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Over the weekend I watched a very interesting TED talk by Edward Tenner who is a historian of technology and culture. He was speaking of Unintended Consequences. It was compelling listening.

The 18 minute talk got me thinking. In my line of work, Theories of Change are an important tool. These theories or models of change are meant to inform programme strategies aiming to effect change in lives of people. Of course, having a model does not automatically lead to change. Constructing models takes time and effort. Very often, we all fall into the trap of looking at change in a linear fashion – we do THIS and THAT will happen. Effecting Change is not simple, as evaluation after evaluation of development programming has shown us.

Using change models is complex business. Often, a model may be applicable for a time but as circumstances change, it loses validity necessitating a shift to another. It requires nimbleness of response to the change in circumstances. Sadly however, this does not happen often enough. A lot of us development sector professionals have the insouciance to think that we have control on the way social change will happen just because we have change models that show it happening.

The reality is that very often we become too theoretical and make absurd assumptions. Or we do not factor in the complexities adequately. This, inevitably, leads to unintended negative consequences.

In the political space enough has been said about the American covert support to the Afghanistan Mujahideen support in the 1980s which ultimately lead to, with other factors thrown in, the rise of Al Qaeda that proved to be a major policy headache for the United States.

In the development sector too, I can think of some experiments, that in my opinion, had unintended negative consequences.

  1. Micro credit / Micro finance as means of poverty alleviation in most parts of South and East Asia :  The grand ‘success’ of the Grameen Bank micro-credit programme spawned replication but research now shows that it did some good but ultimately did not raise people from poverty. This could be seen as a programme failure but there were some unintended consequences. (a) governments and NGOs took micro-credit / micro-finance as the panacea for poverty alleviation and ended up over (and wrongly) using it without making a dent on poverty, (b) innovation around poverty alleviation dried up and policy makers refused to see reason and programmes beyond micro-credit, (c) spurious micro-finance / micro-credit agencies (businesses) sprang up all over the place leading to over-reach and people having multiple debts from different competing agencies, (d) increased competition for the space, led to underhand actions and corruption (definitely in South Asia). All of this while the fundamental causes of poverty were sidelined.
  2. Banning use of DDT intended to prevent harm to humans who consume DDT (used to prevent pest attack on stored paddy for instance) crippled the fight against malaria leading directly to millions of avoidable deaths around the developing world while, perhaps, having limited impact on human health.
  3. Food Aid and unconditional cash transfers over a long period of time in chronically food insecure areas in Africa have been known to deliver short term gains but resulting in long term dependence of the poor on aid. Local economies in large parts of Africa are known to be dependent on aid.
  4. Continued use of Reservations for socially marginalised communities in academic institutions and employment in India has just led to more and more groups ‘demanding’ to be classified as oppressed. Interestingly the architect of the Indian constitution himself had recommended that this measure be used for a short time only. Sadly it has proven to be like catching the tail of a tiger. No political party has had the courage to let go.
  5. Non Formal Schooling in South Asia which has been touted as a huge success. But what does it actually do? It lets the State off the hook when it comes to responsibility of delivering quality education. We end up with sub-standard teachers imparting useless ‘education’ to uninterested students. This ‘education’ barely keeps the kids off the ‘illiterate’ list and yet leaves them with no skills to compete and earn a livelihood.
  6. Responding to drinking water / irrigation crisis by drilling bore-holes deeper and deeper (all over the developing world) – leads to draining of ground water reserves that cannot be recharged. This ‘availability’ of water also leads to human settlements where none should be.

I do not wish to, even for a moment, imply that all of these were foreseeable. No. Most of them probably weren’t. That, however, does not alter the fact that they did do and are still doing a lot of damage.

So what is the solution? Should we follow Krishna’s advise to Arjun in the Bhagvad Gita?

Karmanye Va Adhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana which roughly and loosely translates as You should only be concerned about doing your duty to the best of your ability. Don’t worry about the results of your actions for those are outside of your control.

I would not like to go so far.

We still need to think about

  • HOW change will happen.
  • What model(s) may get us there.
  • What assumptions are we making regarding the context.

However, we need to

  • Keep alert to contextual changes.
  • Constantly revisit the assumptions underpinning the model to see if they are still valid.
  • Make changes to strategies as demanded by the circumstances and finally
  • Keep alert to spotting any negative unintended consequences.


Yes, but then no one ever said that making a change in lives of people was easy.