Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice.

Author:Harvey, John T.
Position::Book Review

Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice, by Samir Rihani. New York: Zed Books. 2002. ISBN 1842770462, $69.95. 280 pages.

I enjoyed this book. Much, though not all, of the author's argument will strike a chord among institutionalists, and it is an easy read. Before I start my substantive comments I should point out something about the title of the book. I was asked to review it because of the reference to "Complex Systems Theory" (and my interest therein). There is actually comparatively little about systems theory in the book, though a great deal about development. I am sure Samir Rihani would argue that it is the former that frames the latter, but as someone interested in dynamic modeling I was hoping for something more explicit. But perhaps that is just my bias.

The author's core argument is that development must occur at the local level and that it will follow only when agents are able to freely interact. The greater the possible number of interactions the greater the complexity of the system; more complex systems have a greater chance to adapt and grow. I do not think the author develops this argument every effectively (I would have liked to have had a longer section on complex adaptive systems complete with more concrete examples), but it is an interesting starting point.

One might expect Rihani, given the overt emphasis on "free interaction," to be pushing capitalism for the world's developing states. Though he is certainly not against market systems, that is not what he is suggesting. Rather, he has several goals (each of which would find a sympathetic ear in the institutionalist camp):

(1.) To attack the linear approach that suggests that the route taken by the developed states is the only logical one (in fact, he says that each state must follow its own path dictated by its history and culture and that evolution has no particular end point--there's no reason to believe, he suggests, that what we call development is even appropriate for others).

(2.) To suggest that human development, including basic health care, literacy, political rights (though not necessarily democracy, at least not at first), and basic economic needs (including widespread access to resources), is an absolute prerequisite to what we traditionally consider economic development.

(3.) To argue that the job currently done in development is woefully inadequate, often (usually?) driven more by the narrow...

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