via Zimbabwe Situation Part 1: Are we dealing with a complicated or complex system? January 26, 2014 by Sheunesu Hove
I read with great interest the goings-on in Zimbabwe, dating back to the period of the inclusive government, the era of constitution making, the period leading to last July 31 elections, and more so the post elections developments.
One notable thing, which is clear so far, is that Zimbabweans love their country. I say so because of the discussions and debates abound everywhere about how Zimbabwe should move forward as a country. Great people with great ideas.
As part of those discussions and debates about how we can deal with our situation in Zimbabwe, I would like to also contribute. My take is that we are dealing with a complex rather than a complicated system, which requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of local political processes.
A lot us have concentrated on political, economic and social issues. Our focuses thus far have been on constitutional reforms, free and fair elections, indigenisation, economic turnaround, and so on. Outside our borders, the chorus is louder, African solutions to African problems. Probably, Zimbabwean solutions to Zimbabwean problems.
What I would like to talk about is really a big shift in our understanding of the mantra of local solutions to local problems. I focus on local ownership of our local political processes, which is widely and generally accepted. From a peacebuilding perspective, local political processes are very poorly implemented by the authorities and hence poorly accepted by Zimbabweans in their daily lives. The biggest challenge is how to change the paradigm of understanding local ownership of political processes in order to make them beneficial, not only to the locals themselves, but to the country as a whole. By local ownership, I mean ideas generated and implemented at the lowest level of society. I am not talking about the ‘West” versus “Our government” or the Machiavellian rhetoric characteristic of our foreign policy pronouncements, which is nothing but cunning and deceptive. I am talking about “Our government” versus the local communities, Baba naMai Tatambura in Chinyenyetu and others like them all over the country.
We need to value these local ideas on political processes, despite the fact that they come from those outside government. In any case, that is where the majority of Zimbabweans are. There is a lot of wealth and knowledge in these local ideas outside government in terms of understanding the Zimbabwean situation and how to cope with it. I feel that those in government have no monopoly of ideas whatsoever over everyone else. Sadly, it is common to hear some misguided, often caricature figures in government rubbishing very constructive contributions simply because they come from people outside government.
This is partly because authorities in Zimbabwe understand local ownership, in most cases, as people accepting what they would like to offer them. In other words, they see local ownership as something they would like people to do. In addition, they would like them to do it involuntarily. Unfortunately, failure to recognise local constructive contributions, especially at a time when the authorities seem to have no clues about how to move the country forward, is tantamount to claiming monopoly of solutions to all the ills in Zimbabwe.
Why are we struggling to implement the locally driven processes? I have no doubt that we have a broad acceptance of local ownership, but why is it not sticking.
One of the things I have realised is that we are dealing with a complex rather than a complicated situation. Many of us thought this was a complicated system, one that was engineered by the shenanigans in ZANU-PF because of their insatiable thirst for power. A distinction between something that is complicated and that which is complex may aid your understanding of my point. I am not doing this from the point of view of a guru in the science of complexity, but from the strand of how complexity informs peacebuilding efforts enmeshed in local political processes.
A complicated system is one that has many different parts and so many different technologies that no one person can grasp it all. For example, the intentional space station is a good example of a complicated system. You may need hundreds of engineers, truckloads of manuals in order to understand how the system works. My point here is that human beings built and put it in space and therefore it is theoretically possible to understand how a complicated system works. It is a complicated system because it is linear, rational and, through applying the cause and effect rules, we can shoot a rocket into space and place it where we want it to be in space. If there is a problem, you can identify it and solve it repeatedly.
Orderly linear systems are found at or near equilibrium. A ball bearing inside a bowl is a classic example; it quickly settles at the bottom and that is that. These systems can be very complicated. A jet engine is a wonderfully complicated piece of orderly machinery creating highly predictable physical outcomes that millions of pilots and passengers successfully depend upon every year.
On the other hand, a complex system is non-linear and dynamic. It is composed of many parts that interconnect in intricate ways (Joel Moses, “Complexity and Flexibility”. Metric for intricateness is amount of information contained in the system. Cause and effect are subtle over time. That is, it produces dramatically different effects in the short and long terms, dramatically different effects locally and in other parts of the system; obvious interventions produce non-obvious consequences. With all the ululations that greeted the guerrillas in 1980 on attaining independence, no one, not even the guerrillas themselves could predict the state of the new Zimbabwe in 33 years’ time. However, here we are, with all problems that the complex system produced.
A complex system is composed of a group of related units (subsystems), for which the degree and nature of the relationships is imperfectly known (Joseph Sussman, “The New Transportation Faculty”). The overall emergent behavior is difficult to predict, even when subsystem behavior is readily predictable. Small changes in inputs or parameters may produce large changes in behavior. Who would have predicted that a person who claims 99.9% disability could still occupy a ministerial post or become a chief executive officer of a parastatal? The unpredictability of outcomes of a complex system.
A complex system has a set of different elements so connected or related as to perform a unique function not performable by the elements alone (Rechtin and Maier, “The Art of System Architecting”. It requires different problem-solving techniques at different levels of abstraction, a feat we have failed to achieve in more than three decades of self-governance.
Complexity theory attempts to reconcile the unpredictability of non-linear dynamic systems with a sense of underlying order and structure. (David Levy, “Applications and Limitations of Complexity Theory in Organizational Theory and Strategy”). There could be a pattern of short-term predictability but long-term planning impossible, dramatic change unexpectedly. Who would think that in a free Zimbabwe people could be “politically incorrect” when almost every Zimbabwean was a pro-independence cadre in 1980? In addition, does being “politically incorrect” invite punishment of a magnitude to decimate livelihoods?
I like the following quote. “…Complexity is the property of a real world system that is manifest in the inability of any one formalism being adequate to capture all its properties. It requires that we find distinctly different ways of interacting with systems. Distinctly different in the sense that when we make successful models, the formal systems needed to describe each distinct aspect is NOT derivable from each other…” Bob Rosen and Don Mikulecky, Professors of Physiology Medical College of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The problems that we are dealing with in Zimbabwe are complex rather than complicated. We need to understand that a common characteristic of complexity is non-linearity. Essentially, when something is non-linear, it means you cannot apply the rules of cause and effect in order to predict or control the outcome. In addition, one way of understanding the difference between linear and non-linear systems is to look at complicated versus complex systems.
My point is that we cannot predict or control outcomes of a complex system. So what are the implications for our Zimbabwe situation? Things like our brains, our language, our ecosystem and all social systems are complex systems. In addition, it means when we deal with political processes in a polarised society like Zimbabwe, where you can be nipped for being “politically incorrect”, we have to recognise the complexity of the problem and that it needs to be dealt with in a completely different way than you would deal with a complicated problem.
Unfortunately, most of us in and outside the country have approached the problems in Zimbabwe as if they were engineering problems – complicated problems. We think we can make an assessment, identify the problem, design a solution, implement the solution, and bingo we have our product. We need to understand that we are dealing with a complex problem, which is much more than rocket science.
We are actually dealing with wicked problems in Zimbabwe. Wicked problems are common outcomes of complex systems and have no definitive formulation; no stopping rule; no right or wrong solutions (though there may be better or worse solutions – social judgement); no immediate or ultimate test; and wicked problems are unique.
The essential implication of recognising complexity and recognising wicked problems is that we have to accept that there is no one-size-fit all solution. That means that the authorities do not have a superior claim to having the answer to what is right or wrong in various communities, without the full and meaningful participation of the communities themselves. Put differently, it means the local communities need to take a bigger part in dealing with the consequences of their situations. They have to deal with the consequences of malcontent behaviour in their localities. In any case, they are the ones that bear the brunt, brutality and pain of violence. Yet they are the ones with agency to make real decisions about whether to fight each other or not, to ostracise each other or not, to kill for a scud or not, and so on.
The role of the authorities is to help build the capacities of the local communities to deal with and resolve their differences peacefully. There is need to get a better understanding of how authorities relate to local communities and how the communities relate to each other. Of course, communities belong to the nation state and through national laws; parameters are set to spell out what communities can and cannot do in terms of state behaviour. This may constrain communities’ choices in a way. Unfortunately, laws, and unjust laws for that matter, have been widely used in Zimbabwe to deal with dissent instead of fulfilling their correctional function.
Because of the selective application of the law and the high level of intolerance of constructive criticism by the authorities, local communities now represent clusters of inequalities and polarisation that cause tension and conflict, inviting more crackdowns from the authorities. Local communities also represent poignant abuses and practices, ironically which the state authorities Nicodemusly reject.
My message is not that everything goes; it is not that we leave local communities alone. My message is that in the relationship between the state authorities and local communities, we need to get the balance right. The state should realise that when dealing with local communities, the role of the communities is essential while that of the state is complimentary in building peace in the country. Communities should represent a bastion of peace and NOT a battleground of political wars.
From a peacebuilding perspective, if we ever want to achieve sustainable peace in Zimbabwe, then part of that process is a paradigm shift in understanding that peacebuilding is essentially local. We need to improve how the authorities engage the local communities. This may play the trick towards realising what has been elusive for more than three decades.
Part 2 will carry a discussion of how a complex system is operating in Zimbabwe.
PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia