• Scholarly report

Systems thinking and institutional performance Retrospect and prospect on USAID policy and practice

One of the debates in the international development community is how best to match the resources available through foreign assistance with the nature of the development challenges that countries face. Over the years, analysts and practitioners have drawn upon a body of work under the rubric of systems thinking to increase effectiveness and impact; the latest iteration of this work focuses on complex adaptive systems. This paper examines how the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has applied this thinking to strategy and programming, reviewing selected examples from past applications and summarizing current initiatives. Drawing on key informant interviews and a variety of documents, the study identifies how Agency staff view systems, how systems thinking has influenced policy and operations, what enablers and barriers exist in introducing changes to incorporate systems thinking, and what the prospects for sustaining changes appear to be. Among the findings of the study are that USAID staff see the holistic perspective that systems thinking facilitates as valuable for developing country strategies and crafting project designs, and that the emphasis on flexibility, feedback loops, and adaptation improves implementation success. Enablers of systems-based reforms include the growth of staff interest in systems concepts and an emerging community with shared language, Agency leadership support for changes at multiple levels, and expanding pockets of expertise and experimentation. Some of the barriers staff noted are time demands and work overload, expenditure pipeline pressures, congressional and presidential earmarks, and bureaucratic stovepipes. The paper concludes that some of the systems-based innovations USAID has recently introduced are likely to be sustained, though the ultimate test will be whether those reforms lead to changed practices on the ground in the countries where USAID programs are located. USAID finds that incorporating changes that would fully align its policies and programs with complex systems confronts faces limits given its status as a federal government agency. Nevertheless, the Agency has managed to create some change space that has supported integration of systems thinking into its business practices.


Brinkerhoff, D., & Jacobstein, D. (2015). Systems thinking and institutional performance: Retrospect and prospect on USAID policy and practice. (International Development Group Working Paper; No. 2015-02). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI International.