Complexity and systems thinking or simply messy boundaries

by Amanda Harding

A down pouring of questions ...

"Will the additional UN Peacekeepers have any impact in South Sudan?"

"Madiba has left us. Does this mark the end of any semblance of unity in the Rainbow Nation?"

"Why can't the Syrian opposition get its act together? Surely the upcoming Geneva talks, even for the cynics, have to be the opportunity for a negotiated settlement?"

And the two most common ones that come my way:

"Which Christmas cards should I buy? UNICEF - good cards, more coverage and they claim under 10% on admin or my local homeless people's shelter which may be a drop in the ocean but at least I see what's happening for myself." 


Lastly and even harder to respond to is the typical question so tied up in the social norms and rules we live by today: "so Amanda, what do you do?" How to reply without sounding like the do-gooder - "oh, I just make kids' lives better in the poorest and saddest parts of the world", or worse, the arrogant I've got all the answers know-it-all, "I'm a human rights activist" response. Bound to stop the conversation cold. I've tried, "I'm a change facilitator", but that simply gets blank stares with not even an effort to change the conversation but a quick get-away by the poor soul nice enough to talk to me. Some days I try to explain who I work with (and may also mention "engage with" as work just doesn't cover it) but even that ends up as a tongue twister of  local politicians - well actually local decision makers - that also means communities members - kids too as they have something to say - and the national policy people - not forgetting the international community - donors like USAID but also multinationals - and yes civil society can't forget them … and so it goes on.

To come back to the earlier questions, they too don't get the white/black good/bad answer from me, disappointing friends and family convinced that this even if they can't quite pin me down I'm meant to have some expertise in the world of international affairs. 

good and evil.jpg

I tie myself in knots in the knowledge that those linear stories, so very reassuring, don't reflect the realities we live in. The beginning-middle-ends we are so fond of matched with the highs of a happy-even-after ending, Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood, the toppling of Saddam or election of Obama, just don't translate. They show no resilience. They are blips in a time of make belief that I for one am desperate to believe in but too world-weary to buy into. 

I once heard Johan Rockström, the brains behind Planetary Boundaries, insist that we "tell it as it is". He suggested that we've got a complex story on our hands with no guarantee of a positive outcome, but we can't shy away or take short cuts. (See Johan's TedTalk from 2010 here.)

As for me, I end up um-ing and ah-ing. I suggest multiple scenarios. Introduce multitudes of actors. I try and paint a true story that points to the messy nature of which ever situation I happen to be talking about. In each case the story is ambiguous, the beginning defined  and then redefined again, the ending never sure, constantly evolving. I realize yet again that perception and power are the dynamic that set the scene in what some call systems thinking and I perceive as the shifting boundaries that space and time push around with little interest in our desire to see the perfect couple walk away into the sunset hand-in-hand. 


ICPDBeyond2014 International Conference on Human Rights, the Netherlands, July 2013

ICPDBeyond2014 International Conference on Human Rights, the Netherlands, July 2013