How Change Happens by Duncan Green

Between a rock star and a hard place, learn to dance with complexity.

Sorry Sir Bob, but development rarely has a straight forward problem, solution and villain. This mantra runs through Duncan Greene’s excellent new book “How Change Happens”. Anyone who works in or thinks about international development will instantly recognise the pictures that Duncan paints. Donors wanting proof of impact, HQ teams keen to raise money, establish niches and toolkits they can promote. Staff feeling they cannot take risks, pressurized to deliver and the ever changing interconnected world they live in seeming to outpace their key performance indicators before the ink has dried. This excellent short film by Adam Curtis  captures the challenges.

All is not lost and this book building on a growing bedrock of discussion and debate by practitioners and thinkers such as Owen  Barder and Ben Ramalingam attempts to set out a  way forward. Central to this approach is the Power Systems Approach(PSA)

“A  PSA encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse. It covers our ways of working—how we think and feel, as well as how we behave as activists.” 

Duncan has been around the development block and the book is full of insights and observations on projects and campaigns. Those that work often grow out of local struggles, often a strong local leader grasps a moment and the rest as they might say is history. It was pleasing to see Duncan focus in on the role of leadership, I recall many moons ago sitting in a workshop where INGO staff disliked the phrase and the inherent implications of hierarchy it implied.

Duncan uses the metaphor of dance as the way to plan and deliver development. Skilled practitioners are able to “dance with complexity”. This dance requires you to be in tune with local events, to spot and respond to opportunities and to be able to nimbly adjust should the rhyme and rhythms of development change. Interestingly ex UK chancellor Ed Balls after his recent exertions on a UK dance contest felt the process of learning from failure and mistakes and laughing at yourself would have made him a better politician.

Duncan is strong on the importance of understanding history and how change happens in the local context. He notes that many theories of change are really theories of intended actions and do not sufficiently try and understand the local context and history of change. One wonders if in part this is due to the way ToCs are often developed by HQ staff who are really relating to their context and networks.

  ” Fear of losing grants from donors and governments, or donations from the public, drives many activist organizations to micro-manage every operation. While they should be held accountable for how they spend donors’ money, ‘command and control’ will stifle the creativity needed to succeed. In a complex system a more productive approach may be ‘don’t control unless there is good reason to’. Local staff or junior staff and partners should have a fairly free rein to apply their deeper understanding to the programme. The job of head office should be to create the space for them to experiment, adapt and learn, and to negotiate that leeway with funders.”

I can hear the cheers across countless country based teams as they read that. I recently heard of a CEO who insisted to the dismay of their programme management team on approving the appointment of every CD in their orginisation .Was this “involved” quality control , lack of trust of Regional Directors or just a growing symptom of top down management syndrome. I have also been in HQ when the empowered staff I manage do not deliver as promised and we have to make cuts and that does have a habit of making you twitchy about letting go in the future. Duncan does tackle these issues and he sees a number of ways forward. INGO’s moving on from being steamships, to flotillas where “empowered speed boats” are able to respond quickly to issues. Could it be federation structure of empowered legally independent local country office is the way forward for INGO’s? This is one area of the book I would have liked to see Duncan expand on. What is the role of INGO’s, are they relevant in our ever complex world, are they effective and efficient, do they deliver, do they have legitimacy and are they willing to dance to a different tune even if it might upset their political masters and donors?

My slight reservation given the books emphasis on no one simple narrative, is that this is reality as filtered by Duncan. I know he did share drafts for comments on his excellent blog and even took soundings on the cover. However, was there a case for this book being a collection of unfiltered voices. I sense all too often even when we are being self-critical and aware development professionals like summing up, giving meaning, spotting connections and joining the dots, nothing wrong with that. These are much needed skills but where you sit in the car does affect your view of the road. So great if all the passengers can be given a voice rather than having one driver sum up.

I do hope this book is widely read and more importantly discussed within development and activist circle. The world is changing very quickly and not always in the way progressive activists want. There is a tendency in intellectual development circles to beat ourselves up but the truth is good intentions, creativity and empathy have improved the lives of billions of people. There is much to build our future learning on and as Duncan concludes if the ideas about PSA are taken up

“The prize for doing so is potentially enormous. It could unleash a wave of energy and creativity among activists at all levels, as they both dance with the system and change it utterly.”


Kieran Breen

(Originally posted on the Letterpress Project website in November 2016)

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