A System for Change: USAID Critical Process Improvements

In summer of 2015 I participated in a program called Washington Internship for Students of Engineering. I was sponsored by IEEE-USA to live in Washington DC for two months and write a paper on a topic of my interest related to engineering and policy. Because I’m interested in the Social Sciences, I chose to focus on operating procedures of USAID: the primary government organization for international development. This is an area which may be more closely associated with engineering management or business, but it provided a good transition project for me coming from an electrical engineering background. While I was in DC I was able to attend numerous events by the Washington Chapter of the Society for International Development. Because I’m new to the world of international development, the ability to meet with and learn from experts was instrumental in my ability to complete this paper. As a future social science researcher I found international development to be a really fascinating topic, and I hope that at some point I can get involved with this kind of research again!

This presentation and paper were the result of my work in DC that summer. You can also find papers written by other WISE interns on the WISE Journal of Engineering and Public Policy.

A System for Change Presentation

A System for Change Executive Summary

A System for Change Document

Perhaps one of the most interesting and influential pieces of research I built on was surprisingly from the field of complexity science. Prior to that summer I had only encountered complexity science in my EEG research, but I found a book by Ben Ramalingam [1] that discussed some of the challenges of international development using a framework of concepts and terminology borrowed from this interesting and interdisciplinary field of study. There were two case studies cited by this book that really interested me: the story of the Balinese Subaks and the case of aid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


(image credit: aidontheedge.info)

The Balinese Subaks are a series of water temples that rice farmers in Bali use to coordinate planting schedules. The specifics of the coordination allow the workers to overcome the problem of pests and and access to water for each of the fields. This emergent behavior is critical for maximizing rice yields across all of the fields using water from a single river. When aid workers attempted to improve crop yields using pesticides developed in western countries, the religious system was thrown out of balance and crop yields actually decreased. An anthropologist named Stephen Lansing worked with the Balinese people to restore their former planting schedules based on the religious Subaks. Work by Lansing and others using a computational model of the ecological environment found that the religious system used by the Balinese people was actually very close to the optimal strategy for planting. I was first drawn to this particular case study because I had actually visited this area in Bali when I was studying in as an exchange student in Malaysia. This was also my first introduction to the ways that computational modeling can be used to understand a socioeconomic or ecological system. I believe genetic algorithms could be used to understand emergent behavior in these complex systems, and I hope this is an area of study that I will be able to use for my own research soon.

The second case study I really enjoyed discussed the situation of aid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how well-intentioned efforts actually may have made things worse. While this case carries the classical theme with stories of aid failure, I found it particularly interesting because of a paper published by the researcher Severine Autesserre [2]. She discussed in her paper how dominant narratives about the problems, results, and solutions to the situation in the Congo actually led to an approach to development that was overly simplistic. In this paper she discussed not only why this situation arose, but also how it benefited people working in the aid environment. I thought this account was interesting because I feel that it could apply to many situations in businesses, government agencies, and other organizations where outside actors carry a large influence in the actions of individuals within these entities. In terms of organizational analysis, these structures lean towards open networks and behavior is a result of trying to satisfy all stakeholders simultaneously. I’m interested in seeing how these concepts could be applied to other types of environments as well.

[1] Ben Ramalingam. Aid on the Edge of Chaos : Rethinking International Cooperation in a
Complex World. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[2] Severine Autesserre. Dangerous tales: Dominant narratives on the congo and their unintended
consequences. African Affairs, 111(443), February 2012.




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