Can Systems Thinking Improve Development Efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa? Finding the answer with help from STELLA
Despite the trillions of dollars in aid that has flowed into Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from developed nations, the region continues to battle starvation, disease, low
literacy rates, high birth rates, and a host of other intractable problems. In fact, between 1981 and 2001, extreme poverty in SSA rose 5% (UNIDO, 2004). Countries
continue to struggle with high rates of HIV and AIDS. And desertification and other forms of environmental degradation are making it harder to survive in local economies
that are based almost entirely on agriculture.
The coincidence of international aid and degradation of economic conditions in Africa was apparent to Viviane A. Amelewonou-Thalmensy. “I’m from Togo, West Africa but
I didn’t grow up there,” says Viviane. “My father worked for the UN and we often vacationed in Togo and visited relatives. I could see that things weren’t improving.”
Educated and experienced in risk management in the banking sector, Viviane decided to pursue a PhD in development at Skema Business School in Lille, France, and to
investigate the efficacy of development programs in SSA. While she was clear on the issue she wanted to address, she didn’t think about taking a system dynamics
approach until meeting with her advisor, Peter Heffron, Adjunct Professor at Skema. “I had never taken a course in system dynamics, but Peter explained that it was
an approach that would help me deal with the complexities of development issues.”
Interacting stocks and flows of people, natural and non-renewable resources, pollution, and other factors over time seemed like the best – even ‘only’ –
way to analyze complex issues
Heffron knew first-hand that Systems Thinking is both very useful to development teams and rarely used to tackle complex development issues. “I learned about system
dynamics through Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits by Dennis Meadows, Dana Meadows and Jorgen Randers,” says Heffron. “The World 3 dynamic model was, to me,
revolutionary and common-sensical at the same time. Interacting stocks and flows of people, natural and non-renewable resources, pollution, and other factors over
time seemed like the best – even ‘only’ – way to analyze complex issues.”
When he joined CARE in 1979, Heffron began to study system dynamics on his own. He learned about STELLA, isee systems’ System Thinking software and understood how it
could help CARE and other NGO representatives, government planners, academics and others involved in development improve projects in Honduras. "isee systems provided
a team of consultants to CARE-Honduras and partner organizations for a week-long orientation to system dynamics and Systems Thinking and to facilitate a participatory,
transparent strategic planning exercise, including looking into possible future scenarios based on different assumptions,” says Heffron.
Concerned about the future of development in SSA and hopeful that increased use of a system dynamics approach would improve outcomes, Viviane began to develop her PhD
thesis Policy Formulation in Sub-Saharan Africa in the Context of Sustainable Development Programs: What Could a Systems Approach Contribute? Her first step was to learn
more about development. She reviewed literature and case studies with key questions in mind. What are the results of SSA development policies and programs so far? What
are the underlying causes of development policy/programs relative ineffectiveness? If SSA was to reach an ideal more-sustainable future, what would that future look like?
Next, she had to learn about system dynamics. Heffron offered his support and, after she made a presentation at Skema, others became interested. A one week intensive
course in modeling and simulation was offered and she took it. “The course work was very tough,” says Viviane. “System dynamics required me to think in new ways about
factors that influence development efforts and links between those factors. Making a causal loop diagram was simple. Thinking about how to apply real data to the loop
was quite hard.”
The problems that development tackles are completely intertwined... That interconnectedness implies tremendous complexity
Developing a model would require software, another resource that wasn’t available through the university. With the help of her supervisor, Viviane contacted isee systems,
explained her thesis and intention to apply system dynamics to the issue of development effectiveness, and received a license for STELLA. With those pieces in place,
Viviane began to analyze development issues using a system dynamics approach.
The problems that development tackles are completely intertwined – diet and nutrition impact education, education impacts technological development, ecological
conditions impact ability to grow enough food, lack of food impacts diet and nutrition, etc. That interconnectedness implies tremendous complexity. It also requires
data that just doesn’t exist. Viviane decided to focus on two variables that were at the root of most development challenges; population growth and the sustainability
of renewable natural resources.
The number of countries in the SSA region and many differences between them also complicated modeling efforts. Viviane further focused her study by selecting three
countries, Botswana, Ghana, and Ethiopia that are diverse in terms of regional localization, current level of development, and access to resources that support
additional development. Botswana is rich in diamonds and is classified as middle income country. Ghana, known as “the good student”, has an educated population,
is doing well in terms of economic development, and politically progressive and democratic in relation to its neighbors. Ethiopia is a low income country and has
many natural resources though it also has a very large and growing population.
Narrowing her focus to essential variables helped simplify model development but Viviane was still having trouble getting simulations to work. She used Braat’s
Systems Ecological Model for Sustainable Development Analysis and the Limits to Growth 30-Year Update model published by Dennis Meadows as reference foundations.
Two sub-models, one focused on population growth rate and a second that forecasts resource consumption and regeneration, show how those factors relate on a
country, village, and family level. “The more people in a given group, the more food that group has to produce,” says Viviane. “If resources don’t increase
as population increases, the system loses equilibrium.”
Disequilibrium in that straightforward relationship comes with many consequences. When populations outgrow available resources, they are forced to move to other areas that
offer necessities like water, food, and land. In the worst, but not uncommon, situations, people without adequate food and water succumb to disease and/or die of starvation.
The consequences of the population/renewable resources relationship are pronounced in SSA where most economies are based on agricultural and fishing.
“Together, the population and renewable resources models show that infinite development is not possible in the countries studies,” says Viviane. “Everything is
limited when populations increase beyond the point that renewable resources can support them.”
The process of creating models brings everyone to the table. Everyone’s perception and reality goes into the model and groups can test what-if scenarios
to find and agree on policies and programs that will have the best results
If development professionals applied Systems Thinking models like Viviane’s to local problems, would they achieve better results? “As my modeling experience shows, system
dynamics allows development professionals to see the overall complexity in a system and break issues down to smaller components,” says Viviane. “Models can be constantly
adjusted to add new variables or reflect differences between regions, countries, or communities. The process of creating models brings everyone to the table. Everyone’s
perception and reality goes into the model and groups can test what-if scenarios to find and agree on policies and programs that will have the best results. After programs
are implemented, models can be run with recent data to see if reality changed over time. Were projects successful? Did they have the desired results?”
Due to the complexity of the issues development efforts try to address, programs often occur in combination. System dynamics helps aid agencies see how programs are working
in cooperation or cross-purposes. Teams are able to identify high leverage points in order to optimize efforts as well as to allow long-lasting positive change. And models
can be constantly revised to test new ideas.
Given all those benefits, one would imagine that Viviane would find great enthusiasm for system dynamics in the development community. Her survey of 47 development
professionals, some familiar with system dynamics and some with no experience or knowledge, revealed that a majority of respondents (54%) were indeed “very likely”
to recommend the approach to fellow policy makers. On the other hand, 15% were “very unlikely” to take or recommend a system dynamics approach because they consider
it to be potentially more difficult than beneficial.
Because [STELLA] presents information visually, it was very easy to present my findings. Colleagues could see what questions I was asking and how I had come to my conclusions
Viviane points out that system dynamics does require a new way of thinking and there are certainly new concepts to learn and practice; but that STELLA facilitates the
process. “STELLA facilitates breaking models down into layers. As I created the causal loop diagrams and stocks and flows that represented the basic systems and
relationships I was studying, STELLA generated the equations and helped me run the simulations. Because it presents information visually, it was very easy to present
my findings. Colleagues could see what questions I was asking and how I had come to my conclusions. They could ask questions and use the model to find answers.”
Work on her thesis left Viviane feeling realistic about the future of SSA but hopeful that system dynamics can make a difference. “I did reach an ah-ha conclusion,”
she says. “Population growth and renewable resource constraints will always limit the amount and pace of development in Sub-Saharan Africa, but if we apply system
dynamics to policy making and program development, we can postpone the worst consequences of that dynamic.”
“By providing STELLA and facilitating Viviane’s access to online training, isee systems contributed to her unplanned discovery, and sharing, of what is really happening
in SSA,” says Heffron. “Her work demonstrates the need for planners, policy makers, and managers at all levels to use Systems Thinking principles, methods and tools to
get a better handle on the interactions that are causing SSA to spiral into unsustainability.”