Are Systems Approaches About Action or Distraction?

All of us who work on understanding and implementing development from a systems perspective can rattle off a litany of arguments as to why traditional approaches don’t work: linear results chains don’t reflect reality. People and their motivations and power dynamics matter. Unanticipated feedback loops can scuttle the best-planned activities. The list goes on, filled with jargon-laden concepts like “emergence,” “causal loops,” “dynamic modeling,” and “complex adaptation.”

In the Sustainable WASH Systems Initiative (SWS), we are taking a systems approach in communities with dire water and sanitation needs, and so we frequently make these sorts of arguments. But as we move ahead with our approach, it’s important to ask ourselves: Do all of these systems concepts really add up to anything useful? After all, we can create all the pretty water systems maps in the world, but as far as I know you can’t drink a causal loop diagram, and it’s hard to dig a well with a network analysis report. Might it be better to move all our resources away from systems analyses and approaches, and into more direct WASH infrastructure development?