Introducing international development management
Introducing international development management

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Introducing international development management

5.3 Decision making

Decision making is not an exact science but research has come up with some guidelines which can help with the process. It may be helpful to consider some of these and the different ways in which decision making takes place along with insights into the process and the practice.

The social scientist Herbert Simon pointed out that decision making exists on a continuum that stretches from the programmed decision at one end to the unprogrammed decision at the other end. Programmed decisions are routine decisions which have been made before. Over time, a process for effectively handling such decisions is likely to have been learnt by the experienced person. These decisions are unlikely to be challenging or difficult. Classical management theory focuses on these decisions, with an emphasis on analysis and step-by-step reasoning.

It is the unprogrammed decisions that are the most demanding. These are decisions relating to situations that have not occurred before or are especially complex or difficult because of all the circumstances involved. Successful handling of this kind of decision making requires judgement, intuition and creativity. Kuhn and Kuhn (1991, p. 74) say ‘never begin by checking the experts, and always use insight and intuition before logic and analysis’. This has to be tempered by remembering that experience of past wars is often not a good guide and that our assumptions can often be wrong; nevertheless, intuition and experience are often a key part of lateral thinking. Kuhn and Kuhn also point out that creative decision making also takes into account a range of other factors, such as stakeholder analysis, in order to better understand the motivation of others involved in the decision-making process. It is worth standing back and considering the personality, motivations and attitudes of all those with a stake in the decision. Personal and internal politics might play a powerful role, as might individual career aspirations.

Scenario D

Now we are going to pull together lateral thinking, logic bubbles and Kuhn and Kuhn's injunction to take into account stakeholders and organisational politics. Assume you are a field worker dealing with the fighters returning from the civil war, and the reintegration is not going well. You believe that the main reason why they are not integrating into society is because they are unable to find work and therefore a job creation scheme is needed. Your manager at Head Office in London, however, thinks this is not the case at all. She recently attended a seminar on post-war trauma counselling and was heavily influenced by it. She is convinced the ex-soldiers have severe psychological and social problems after their war experiences and are unable to settle down into civilian life again, so what is needed is trauma counselling.

Thus you disagree on the cause of the reintegration problem – but you do agree that there is a problem and that substantial funding is needed to solve it. Your manager wants to fly in a team of trauma counsellors, whereas you want to spend the money on setting up a job creation programme. What do you do?


One choice is to try to enlist the support of other field workers from your own and other agencies and, if possible, use their data to support your case. If you are able to build a good alliance with others and present a strong, well-documented case then you may be able to challenge your manager. But this is highly risky if you are unsure about Head Office politics.

Alternatively, let us start with perceptions and logic bubbles – first with your own. Have you checked your logic bubble and considered that your manager may have a point? Have you become too focused on the obvious lack of jobs? Might you learn something from these outsiders?

Next, think about your manager's logic bubble. Her commitment to counselling is real, but think with Kuhn and Kuhn of personal and institutional factors that may also influence her thinking. As a manager working at Head Office she will also be considering how any response will be regarded by fundraisers and other donors. She may feel that being seen to be innovative and responding to new thinking will be good for her career. And if you mount a successful and innovative programme of trauma counselling, then it could raise the prestige and income of your agency. Lateral thinking plus consideration of her logic bubble might produce a compromise solution. You could agree that counselling is needed – but you could also point out that this will be wasted if the soldiers are then not gainfully employed. Thus you could create a joint package of trauma counselling and job creation. This would go a long way to solving the problem – on which you are both agreed.

Read Article 11, linked below, then complete Scenario E.

Click below to view Article 11 (0.1MB).

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Scenario E

You are a field officer with WorkAid in a small Asian country were there is an intermittent civil war between the government and an anti-government group known as the ‘Unity Front’. The annual rains have been disappointing and the harvests have failed in many parts of the region where you are based. WorkAid provides food for work, such as road improvement, and there is a need to expand the programme in your area to avoid severe food deficiency and an outflow of people. This is your responsibility. The army is not keen on expansion but after considerable negotiations and international pressure the government has agreed. The Unity Front allows the programme to expand and, in spite of various difficulties, all is proceeding well.

Your district headquarters lies inside government-held territory but many of the recipients live in territory under the control of the Unity Front. To reach your distribution centre and collect their food allowances the recipients have to cross between the two territories.

Then comes news that a group of recipients on their way home after collecting their rice were killed when one of them stepped on a landmine. Before they left the army had advised them to remain in the town. As a result, other recipients are afraid to come to the headquarters to collect their rice allocation.

A week later another group of recipients in a neighbouring district are also killed by a landmine on their way home with their food allocation. This increases local fears, and people stop coming for their regular rice ration. Many people are becoming desperately hungry as a result and some are taking the risk of crossing the boundary to become refugees on the government-controlled side.

Both the army and the Unity Front deny any responsibility for the mine laying. Local information, however, suggests that the army is responsible, as they are known to use anti-personnel mines of the type laid locally.

The leadership of the Unity Front contacts you and makes a couple of proposals. They can provide you with porters to take the food to a safe site which the local people can access. Or they can provide you with a landing strip in the next valley (they control the air space here) to which the local people also have safe access. They promise they will guarantee the security of your flights. You would be able to organise air transport.

The problem

What are you to do? What are your priorities? Who are the key stakeholders? How do they see things? What ways forward are possible? What are the options? Are you becoming an actor in the war? Consider the issues involved and some possible approaches that you might use to resolve things and to achieve your objectives.

Work with the list of questions in Box 10.3 in Article 11 and your own experience in analysing and understanding the issues, considering the possible solutions and making decisions. Finally, list your options for a decision-making solution – you may have several you would consider, or none.


We now work through Adair's three areas and the questions in Box 10.3, Article 11:


Your job is to operate the WorkAid programme and to ensure that the people in your area are fed. Your original goal had been to discourage people from migrating to other areas causing problems elsewhere. But things have changed. Your food may have become a weapon in the war, as both sides want to use food aid as a way to maintain control over the population.

The important technical factors seem to be: the need to provide rice for work; the location of the distribution centres; the routes to these centres for the local population; and your neutrality with respect to the army and the Unity Front. But is this too narrow a focus?

The key actors and their concerns appear to be:

  • The army. Is its goal to force people to leave Unity Front zones? Will it stand by and let the rebels use their porters to move food across their territory?

  • The government. Will it stand on the sidelines or will it intervene to block flights to Unity Front areas?

  • The Unity Front. Its goal is to obtain food so that people can stay in zones it controls. Can you trust it to honour its promises? How much control will it demand over distribution?

  • The local people. How do you work with them to overcome justifiable fears and find a solution? Will they be afraid to have public contact with a scheme that is openly operated by the Unity Front or which seems to have the backing of the army?

What are the agendas of your funders? Are they pro- or anti-government? Are they largely humanitarian or not? How important is it to be seen to be neutral – are you willing to seem sympathetic to one side?

The discussion has been focused on the two parties to the war, the army and the Unity Front. What are the views of local community leaders? You may have to talk with them in secret, but they may characterise the problem in entirely different ways. They may even say that food is not the priority, but instead they are worried about atrocities by one or both sides. You will need the active support and participation of the community for any action you decide on.

What are the longer-term implications? By feeding both sides, are you simply keeping the war going? What portion of your food is going to fighters on the two sides?

If this is really a security situation, have you consulted with your guidelines for such a contingency? Are there experts in your organisation who could fly in and advise? The essence of the issue is how to maintain the flow of food and not exacerbate the situation in any way that could harm the local population, and how to avoid becoming an actor in the war.

Synthesis: considering the possibilities

Is it possible to take the rice to the people rather than expect the people to come to the rice? Could you negotiate with the Unity Front and arrange to use their safe sites as your new food distribution centres? Is this geographically and logistically possible?

Is there any way you could work with the army on identifying safe distribution sites? Are there any helpful local commanders that you or other aid workers could approach? They may have laid the mines, in which case they should know where it is safe to travel. Is there any way you can bring pressure to bear so that they help? Perhaps you could contact HQ and ask them to speak to government ministers and the international community.

If you have considered the perception bubbles of the key actors you will understand how very differently they all view the situation. Is there any common ground here, however? What is your leverage – can you use outside pressure to promote cooperation or will pressure just provoke a backlash? Do the army, the government and the Unity Front all need to consider the role of the international community and its view on the situation? How reliant are they all on the goodwill of others: the local people, the international community, financial donors and political supporters? Could the national government be persuaded to intervene positively if it is a recipient of aid from the UK or elsewhere?

If people do not get food, there could be a severe outflow of the population from the Unity Front-controlled area. But this raises two opposite possibilities. Is the real goal of the government to use the drought to force people to leave Unity Front zones, and thus would they oppose food going to people in those areas? Or will population movements cause real problems for the government and local councils, and could this be used as a way of getting helpful discussions going with local and national government contacts?

Is there another NGO who has faced a similar problem, whom it might be worth contacting and discussing the situation with?

Select, evaluate, test: possible options

  1. Carry on as usual and hope that things will not get any worse. Is this really an option? Already people are leaving the area. Already there is hunger. But will feeding people only in government-controlled zones be seen as taking sides and compromise your neutrality?

  2. Refuse to continue with the programme unless both sides guarantee safe access.

  3. Work with the Unity Front and accept one of their offers. But would this compromise your working neutrality in the other direction? Could it alienate the army? Could the situation deteriorate into open conflict again if the army feels threatened in any way? Could it lead to a dependency on the Unity Front? Will local people cooperate?

  4. Accept one of the Unity Front offers as a temporary solution. Make it clear to them that this is the case. Then start negotiations with the government or local army commanders to make local routes safe or to provide you with a new location for your food distribution headquarters that is on army-held territory. Would the Unity Front and the army go along with this? What happens if you fail to persuade the army to cooperate?

  5. You decide to fly in the food to the safe sites. You would then distribute the food. But would the army let you do this? Can your budget accommodate the costs of this? This may be a temporary measure while national level negotiations are held.

  6. You work with the Unity Front and let their porters take the food to the new safe site. They would distribute the food on your behalf. This might be safer and a less high profile operation than flying the food in – but would the army let them do it? Also, it would appear that the Unity Front was providing the food and not your agency.

  7. Work with other NGOs and local people and set up new safe distribution centres that local people can reach. Is this possible? Can you create ‘zones of peace’ where people can come from both sides to collect food? How would you make sure that the army did not lay more mines? How would you ensure that the Unity Front allowed people to go to those locations to collect food? How would you ensure that people left the distribution centres, and that they did not turn them into refugee camps?

There are many more possible options and many variations on these options, so your list could be very different from this one – reflecting your own knowledge and experience. Evaluation of these and other options will clearly depend on extensive discussions and much more detailed local understanding.


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