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How Change Happens (and how you can be part of it)

If you pick this book up hoping to be told that anyone can change the world as long as they believe in themselves, you’re about to get a reality check. Duncan Green does not shy away from difficult questions and uncomfortable answers, and this is what makes How Change Happens all the more valuable. How can you make change happen? Become the kind of person who can make change happen, especially when the world is against you.

hch-thumbThe ‘power and systems approach’ (PSA) outlined in the book combines complexity thinking with sophisticated power analysis. We’re invited to view institutions – whether they are political parties, international organisations or transnational corporations – as complex systems rather than a monolithic heroes or villains. Amongst other implications, this means we should build alliances with ‘unusual suspects’, look for examples of positive deviance, and use tight feedback loops and adapt as projects progress (e.g. Doing Development Differently*). Examples of successful change are scattered throughout the book. Case studies look at the struggle of the Chiquitano people of Bolivia and how drivers of change and critical junctures aligned to get a deal on climate change in Paris.

However, ‘How Change Happens’ spends almost as much time explaining how change doesn’t happen. Inertia is powerful and comes in many guises, from the global level to the personal. Over his career Green has been through several hype cycles, seeing ideas come and go, and campaigns fly or flounder. He is frank about his scepticism of the Sustainable Development Goals process, fearing that “what we will get in the end is periodic global updates on social progress, issued in New York, which have negligible impact on how governments treat their citizens”. He acknowledges organisational incentives often work against the PSA and argues that more mavericks need to be hired and junior staff and partners given more trust to apply their deeper understanding of the system.

Inertia is powerful. Sometime more powerful than change.

Inertia is powerful.

Thus the book could give a curiously downbeat message. Green notes that “the conscious efforts of activists are usually less influential than accident or political and economic changes or ‘unusual suspects’”. This is not an argument for pessimism however, but for humility. As someone still relatively early in my career, I read it this as an exhortation to be prepared.

Be Prepared for ChangeBeing prepared is the long term process of becoming the kind of person who can ‘dance with the system’ and take opportunities where they arise, while being conscious of their role. We must keep asking questions, acknowledge and overcome our biases, and be brutally honest with ourselves and our organisations. This takes changes in personal habits (always hard) as well as incentives in the workplace and wider industry. Can everyone be like this or are these standards too demanding? Is this the ‘then a miracle occurs‘ gap in the book?

Dancing with the System (of a Down)

Dancing with the System (of a Down)

The book has benefited a great deal from wise editing, taking what were blog posts down to a couple of sentences. My favourite parts were powerful passages where strands were tied together, answering the ‘So what?’, raised by earlier chapters. I found myself looking forward to seeing the reading lists at the end of each chapter. These will be a great starting point for people wanting to go deeper, especially with the accompanying shiny website and possible MOOC.

Many people are looking for answers not just on how change happens (a theory of change), but how they can be part of this (a personal theory of action). Advice ranges from the wishy washy to the rationality of 80,000 Hours. Green offers a middle answer. There is no one best plan of action. Making change happen involves both thinking and feeling. So much is out of our control but what we can influence the most is to become the kind of person who can make change happen. This is a virtue ethics guide to change, via Gandhi.

Character is crucial. Ben Phillips asked five successful campaigners what made a difference. He found that what they had in common was not careful analysis but determination, solidarity and love as a motivation. In some cases, change seems unrealistic – look at what needs to happen for the earth to not exceed the two-degree target for climate change. But the good news is that it once seemed impossible to abolish slavery

I can see ‘How Change Happens’ being a book I come back to over the years and that’s where the value will be for me. Having an ‘approach’ rather than a tool-kit may be frustrating in its lack of ready-made solutions, but it could ultimately be more fruitful and inspire change at a deeper level. I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s classic “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. We need an ‘inside-out approach’ where we first work on ourselves and our organisations before going out to change the world. We have to learn to be empathetic and to truly listen. This is not a sexy call to action, but it may be one that works.

How Change Happens is now available for purchase and (very commendably) free to download as a PDF.

* I’m looking forward to working on Doing Development Differently with ODI in November and December.

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