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Development on Small Islands – What does a complexity approach have to offer? [Conference]

Start date: 
Tue, 2014-04-29
End date: 
Tue, 2014-04-29
UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence & Lee Kuan School School of Public Policy
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore
Development on Small Islands – What does a complexity approach have to offer?
Tuesday, 29 April 2014
1.30pm - 4.30pm
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
Oei Tiong Ham Building Lobby
469C Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259772


Ahead of the 3rd UN Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDSs), the Global Centre is organising a half-day conference to consider the value of complexity aware approaches to tackling development issues on SIDSs.  It will focus on exploring the nonlinear nature of development and highlight that there are no simple answers, even in the SIDS context.  Learning from the ‘Singapore Story’, the conference aims to improve these countries’ capacities to access the skills, knowledge, resources and funding required to ensure the creation of adaptive policies for sustainable development.

Keynote Speakers:

  • Lord Tuʻivakanō, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Tonga
  • Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Adviser, Oxfam GB

Panel Discussion:
  • Chair - Eduardo Araral, Assistant Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
  • 'Aholotu Palu, Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet (Acting), Kingdom of Tonga
  • Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, Resident Representative, UNDP Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei
  • Vanessa Chan, Director-General, International Organisations Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore 
  • Peter Batchelor, Regional Manager, UNDP Pacific Centre

  • Harold Lee, Deputy Director, Technical Cooperation Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore 

To attend, please register at this link.



1.        Summary & Background


Complexity and Nonlinear Development

Scholars and thinkers are increasingly drawing links between complexity and the nature of development: “…weak governance, poverty, poor access to basic services such as education and health, a lack of social cohesion, among others – cannot be addressed in isolation from one another. They require an integrated and multi-sectoral approach…”[2] A challenge of development, then, is grasping the relationship and interplay between seemingly diverse social and public issues, and creating strategic policies to deal with them that are adaptive yet sustainable.

The challenges for SIDSs are indeed complex and many.[3] Among other issues, they include: climate change; health; trade; science and technology; sustainable capacity development and education for sustainable development; knowledge management and information for decision-making; and culture. The struggle of many states to implement the Barbados Programme of Action (BPOA)[4] suggests that even in smaller country contexts, coping with complexity proves difficult.

Such experiences should be kept in mind more broadly as the level of complexity undoubtedly increases in larger countries. Decision-makers in SIDS, and larger developing countries alike, must therefore consider and commit to appropriate strategies to address complex and cross-cutting issues in order to ensure sustained economic growth and human development.

One way to tackle the challenge of complexity is complex adaptive thinking, which asks “not how to solve problems, but how to navigate them and adapt to them.”[5] In the field of development studies, there is a shift towards a complexity-aware approach that favours adaptation as “the way to deal with problems in unpredictable, complex systems. Adaptation works by making small changes, observing the results, and then adjusting.”[6] This appears contrary to the ‘planning approach’ traditionally used in development to design complicated programmes and track implementation milestones.

3rd UN Conference on SIDS

The Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States will take place from 1-4 September 2014 in Samoa. One of the four objectives of the conference is to identify new and emerging challenges and opportunities for the sustainable development of SIDS, “particularly through the strengthening of partnerships between small islands and the international community.”[7] It is this objective, and potential collaborations between SIDS and international partners, that the GCPSE half-day conference aims to address.

In the face of accelerating change and complexity, it is important for policy-makers and foreign aid or technical cooperation programmes to avoid normative solutions. Prescriptive approaches to development and administrative or public sector reform are likely to fail in today’s organic contexts. Decision-makers and donor agencies are encouraged to apply adaptive thinking and complexity-aware approaches in the policy-making process, as well as in the implementation of programmes of action.

The GCPSE half-day conference aims to draw links between emerging thinking about development through the complexity lens and how this might help SIDS navigate complex challenges in implementing the BPOA. 


2.        Consolidated e-Discussion Report

To stimulate interest in the topic, and to ensure wider dissemination and active engagement of relevant clients and stakeholders, GCPSE has launched an e-Discussion[8] on the topic. A consolidated report of the e-Discussion will feed into the conference. The conference will be recorded to allow international audience access.


3.        “What’s In It for Participants?” / Expected Outcomes

  • An opportunity to contribute to the SIDS development agenda.
  • A chance to interact with leading thinkers/practitioners in the field of international development.
  • An opportunity to learn from current and former Heads of State about their experiences with policy-making in SIDS.
  • An opportunity to hear about the latest approach to development in an increasingly complex global environment.
  • A setting to network and discuss opportunities for cooperation to achieve the development goals of SIDS.

Following the conference, a summary document of proceedings will be disseminated to participants and made available on the Centre’s various online platforms. Resources from the e-Discussion hosted on the GCPSE Teamworks website will also remain accessible.


4.        Programme Details

The SIDS half-day conference will take place in the lobby of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore in the afternoon of Tuesday, 29 April 2014.

The event will begin with an overview of the challenges that SIDS face and situating these in the larger development context. This will be followed by a presentation on complexity and development, which will inspire a panel discussion among the speakers and other distinguished panellists.


To attend, please register at this link.


[1] The International Development Conference will take place at the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence on 30 April 2014 (see http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/ourwork/capacitybuilding/publicservice/convening-hub for details). To indicate your interest in participating, please send an enquiry to registry.sg@undp.org.

[2] United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS). “Reducing the impact of urban violence,” Human Security at the United Nations Newsletter Issue 9 (UN OCHA, Spring 2013).

[3] The Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (UN Doc A/CONF.207/11) identifies 20 actionable areas of concern for SIDS, requiring political and administrative leadership towards its realisation.

[4] The Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (UN Doc A/CONF.167/9) is the outcome of The Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS held 20 years ago in 1994.

[5] Ben Ramalingam, “Book launch – Aid on the Edge of Chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world,” presented at Overseas Development Institute on November 6, 2013.

[6] Owen Barder, “Complexity, adaptation, and results,” blogpost from Centre for Global Development website, September 7, 2012.

[7] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Wu Hongbo Named Secretary-General of 2014 Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States,” UN Conference on SIDS website, www.sids2014.org.

[8] To participate in the eDiscussion, please sign up for the GCPSE knowledge sharing platform Teamworks at https://undp.unteamworks.org/node/431750 and join the e-Discussion, once launched.



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