How Change
– Book review

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Duncan Green’s new book How Change Happens. For those of us who have been working in the international development sector for some time, it’s a fascinating – and challenging – read. Not only does it forensically dissect what’s wrong, simplistic or obsolete in the architecture of the aid sector and the behaviour of those who work there. It proposes a different, more intellectually demanding, but ultimately more effective approach to problem-solving – simply by being much more cognizant of the world around us, and of the power dynamics that drive or constrain change.

Simple, right? Well, yes and no. Here are my main takeaways and thoughts on what Duncan’s work implies for non-governmental organisations (NGOs):

  1. Change is messy. Deep down, everyone knows this, but it isn’t reflected in the way donors and NGOs design, implement and evaluate projects. Proposals, logframes and evaluations generally assume a linear trajectory of change, and essentially ignore context. It is widely recognised that the low-hanging fruits of development – things you can progress reasonably effectively by just throwing money at the problem – have largely been gathered already. The issues we are now tackling are much more complex, integrated and systemic. For example, enrolment rates in primary school (bums on seats) have shot up spectacularly in Africa in the past 20 years, but the educations systems are broken, and the continent is now facing an equally spectacular learning crisis. But the processes, tools and metrics we use in much of the sector haven’t kept up with this increasing complexity.
  2. There’s a tension between need and social change. Many NGOs – including Save the Children – understandably prioritise rural areas with higher poverty and mortality rates. But the most profound social change often happens in urban areas, where traditional social norms are less coercive, inequalities more visible and individual aspirations greater. Our ambition to reach the most deprived and marginalised children in the world is absolutely right and should remain our North Star at all times. But getting there must involve building a much wider base of support among the urban middle class and intellectuals. It must also involve tackling the growing challenge of urban poverty.
  3. The aid sector’s reluctance to engage with faith-based organisations misses a huge trick. Religious congregations can be among the most powerful (and least corrupt) allies on many issues of social justice and have played a critical role for social change in many places throughout history. Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb was herself a devout Christian, and famously secured a £25,000 donation from the Pope in 1919. But that never came in the way of her fundamental belief in “the unity of mankind” and that funds raised should be allocated for the “relief of all children irrespective of their faith”.
  4. Change needs critical junctures. You almost never know what those critical junctures will be, where they’re going to come from, or when they will materialise. Who would have thought the immolation of a desperate Tunisian street vendor would end up setting the whole Arab world on fire? But what we can do better is recognise and understand the significance of these critical junctures quickly enough to react, build on and perhaps even channel the positive energies unleashed – in order to drive meaningful political and social change for children.
  5. Many NGOs have completely lost touch with grassroots activism. Nowhere is this more obvious than strategies, projects or initiatives designed to ‘build the capacity of local civil society’. The patronising language betrays a superiority complex that prevails across much of the development sector. And it’s misguided. It regards local activism as a result of programmes and advocacy, and local activists as their recipients – rather than as the originators and shapers of development strategies.
  6. The world is complex. – and this complexity ought to be at least partially understood before jumping to conclusions about what interventions, messages, strategies or approaches are needed to achieve change. Systems thinking recognises this basic truth. At Save the Children we’ve become savvier about this – carrying out political economy analysis to inform our advocacy strategies and undertaking formative research with communities to inform bespoke strategies for social and behaviour change. Along with the rest of our sector, we should become more systematic about this and make the information public for all to use.
  7. Programmes need to be adaptive, ‘dancing with the system’, responding to feedback loops, and able to course-correct and change tack. Easier said than done, for sure. After all, if a project is in constant flux, how do you hold NGOs accountable for results? One way to help in this is to hold programmes accountable for high-level impacts (learning outcomes, incidence of disease, etc), while giving them lots of flexibility on the pathways to get there. Some donors – especially private sector donors – are becoming increasingly comfortable with this approach. But the risk appetite across the sector is still far too low for this to become the rule rather than the exception. For flexible pathways to succeed, implementing organisations’ delivery platforms must also be highly adaptive – so that programme staff react quickly to what they see on the ground. I wrote a piece recently about how we’ve done that in DRC.
  8. Not every cause needs a villain, but we need a sense of outrage to build a positive case for change. Sensible people respond well (and much better than we realise) to evidence, realistic options, common sense – and the prospect of doing something good for the next generations.

It’s an important book. I reckon it should have a place on the bedside table of every NGO worker.


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