How Change Happens: A summary

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How Change Happens by Duncan Green brings together the latest research from a range of academic disciplines and the evolving practical understanding of activists. Drawing on first-hand examples from the global experience of Oxfam, one of the world’s largest social justice NGOs, as well as the author’s 35 years of studying and working on international development issues, it tests ideas on how change happens and sets out the latest thinking on what works to achieve progressive change. This summary is for those who want to grab the main messages of the book in as condensed a form as possible. Go to the book for the many real-life examples, experiences, and books and other sources that have shaped Duncan Green’s thinking about change. 
  How Change Happens  by Duncan Green brings together the latest research from a range of academic disciplines and the evolving practical understanding of activists. Drawing on many first-hand examples from the global experience of Oxfam, one of the world’s largest social justice NGOs, as well as the author’s 35 years of studying and working on international development issues, it tests ideas on how change happens and sets out the latest thinking on what works to achieve progressive change. How Change Happens  is published by Oxford University Press  2 HOW CHANGE HAPPENS: A SUMMARY This summary is for those busy people who want to grab the main messages of the book in as condensed a form as possible. Boiling down a book into a document one-twentieth as long inevitably does violence to the srcinal  –  it airbrushes out the nuances, ambiguities and dilemmas I try to address in the book. It also omits references and sources. Go to the book for the many real-life examples, experiences and books that shaped my thinking about change. First, the target audience: How Change Happens  is aimed at activists, broadly defined  –  not just campaigners but that wider group of lobbyists, entrepreneurs and officials, both individuals and organizations, who are set on transforming the world. Now on with the summary. Duncan Green, May 2016 PART 1: SYSTEMS, POWER AND NORMS Ways of thinking (categories of analysis) are helpful whether considering change in a community, a country, or on a global level. Understanding complex systems, power, and social norms can help us understand how and why change happens. Systems thinking changes everything The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapp le with such questions. I find ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ two of the most helpful.    A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals. Change in complex systems  A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets. In contrast, many of the mental models activists use to think about change are linear  –   ‘if I do A, then B will happen ’ –  with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration and missed opportunities. Society, politics or the economy rarely conform to linear models. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘e veryone has a plan 'til they ge t punched in the mouth’.    3 Instead, change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic or technological shifts, punctuated by sudden, unforeseeable jumps. Often these jumps , also known as ‘critical junctures’  are driven by crises, conflicts, failures and scandals, which disrupt social, political or economic relations, creating an appetite for new ideas and opening the door to previously unthinkable reforms.  Another lesson of systems thinking is that you cannot understand and plan everything in advance. If each situation is different, so must be the response. One of the founders of systems thinking, Donella Meadows, talks of the need to learn to ‘dance with systems.’ But even that may be too choreographed. Perhaps a better analogy is that activists should switch from being architects and engineers to becoming ‘ecosystem gardeners’ , nurturing richer and more diverse systems of change without trying to control them. Power lies at the heart of change Seeing development as the continual negotiation of power sheds new light on how change happens. Walk into any household, village, boardroom or government office, and you will enter a subtle and pervasive force field of power that links and influences everyone present. Friends and enemies, parents and children, bosses and employees, rulers and ruled. No matter the political system, power is always present. Studying and understanding that force field is an essential part of trying to influence change. Though largely invisible to the newcomer, power sets parameters on how social and political relationships evolve. Who are likely allies or enemies of change? Who are the uppers and lowers in this relationship? Who listens or defers to whom? How have they treated each other in the past? Thinking in terms of power brings the true drama of development to life. In contrast to the drab portrayal of poor people as passive ‘victims’ (of disasters, of poverty, of famine) or as ‘ beneficiaries ’   (of aid, of social services), ‘empowerment’ places poor people’ s own actions centre stage. In the words of Bangladeshi academic Naila Kabeer, “From a state of powerlessness that manifests itself in a feeling of ‘I cannot’; activism contains an element of collective self- confidence that results in a feeling of ‘We can’.”   Using power analysis  Activists use ‘ power analysis ’ to explore who holds what power related to the matter, and what might influence them to change. It can help identify a wider range of potential allies.  All too often, we tend to default to working with ‘people like us’, when alliances with unusual suspects (corporations, traditional leaders, faith groups, academics) can be more effective. Power analysis can help us consider upcoming events that may open the door to change: Is an election in the offing? What influence would a drought or hurricane have on people’s attitudes? What happens when the Old Man dies?   Although my book is about ‘how change happens’, often the important question is ‘Why doesn’t    change happen?’ Systems, whether in thought, politics or the economy, can be remarkably resistant to change. I like to get at the root of the ‘i - word’ (inertia) through three other ‘i - words’: institutions, ide as and interests. A combination of these often underlies the resistance to change.  4 Shifts in social norms often underpin change The mechanisms of formal power are important, but change often begins at a deeper level, when people who have previously internalized feelings of subordination or inferiority achieve ‘power within’ and start to organize to demand their rights. In recent decades, such change has been partly triggered by profound shifts in social norms  –  fundamental understandings of the rights of hitherto marginalized groups, including women, children or people with disabilities. Promoting norm change at both global and local levels has been a major part of activism, and could constitute one of its most enduring achievements. PART 2: INSTITUTIONS Understanding how institutions work; their history, politics and internal structures can be the key for activists to find new ideas for influencing, for promoting change and for seizing moments of opportunity. People seeking change are often impatient, intent on addressing the problems of the world. In the words of Martin Luther King, they are consumed by ‘the fierce urgency of now’ . That means they can underestimate the importance of changing institutions. Institutions appear to be permanent and unchanging; in fact they often depend on that appearance for their credibility. But ‘now’ is merely a moment on the continuum of history, and history shows us that the status quo is far less fixed than it appears. Yes, institutions are inherently conservative, but their normal functioning provokes changes in the world, changes that buffet them and oblige them, over time, to either evolve or fail. How states evolve  As both drivers of change and targets for influencing, states are often central. To a greater or lesser degree, states ensure the provision of health, education, water, and sanitation; they guarantee rights, security, the rule of law, and social and economic stability; they arbitrate in the inevitable disputes between individuals and groups; they regulate, develop, and upgrade the economy; they organize the defence of national territory. More intangibly, they are an essential source of identity  –  the rise of nationalism and the state have gone hand to hand, for good or ill. States may be ubiquitous, but they are far from static. A constant process of conflict and bargaining shapes their contours and responsibilities, and a flux of power determines both what changes and what does not. Activists need to look under the bonnet of states, and understand them as complex systems that can be influenced. In recent years the actions and courage of strong and cohesive non-violent civic coalitions has proven vital to the political transitions that presage state change. Since the 1980s, successive waves of civil society protest have contributed to the overthrow of military governments across Latin America, the downfall of Communist and authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the removal of dictators in the Philippines and Indonesia, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Effective tactics have included boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes, and civil disobedience. Even the most repressive states cannot ignore such movements for long. Confucius wrote that every ruler needs arms, food and trust, but that if any of these had to be forfeited, the
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