From best practice to best fit: understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development


The methods of complex systems research are increasingly being used and valued by international development organisations. These approaches enable a shift away from existing tools and business processes that reinforce a focus on static, simple and linear problems. The evidence is that these methods can help development partners better navigate the complex, dynamic realities they face on a day-to-day basis. This Working Paper summarises the findings of a series of small-scale pilots of selected complex systems methods in DFID’s wealth creation work. The pilots contributed to improved analysis and understanding of a range of wicked problems, and generated tangible findings that were directly utilised in corporate and programmatic decisions. They played a significant role in the design of two large programmes, and provided the evidence base for a root and branch review of DFID processes. The Working Paper concludes that there are considerable opportunities for doing more programming using these methods, with real potential for enhancing development decision-making in the face of wicked problems.

This paper synthesises the material and lessons from four background papers written in 2013, by Kim Warren (‘Strategy Modelling to support DFID’s Aid for Trade program: Nigeria case-study’), Rick Davies (‘Network perspectives on Girl Hub Nigeria’), Isabel Vogel and Greg Fisher (‘Complexity-informed theory of change for Private Sector Development in Democratic Republic of Congo’) and Steve Curram and Dave Exelby (‘Applying Systems Thinking techniques to the Programme Management process in DFID’).

Following peer review of preliminary drafts, a subsequent draft was shared on the ‘From Poverty to Power’ blog by Duncan Green, and received almost 50 comments. These were then incorporated in the final version of the paper. The link to the blog is also appended to this record.


Ramalingam, B.; Laric, M.; Primrose, J. From best practice to best fit: understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development. Overseas Development Institute, London, UK (2014) v + 45 pp.

Published 1 January 2014