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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 27 November 2020



(p.1) Introduction
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter recounts personal experiences as an individual ‘change agent’, which have shaped the making of this book. It laments the fact that many theories of change used by different academic disciplines each operate with separate and often conflicting ideas, without any ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out. Hence the chapter lays down some preliminary insights that inform the rest of this book, by expanding the definition of ‘activists’ to include a variety of actors, programmes, and institutions involved in campaigns of change. In addition, the chapter also lays out the framework of study to be undertaken in the book, particularly by using Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the progressive expansion of the freedoms to be and to do. Finally, the chapter outlines in brief the three individual sections of this book.

Keywords:   change agents, theories of change, activists, activism, change studies, Amartya Sen

I was moved to write this book by a combination of excitement, fascination, and frustration: excitement at the speed and grandeur of many of the social changes occurring today—continents rising from poverty, multitudes gaining access to literacy and decent healthcare for the first time, women in dozens of countries winning rights, respect, and power. Working at Oxfam gives me an extraordinary and privileged ringside seat from which to appreciate both the bigger picture and the individual stories of inspiring activists across the globe. I have also (miraculously) been given time to read and write, arousing undying envy in many of my colleagues. This book is the result of that dialogue between reflection and practice.

My daily excitement is laced with frustration when I see activists take steps that seem destined to fail. Within months of joining Oxfam in 2004, I witnessed two examples, one big and one small. On a field visit to Vietnam, I was taken to see Oxfam’s work with Hmong villagers in the north. As we drove to the remote home of this impoverished ethnic minority, we passed the first, more intrepid backpackers starting to arrive in the area. The Hmong produce wonderful textiles, and it was obvious that a tourist boom was in the offing. Yet our project consisted of training villagers to keep their prized water buffalo warm and well during the winter (involving rubbing them regularly with alcohol, among other things). There is nothing wrong with working on livestock, but what were we doing to help them prepare for the coming influx of tourists? When challenged, our local (non-Hmong, middle class Vietnamese) staff replied that they (p.2) wanted to ‘protect’ the villagers’ traditional ways against the invasion of the outside world.

On a grander scale, I had growing misgivings about an enormous, global campaign Oxfam was then leading that implied global activism around trade, debt, aid, and climate change could somehow ‘Make Poverty History’. The campaign seemed to gravely downplay the primacy of national politics. I developed my argument a couple of years later in a book, From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World. One of the inputs to that book was a paper we commissioned1 on the theories of change used by different academic disciplines. It turns out they each operate with separate and often conflicting theories of change, and there is no ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out. I was intrigued, and set out some rather rudimentary ideas about ‘how change happens’ in an annex to the book, marking the starting point for the prolonged conversation that led eventually to this book.

This book is for activists who want to change the world. A narrow interpretation would say that means people engaged in protest movements and campaigns around topics as disparate as climate change and disabled peoples’ rights, usually on the margins of ‘the system’, people who from the days of the abolitionists have been making change happen. But the list of ‘change agents’ (English is sadly devoid of non-clunky descriptors in this field) is much wider. I include reformers inside the system, such as politicians (both elected and unelected), public officials, and enlightened business people. And the civic world beyond formal institutions is far too rich to narrow down to a single category of ‘campaigners’. Faith groups, community leaders, and the many self-help organizations that women form are all often influential players. Even within aid organizations, those engaged (p.3) in what we call ‘programmes’—funding or running projects to create jobs or improve health and education services, or responding to emergencies such as wars or earthquakes—are just as involved in seeking change as campaigners. When I use the word ‘activists’ I mean all of the above. (If that all sounds too exhausting, and you would rather be an armchair activist who just wants to understand change better, that’s fine too.)

How Change Happens also sheds light on why the relationships between such activists are often fraught. People bring their own worldviews to the question of change. Do we prefer conflict (‘speaking truth to power’) or cooperation (‘winning friends and influencing people’)? Do we see progress everywhere, and seek to accelerate its path, or do we see (in our darker, more honest moments) a quixotic struggle against power and injustice that is ultimately doomed to defeat? Do we believe lasting and legitimate change is primarily driven by the accumulation of power at grassroots/individual level, through organization and challenging norms and beliefs? Or by reforms at the levels of laws, policies, institutions, companies and elites? Or by identifying and supporting ‘enlightened’ leaders? Do we think the aim of development is to include poor people in the benefits of modernity (money economy, technology, mobility) or to defend other cultures and traditions and build an alternative to modernity? Do we want to make the current system function better, or do we seek something that tackles the deeper structures of power? The answer is ‘all of the above’—this book tries to show how these different approaches fit into the wider picture of change.

The book takes as its starting point Amartya Sen’s brilliant definition of development as the progressive expansion of the freedoms to be and to do.2 It discusses political and social change, as well as some of development’s economic aspects. It focuses on intended change, even though a good deal of change is unintended or accidental (the invention of the washing machine made a huge contribution to (p.4) women’s empowerment, even though that probably wasn’t in the minds of its inventors).

One of the curious insights I gleaned from writing the book is that the same categories of analysis (power, norms, complex systems, institutions, agency) seem to be helpful at all levels, whether considering change in a single community, a country, or at a global level. Like Russian Dolls, or fractals, the same features reappear at different scales as you zoom in and out. Those ways of thinking also help when defending good things from attack (resisting the wrong kind of change) and when trying to explain why change often doesn’t happen, the deep rooted resistance of institutions, norms, and individuals that often blocks the way.

How Change Happens is divided into four parts. The first sets out the conceptual underpinning of the book, an effort to understand change through the prism of complex systems, power, and social norms. Perhaps it is the legacy of a long-distant physics degree, but at times in the last few years, it has felt something like a unified field theory of development is emerging from these discussions. Part I also wrestles with the fact that books are inevitably linear creations: you start at the beginning and (if it’s any good) read through to the end. That seems terribly inappropriate for a discussion of non-linear complex systems, and runs the risk that readers give up before getting to the ‘so what’ conclusion. I have therefore tried to boil down the final message of the book into a one-page ‘power and systems approach’ in Part I, which gives a taste of what is to come.

Part II discusses some of the main institutions that are both the object and subject of most change processes: central government, legal systems, political parties and other channels of accountability, the international system, and large transnational corporations. Some of this may feel like hard work, and certainly a long way from a feel-good celebration of activism. I suspect many activists could use a quick refresher on the history, politics, and internal structures of the institutions they wish to influence if we are to find new ideas and possibilities for promoting change and seizing moments of opportunity.

(p.5) Part III discusses some of activism’s main players: citizen activists, advocacy organizations, and the role of leadership. And the final part explores the implications of my analysis for individual activists and their organizations, fleshing out the power and systems approach.

The book is not a manual. Indeed one of its conclusions is that reliance on checklist toolkits is one of the things that is holding us back. Instead it offers a combination of analysis, questions, and case studies, with the aim of helping readers look afresh at both the obstacles and the enthralling processes of change going on all around them, and to gain some new energy and ideas about how to contribute.

Like most change processes, this book emerged rather than being decided in advance. Hundreds of people contributed their ideas and experiences; when we posted a draft version for comment, more than 600 people downloaded it. I have made every effort to incorporate a range of voices and opinions, but in the end, this is a book written by a white, Western (and rapidly aging) male, and it inevitably echoes my experiences, networks, culture, assumptions, and prejudices. Please don’t forget that, while you’re reading it.

Not that ‘I’ am a fixed quantity. Researching and writing this book has changed me in ways I probably won’t fully understand for some time. I have always felt a tension between the desire to be a ‘finisher’—dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s—and the urge to move on to new ideas, to grab the next shiny shell on the beach. At university, I studied physics but moonlighted for lectures on Joyce and Eliot, and wrote truly execrable poetry. My personality assessments in things like the Myers Briggs test are a mess. Most of the time, I don’t know what I think or, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I seem to hold entirely contradictory opinions at the same time.

Somehow, the act of writing made me acknowledge that ambiguity and grow comfortable with it. You would think that writing a book, with its words fixed forever and its pretensions to authority, would be anathema to ambiguity, complexity, and change. Luckily books these days are no longer tablets of stone, rather the more time-consuming (p.6) part of a wider conversation. In this case, the conversation will continue after publication on my ‘From Poverty to Power’ blog and on the ‘How Change Happens’ website. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and arguments on all of the issues raised in this book—and to changing my mind, preferably several times before breakfast.


(1) Roman Krznaric, 2007, ‘How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary perspectives for human development’, Oxfam Research Report (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 2007) http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/how-change-happens-interdisciplinary-perspectives-for-human-development-112539.

(2) Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).