System Failure? Why Humanitarian Assistance Can’t Meet Its Objectives Without Systems Thinking—and Why It Finds It so Hard to Use It

  • Simon LevineEmail author
Part of the Advanced Sciences and Technologies for Security Applications book series (ASTSA)


Thinking in terms of systems is surely as old as any other kind of intelligent contemplation, but even if the creation of ‘systems thinking’ as a separate intellectual discipline is much more recent, academic approaches to analysing ‘soft systems’ have been around for at least two generations. The fact has to be faced, though, that the impact of more structured approaches to systems thinking have been extremely limited, with most of the world stubbornly continuing to address the obvious failings of the various systems that we need by tinkering with a few of the components, despite the evidence of decades that such approaches inevitably disappoint. Systems theorists have perhaps not helped as much as they could, being seen too easily as creating as esoteric jargon that seeks to describe in opaque terms what was already abundantly clear to everyone anyway—but not really offering a way forward that anyone connected with the problem could actually find helpful. (More recently complexity theorists seem to be repeating the same path.) This chapter describes a system (emergency response to droughts in the Horn of Africa) that was clearly not functioning well in the eyes of those who were working in it. It tells the tale of a diagnosis that did not start with system theory, but which found itself forced into understanding the problems in system terms, and which tried to find a system solution to avoid future repeated failures. It is presented here a story of both hope and disappointment with lessons that are hopefully of wider applicability than just for the humanitarian system that it describes. There was, and remains, hope, because so many of the practitioners found the use of system thinking (without any system jargon or intellectualisation) to be a refreshing take on an old problem and they saw that it offered a different way to do something about long standing failures. It is also a tale of disappointment because ultimately the initiative did not succeed in establishing the processes that were needed. And it is hopefully instructive because systems thinking itself reveals why the initiative was so likely to fail: it is a sad truth that institutional diagnosis tends to be reserved for problems and is rarely used ex ante in assessing the institutional (or system) feasibility of proffered solutions. Some details about the livelihoods of livestock herders in the Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are necessary to understand the story, as are some technical details about how emergency aid actually works. These details have been kept to a minimum in order not to distract attention from the system lessons at the story’s heart. Those who are interested in the more specific application of systems thinking to emergency response in arid areas or to the livelihood systems of the Horn of Africa should read Levine et al. (System failure? Revisiting the problems of timely response to crises in the Horn of Africa. Humanitarian Practice Network, Overseas Development Institute, 2011).


Humanitarian Systems thinking Horn of Africa 


  1. Levine S, Crosskey A, Abdinoor M (2011) System failure? Revisiting the problems of timely response to crises in the Horn of Africa. Humanitarian Practice Network, Overseas Development InstituteGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Overseas Development Institute (ODI)LondonUK

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