia and Haiti. Together, these efforts have involved budgets in the billions, tens of thousands of troops, and the engagement of many western government’s political and development ministries.

In short, stabilisation matters. Learning the lessons and getting it right in the face of today’s rapidly mutating threats to global stability is more crucial than ever.

Hence the conference; a gathering of policy makers and practitioners from the Danish, UK, US, Canadian and Dutch government agencies charged with overseeing stabilisation efforts abroad. With the dust still settling on a two-year stint as Senior Stabilisation Adviser for the British Embassy in Somalia, I was roped in to help facilitate the gathering.

The event, held in the grounds of Wilton Park in East Sussex, primarily served as an opportunity for the UK and Danish governments to unveil their newly varnished stabilisation doctrine.

The UK, following an exhaustive cross-governmental consultation, has refocused its definition of stabilisation around an explicitly political aim; as “one of the approaches used in situations of violent conflict designed to protect and promote legitimate political authority, using a combination of integrated civilian and military actions to reduce violence, re-establish security and prepare for longer-term recovery.” Whilst the tighter political focus was generally welcomed, concerns were raised over how legitimate political authority should be determined and promoted.

The Danish have taken a broader view in their newly published Integrated Plan for Stabilisation Engagement. In their glossy brochure-style treatise, they propose a multi-dimensional, multi-agency approach to tackling threats to stability “lying at the nexus of security and development in fragile states” such as extreme poverty, religious extremism, economic crime, refugee flows and terrorism. Whilst the expansive approach succeeds in bolstering pan-government agendas, it risks reinforcing the notion of stabilisation as yet more empty foreign policy jargon.

Yet the similarities of the two approaches are more striking than their differences. Both governments recognise that the stabilisation of fragile and conflict affected states is a risky but essential challenge for the 21st century. Both see it no longer a question of whether to engage in stabilisa­tion, but of where and how to engage in the future. Both see stabilisation as central to forging greater unity across overseas developmental, diplomatic and defense contributions.

However, and despite the rhetoric, the real test lies in moving beyond past failings, of heeding the lessons which were all too painfully laid bare during the conference. Few attending had emerged unscarred by previous mistakes in undertaking stabilisation in far-flung war-torn corners of the globe. However with the growing mess of threats to security arising from countries as diverse as Iraq, South Sudan, and Nigeria, it is clear that the demand for stabilisation is only likely to grow.

Smarter definitions, a growing library of lessons learned and more relevant concepts hewn from experience are a good start. Yet the real worth of the exercise will be the extent to which policies are improved and delivery on the ground is sharpened. My own recent experience of establishing a two-year $18million programme designed to sustain military and political gains in the battle-scarred southern reaches of Somalia offered rich insight into the realities and shortcomings of what could be achieved through a targeted initiative overseen by a dedicated team of specialists with the freedom to innovate, move quickly and build on success.

A number of forthcoming events however will serve as the real litmus test of positive change; NATO’s strategic rethink, the UK’s Strategic Defense Review, as well as the achievements of the UK’s new Conflict, Security and Stability Fund and the Danish Peace and Stabilisation Fund. Only then, if and when we see future stabilisation undertakings moving beyond a decidedly mixed track record to an approach driving demonstrable results on the ground will we be reassured that the effort, and the cost, has been worth it.

Hamish recently concluded two years as the British Government’s Senior Stabilisation Adviser in Somalia, and now lead’s Wasafiri’s conflict and stability practice – dedicated to working with military, political and civilian organisations to help deliver change in fragile and conflict affected regions.

Wasafiri has been commissioned to advise NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) on how to strengthen its planning for, and response to, complex crises in fragile, conflict-affected regions.

The ARRC, based in the UK, is a high readiness multinational force headquarters designed to deploy quickly to support crisis management operations worldwide at 5-30 days notice. They understand first-hand how today’s conflicts are becoming more complex and mutating more rapidly. In response, NATO is itself evolving, becoming more agile, adaptive and integrated with their civilian and political counterparts.

With first hand experience at the sharp end of joint civilian-military operations in South Sudan, Afghanistan and most recently, in Somalia, Wasafiri is well placed to share lessons on what does and does not work in such complex, fragmented environments.

Over the next 6 months, we will work within the ARRC’s operations and planning teams, advising on coordination with civilian actors, understanding cultural, social, economic and political factors, developing approaches for community engagement and protection within the framework of international law.

Wasafiri’s Director Hamish Wilson has been invited by the UK Government to help facilitate an international conference to consider the future of stabilisation. Co-hosted with the Government of Denmark, and joined by representatives from NATO, the EU and the United Nations, the event, to take place in late June, will explore lessons and best practice emerging from contemporary stabilisation operations in Somalia, Mali, DR Congo, South Sudan and others.

In doing so, the event will examine how stabilisation has contributed to conflict prevention and resolution, and will seek to establish a common approach and shared principles for actors engaged in stabilisation.

Hamish has recently concluded a two-year assignment with the British Embassy in Somalia as Senior Stabilisation Adviser and is leading Wasafiri’s efforts to help improve the delivery of stabilisation approaches in fragile and conflict affected states.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually, with many more trafficked within the borders of their own countries. The practice is fuelled by demand for cheap labour in a number of sectors, including for domestic workers.

In Cameroon, migration both to and within the country has led many people, including women and minors (under 18 years), to perform domestic work in order to improve their standard of living. While the government has ratified a number of international treaties against human trafficking, including the UN Convention against Transnational and Organized Crime, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (C189) has not yet been ratified. The area is still largely governed by an obsolete decree from 1968.

Working in an under-regulated sector and with a poor grasp of any rights and entitlements they may have, migrant domestic workers frequently face situations of exploitation, moral and physical abuse, and employment under illegal working arrangements.

Wasafiri was contracted by the IOM to support Cameroon’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Ministry of Labour and Social Security in a bid to strengthen their capacity to deal with the consequences of trafficking in domestic workers. The assistance included conducting a feasibility study on ratification of the C189 Convention, so as to facilitate government approval of the same. Wasafiri also developed tools such as standard operating procedures and designed a communications strategy and materials (including sensitisation leaflets, posters, and so on), as well as training modules. These will help raise awareness and equip relevant stakeholders with skills to provide assistance in cases of abuse and exploitation.

Expert advice was also provided by Wasafiri to top ministry officials on wider issues associated with migration and human trafficking.

In 2012 Somalia lay at a crossroads. Two decades of war had left the region devastated, bereft of a functional government and without even the most basic services such as schools or clinics, a society shattered by violent extremism and conflict between rival clans and warlords.

The year heralded great change. African Union forces regained control of the capital Mogadishu, driving out insurgents from strongholds across the south, laying the groundwork for a fragile transition to the country’s first democratically elected administration.

Yet, in one of the most volatile and dangerous regions on earth, progress remained precarious and expectations low. In a context such as this, how do you establish even the most basic conditions essential to peace and stability?

Wasafiri’s Director and lead of our Stabilisation & Conflict Practice Area, Hamish Wilson was deployed to the British Embassy in the newly created post of Senior Stabilisation Adviser in early 2012. His most pressing requirement was to help bolster the precious political and security gains being made in newly recaptured cities across Southern Somalia. The challenge was made even more daunting by severe constraints on access and with few partners willing to work in the most dangerous areas.

In response, Hamish established a dedicated cross-departmental Stabilisation Team supported by a flexible funding mechanism – an innovation in the British Government’s stabilisation efforts worldwide. The team built a portfolio that grew rapidly to USD17m worth of projects delivered across seven of the hardest to reach and most strategically important locations in the region, playing a key role in:

  • Reconstructing offices and community centres in each of Mogadishu’s 16 districts
  • Rebuilding bridges, roads, stadiums and street lighting in 5 newly ‘liberated’ cities
  • Recovering over 1000 bombs and explosives in Baidoa
  • Restoring five community radio stations
  • Training 500 women and young men in vocational skills
  • Rebuilding over 10 markets supporting hundreds of new jobs
  • Tackling conflicts between the 6 major clans of the Central Regions
  • Building the capacity of the Ministry of Interior, President & Prime Minister’s Offices

Few organisations have been able to move as quickly or as responsively to the ever-changing situation in Somalia. As a result, the British Government has helped lay the foundations for the effective delivery of longer-term recovery efforts vital to eventual peace and stability.