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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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A Power and Systems Approach to Making Change Happen

A Power and Systems Approach to Making Change Happen

(p.235) 12 A Power and Systems Approach to Making Change Happen
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a theoretical sketch of the nature and dynamics of change as portrayed so far in this book. This is a methodology of sorts, which this chapter refers to as a ‘power and systems approach’ (PSA). The PSA is a theory of change, meant to locate a programme, project, or campaign within a wider analysis of how change comes about. There are two ways to use it: by looking backwards, in order to explore past stories of change; and by looking forward, by learning to ‘expect the unexpected’. The PSA suggests characteristics that activists should cultivate in order to flourish in complex systems, like curiosity, humility, self-awareness, and openness to a diversity of viewpoints. It encourages us to nurture a genuine curiosity about the complex interwoven elements that characterize the systems we are trying to influence, without abandoning our desire to take action.

Keywords:   power and systems approach, PSA, theories of change, stories of change, systems thinking, power analysis

Commenting on an early draft of this book, Masood Mulk, who runs a large NGO in what he calls ‘the badlands’ of the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, provided this memorable example of what can go wrong:

I will never forget a Princeton graduate who was brought in to undertake a change programme within an educational institution in a remote region. He started by throwing out ‘inefficient people.’ But he started moving those who represented the tribal balance in the region out of their jobs, the people from the mountains descended and surrounded him in his house. He was a virtual prisoner for days. I remember going to meet him and he kept shaking his head: ‘They never taught me this at Princeton, they told me the villagers were simple people.’1

Such stories of failure to understand culture and context are unfortunately common in the world of aid and development, and among activists more broadly. Diagnosing what went wrong is always a lot easier than suggesting what we activists should do differently. This chapter offers a more theoretical sketch of the nature and dynamics of change portrayed so far in this book, a methodology of sorts, which I call a Power and Systems Approach (PSA).

The lexicon of aid and development is a bubbling morass of buzzwords and fuzzwords (like buzzwords, only more fuzzy). One of the more recent additions is ‘theories of change’. In meetings and (p.236) documents, people earnestly enquire ‘what’s your theory of change?’ You’re in trouble if you don’t have an answer, although I find replying ‘I don’t know, what’s yours?’ can induce a satisfying fit of spluttering and panic in my tormentor.

PSA is one such theory. Theories of change locate a programme, project, or campaign within a wider analysis of how change comes about. They articulate and challenge our assumptions and acknowledge the influence of wider systems and actors.

The concept originated from two very different disciplines: evaluation, (which seeks to clarify the links between project inputs and outcomes) and social action (which seeks to encourage a group of individuals to work together toward a common goal). Evaluation experts have led much of the innovative thinking on systems, probably because the task of assessing impact forces them to look much harder at how change really happens, including how systems and power derail the best laid plans of activists. Social activists, who spend their days navigating complex systems, also realize that linear thinking (if we do x then we will achieve y) is often a wild goose chase.

Confusion arises when we activists conflate how change happens in the system with how we intend to change it—a subject that might better be called a ‘theory of action’. In my experience, activists spend much more energy talking about their own strategy than about the wider world—the dynamic context that should determine their intervention. A theory of change should contemplate both the context and the theory of action.

Theories of change can provide a more flexible alternative to conventional planning tools, such as logical frameworks (logframes), especially for complex programmes and contexts.2 Viewing a theory of change as a compass not a map, a dynamic process rather than a static document, allows for assumptions to be regularly challenged (p.237) and updated. It encourages a greater focus on learning through a continual back and forth between emerging evidence from the changing local context and the theory on which the programme is based.

From what I have seen so far, a theory of change is best used when individual activists are ready to acknowledge their own cognitive constraints and challenge their adherence to particular ways of thinking. In other words, we need to be willing to ask fundamental and sometimes awkward questions, and the organizations we work for must be prepared to alter the direction of the programme. Few institutional cultures are well adapted to such questioning—a challenge I discuss at the end of this chapter.

Three ubiquitous forces in the aid business and other sectors stand in the way of widespread adoption of a theory-of-change approach. First is the lure of the top-down, whereby philosopher kings (or at least consultants) from universities and think-tanks contemplate a political and economic system and, like Hermione and her Elf Liberation Front, derive the perfect theory of change without actually talking to anyone on the ground. Rarely it seems do experts show interest in poor people’s own theories of change (after all, it might do them out of a job). The ever-more elaborate ‘political economy analyses’ they produce for aid donors seem to pay more attention to the economy than the politics,3 and thus induce a helpless acceptance of the status quo in their readers.

Second the ‘toolkit temptation’. Activists are busy, stressed people who need support. Most do not take kindly to being told ‘every situation is different—go study yours, and come up with some stuff to try’. They want an idea of where to begin, what questions to ask, what success looks like. This natural instinct has prompted a proliferation of ‘toolkits’ and best-practice guidelines that, while better than a single ‘right’ answer, are often incompatible with the kinds of (p.238) systems thinking I believe underpins effective activism. At least to some extent, the best activists make it up as they go along. But making it up as you go along requires a considerable degree of self-confidence and chutzpah, a level of intellectual independence our educational systems do not always prepare us for (not to mention a degree of flexibility that few organizations will tolerate).

Good toolkits should provide a cookbook, to extend the cake metaphor on linear thinking from Chapter 1, leaving it to the activists to select promising recipes to try out in any given situation. Other tools (including the logframe) started out with the same noble intentions, only to be boiled down in the crucible of bureaucracy and time pressure into largely uniform checklists. At the time of writing, some promising guidance to working in a more flexible, iterative way is beginning to appear.4 Let’s hope that trend continues, to keep theories of change from becoming little more than logframes on steroids.

The third force is the demand for evidence of quick results and value for money. While accountability is necessary—it justifies aid spending to funders or taxpayers and promotes learning and improvement—the top-down pressure for results can have some deeply negative consequences for the way theories of change play out in practice. It is much easier to ‘prove’ results by assuming the world is linear, reinforcing the ‘if x, then y’ mindset. In complex systems, on the other hand, it makes more sense to be accountable for what you have learned and how you have adapted to it, than for results against a pre-set plan, but that can be a tough sell with traditional funders.

The need to demonstrate results in order to obtain funding also pushes activist organizations to work on issues where such ‘islands of (p.239) linearity’ are to be found (distributing bednets, registering voters, vaccinating kids), rather than ones that may matter more (women’s empowerment, fighting corruption) but are harder and more expensive to measure. I would even blame the results agenda for skewing aid towards autocracies, because they are better equipped than democracies to provide the certainty donors crave.5

A power and systems approach

With these caveats in mind, I will now sketch out the elements of a theory of change based on the concepts outlined in this book, which I have dubbed the ‘power and systems approach’—PSA. Unlike the conventional toolkit, with its typologies and checklists, I have settled on a combination of questions and case studies (lots of them scattered around this book and collected on its website). Together these can act as an engine of imagination, because though it may seem contradictory, a theory of change should expand the range of potential approaches rather than narrow them down.

I use the PSA in two main ways. The first looks backwards—exploring past stories of change, such as the Chiquitanos (see pp. 69–73) or Paris Agreement (see pp. 171–175). There the PSA helps broaden the kinds of questions to ask, and avoids the tendency to think that whatever changed was 100 per cent down to the activists concerned. One of the main lessons I drew from researching ten case studies in ‘active citizenship’ in preparation for writing this book is the importance of unpredictable events and accidents:6 the arrival (or loss) of champions in positions of power, unexpected changes in laws and policies, crises, and scandals.

(p.240) The second, and perhaps more important, use of a PSA is in looking forward. A PSA acknowledges that we can’t anticipate those critical junctures, so it is essential to ‘expect the unexpected’ by putting good feedback and response systems in place.

The PSA suggests characteristics that activists should cultivate in order to flourish in complex systems, like curiosity, humility, self-awareness, and openness to a diversity of viewpoints. People become activists not to analyse the world, but to change it. We are impatient of anything that smacks of navel-gazing (one Oxfam head of advocacy dismissed my job as head of research as ‘beard stroking’). Consequently, we often fail to understand the history that lies behind the system we are facing, and thus we fail to ‘dance with’ the system. A PSA encourages us to nurture a genuine curiosity about the complex interwoven elements that characterize the systems we are trying to influence, without abandoning our desire to take action. We need to be observers and activists simultaneously.

There is a scene in one of my favourite TV series, The Wire, when Bunk, a dissolute but brilliant detective, advises a new recruit that the key to success is cultivating ‘soft eyes’, learning to spot the important clues that lie in your peripheral vision or that you weren’t looking for.7 Being a good observer is harder than it sounds. It’s easy to see what we are looking for, but much harder to notice and register the unexpected, or the evidence that contradicts our assumptions.

Curiosity about the system needs to be laced with humility and self-knowledge. We don’t—can’t—have all the answers; we can’t predict events; what works in one place won’t work in another. We need to become comfortable with (maybe even enjoy) messiness and uncertainty, and give weight to local knowledge and feedback. We need to include a more diverse range of people and viewpoints in any (p.241) discussion, and (however busy we are) take regular time-outs to assess what is or isn’t working and change course accordingly.

We need to recognize that ‘we’ are not lofty, disinterested observers. We make decisions at least partly based on our default models of the world and assumptions not based on evidence. We are wielders of power in our own right as are the organizations we work for. Power flows within our networks, influencing our relations with partners and allies. Let’s recall Robert Chambers’ question from Chapter 2: ‘Am I an upper or a lower in this conversation?’

A PSA suggests questions we should ask (and keep asking) regarding the system, our theory of action, and our method for learning.

What kind of change are we talking about?

A Power and Systems Approach to Making Change Happen

Figure 12.1 Domains of change

Source: Rao, Sandler, Kelleher and Miller, Gender at Work: Theory and Practice for 21st Century Organizations, (Routledge), 2016.

I find it helpful to begin by asking where the change we are seeking sits on a 2x2 chart,8 which was developed for work on women’s rights and empowerment. It locates change processes according to the nature of the institution in question (on a scale from informal to formal) and the locus of that change sought (ranging from individual to systemic). The authors of the framework find that activists typically neglect the left hand side—the informal world. By reminding us to look at change in terms of all four quadrants, the framework stresses the need for work to happen at all levels (individual, community, formal politics, etc.) and it helps activists map who else is working on a given issue and identify gaps in the collective effort.

To use the framework, think about how the different aspects of the change process that you are considering fit into the different quadrants (see Figure 12.1, on the next page). Aspects of individuals’ access to resources, such as credit, or jobs, or health and education, belong in the top right quadrant; what is going on inside their heads—issues of awareness, confidence and ‘power within’, belong on the top left. At a systemic level, visible power exercised through laws and policies goes on the (p.242) bottom right, but often, as we have seen, more informal institutions such as social norms play a significant role, and belong on the bottom left.

Change processes will flow between the different quadrants, and activists’ attention may move from one to another. Taking the Chiquitanos in Chapter 3 as an example, change began on the left with individual consciousness and social norms, and then moved to the right to press for resources (land) and policies (indigenous rights). Victories in these formal spaces in turn fed back into and helped boost identity and awareness on the left. The many facets of power permeate each quadrant, influencing how change happens.

What precedents are there that we can learn from?

Before cooking up our own change strategies, we ought to look around. Are the positive changes we seek already happening somewhere in the system (positive deviance)? Are there precedents from local history that we can draw upon? Are existing tides in the local political and economic context likely to help or hinder the desired change? Working from precedent rather than importing ‘best practice’ from outside makes it more likely that whatever we do or suggest will be compatible with the local system. (p.243)

Who are the stakeholders and where do they stand?

Whatever the issue we are thinking about and seeking to change, everyone involved will be linked by a subtle and pervasive force field of power. A good power analysis should identify the players (both individuals and organizations), how they relate to each other, who or what they are influenced by (peer persuasion or rivalry? evidence and example? protest?) and the different kinds of power in play (conventional visible power, or something more behind-the-scenes, like the invisible power of ideas or the hidden power of ‘old boy networks’?).

A power analysis should stimulate ideas for strategies for engaging with the main institutions that drive or block change. It should dissolve the monoliths of ‘the state’ or ‘big business’ or ‘the international system’ into turbulent networks full of potential allies as well as opponents. A power analysis should also help us understand how those allies and opponents perceive the change, and why change doesn’t happen—the forces of inertia and paradigm maintenance.

A power analysis disaggregates power, exploring the role of ‘power within’ (empowering individuals to become more active), ‘power with’ (collective organization), or ‘power to’ (action by individuals and organizations). That helps move the focus to those people who are often excluded from decision making (women, poor communities, indigenous groups, those living with disabilities) and whose empowerment often lies at the heart of long-term change.

What kind of approach might make sense for this change?

A Power and Systems Approach to Making Change Happen

Figure 12.2 Adapting your change strategies to the system

Source: Adaptive Management workshop, NESTA, November 2015.

Now it’s time to examine the ‘how’, as well as the ‘what’. Here I’d like to suggest the second and last 2x2 diagram in this book. Although designed by international aid policy people at a recent USAID workshop,9 I think it is relevant to local activists as well. I like it because it acknowledges (p.244) that not every situation is complex—sometimes you should just vaccinate kids, build roads, or distribute voting registration forms.

To use the framework in Figure 12.2, think about both the context and your proposed strategies. If you are operating in a stable or predictable context with a well understood change strategy (in the upper right quadrant), it may be entirely appropriate to use a traditional linear planning approach. In the end, some change processes are relatively straightforward, and there, KISS (‘keep it simple, stupid’) is not a bad approach. But remember the need for humility—too many interventions assume certainty exists, only to find things are much messier than anticipated. So you need to put in place ways to continually gather evidence to check that things are indeed as predictable as you initially thought.

If the context is stable, but you are not sure what kind of change strategy might work (bottom right quadrant), then experiment with several different ones, and iterate according to the results. If you are fairly sure about the strategy but not about the context (upper left quadrant), the emphasis should include setting up fast feedback systems to detect and respond rapidly to sudden changes.

(p.245) Finally, if you are not confident of either your understanding of the context or your change strategies (bottom left quadrant), you clearly have a problem! It may be worth adopting a positive deviance approach, as discussed in Chapter 1. Alternatively, you can look for a simpler, or more tried-and-tested intervention to get you into the top left quadrant, or spend time understanding the context much better, so you can move to the bottom right.

What actual strategies are you going to try?

This is where most manuals and toolkits start generating lists of options. I’m not even going to try, because the list of potential strategies is as great as your imagination: a basic list would include delivering services (like health, education, or credit); improving the broader ‘enabling environment’ (women’s empowerment, producer organizations); running demonstration projects; and convening and brokering or forming multi-stakeholder groups to address particular issues. The tactics for achieving these various strategies can be equally varied: building alliances; seeking quick wins to gain momentum (e.g. by targeting implementation gaps); dividing and neutralizing opponents; winning over agnostics.

Since no amount of upfront analysis will enable us to predict the erratic behaviour of a complex system, a PSA interweaves thought and action, learning and adapting as we go. The purpose of these initial exercises is to enable us to place our bets intelligently. Crucial decisions come after that, as we act, observe the results, and adjust according to what we learn. Robert Chambers calls it the ‘Ready? Fire! Aim!’ approach.10

How will we learn about the impact of our actions and changes in the context?

A power and systems approach encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, (p.246) iteration, and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse. How else are we going to learn?

Learning as we go requires good feedback systems, which could include anything from regular time outs to take stock on what has changed in the context, and what is/isn’t working, to more technological approaches such as using ‘big data’ to detect changes in the political or economic environment.11

Dancing with complex systems is like navigating through traffic—success depends on fast feedback to detect new situations and having the ability to respond quickly (a pedestrian has stepped out into traffic—hit the brake!). If I tried to drive across London with a pre-planned route and velocity, and no adjustments according to feedback, I would be lucky to get to the end of the street. We have to spot new windows of opportunity, learn from failure, develop useful rules of thumb to guide decision making, and take multiple small bets until we find something that works. Analysis of the system, then, is not a one-off upfront engagement, but a continual process of analysing and reanalysing the context in which the programme or campaign operates.

And that’s as far as I’m prepared to go, toolkit-wise. Even going this far has made me anxious that I am losing touch with the essential lesson of working in systems and thinking about power: that we have to make it up as we go along. For more guidance of this sort, check out the links on the How Change Happens website.

Implications for activist organizations

One of the most common responses from activists when I present the PSA is ‘great, but they will never let me do this’, ‘they’ being anyone (p.247) from a line manager, to the whole organization, to ‘the funders’. That needs to change.12

For organizations serious about adopting a PSA, the first step is recruitment. Have we got the right proportion of risk-taking, rule-defying mavericks, or are we recruiting only planners whose skills lie in implementing a pre-agreed campaign project strategy? An organization made up entirely of mavericks would be dysfunctional, but my fear is that many have gone too far in the opposite direction. We need to inject more excitement and unpredictability into the mix. That also means getting serious about diversity: from India to the UK, too many activist organizations are dominated by members of the elite. Even if they have renounced elitist values, as many have, that kind of institutional monoculture slows the rate of evolution of new ideas and approaches.

Once activists are in position, do the incentives they work under, both moral and material (but mainly moral, in my view), encourage a power and systems approach? Will experiments, risk taking, and the inevitable failures be applauded or criticized? Do people get promoted on their ability to conform, or to disrupt?

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.

(p.248) Relinquishing ‘command and control’ opens the way to other PSA ideas, some of which are outlined in this book. Not insisting on slapping your brand on every project or document makes it easier to engage in multi-stakeholder initiatives and ‘convening and brokering’ exercises that bring together unusual suspects in search of new ideas and solutions. It also facilitates spinning off successful innovations: the hugely successful independent magazine New Internationalist began life as an Oxfam/Christian Aid project. Spin-offs can innovate and experiment, free from the constraints of being part of a large bureaucracy. The McDonalds burger chain may not be an obvious place to look for inspiration, but one option already showing signs of success is ‘social franchising’, where an NGO develops a basic ‘project in a box’ that individuals and local groups can pick up and adapt.13 Spin-offs could be one way for international NGOs to maintain the momentum of an exciting project innovation, even though it carries organizational costs in terms of ‘losing’ success stories.

The opposite of spin-offs are mergers and acquisitions (M&As). Major tech companies snap up emergent start-ups, and something similar, but less systematic, happens in development. When I was a lobbyist at CAFOD, persuading the much larger Oxfam to steal my ideas was one of the surest ways to increase my impact. Of course I don’t really mean stealing, but borrowing, collaborating, and so on. Why not make that a deliberate policy, with ‘what have you stolen this year’ as a performance metric?

Fast feedback and response are often neglected by activist organizations. Yet operating in the uncertain world of systems means putting processes in place to continually pick up signals about the local context, including our own impact, and to respond to those signals. Are we flexible enough to adapt or even shelve the previous plan if events so require? Advances in information and communications (p.249) technology should facilitate such capacities, but activist organizations have been slow to change business models. Where is the equivalent of TripAdvisor for the development sector?14

Mike Edwards likens civil society to a diverse ecosystem.15 Yet international support for civil society more often resembles monoculture—finding and funding partners that ‘look like us’ in terms of their institutional structure and way of seeing the world. Edwards argues that international supporters ought to see themselves as ‘ecosystem gardeners’, looking for vigorous local plants, whatever their origins (civil society, faith-based, private sector, none of the above). They can focus on the ‘enabling environment’—the fertility of the political and institutional soil in which those organizations grow. Large aid agencies, for example, could fund ecosystem intermediaries, which in turn could administer hundreds of small grants. They could provide equity for spin-off organizations or seed money for groups to raise resources locally (an echo of governments’ shift away from aid to ‘domestic resource mobilization’ such as taxation and natural resource revenues).

Finally, organizations need to review how they treat failure. Rather than attempt to hide failures, which occur in almost every programme or change process, the important thing is to identify elements within a programme that are not working and fix them en route. Some brave organizations have advocated talking explicitly about failure,16 but in my experience that isn’t the best way to approach the issue. Why not ask ‘what have you learned?’, and make ‘accountability for learning’ as important as accountability for results? It covers much the same ground in a less stigmatizing way.

(p.250) Innovation is one of those words that entrances senior managers; cynics advise people to acquire ‘Innovation Tourette’s’, to impress their bosses by randomly sprinkling the word around their sentences. Happily, a PSA really does encourage innovation, which is essential to success in complex, fast-changing systems, where today’s ‘best practice toolkit’ is likely to become tomorrow’s redundant fax machine. A premium on innovation presents something of a conundrum for large aid organizations replete with procedures, reporting requirements, and accountability chains.

Activist organizations could create spaces free from standard organizational procedures to encourage ‘intrapreneurs’. Google allows its employees 20 per cent time for personal projects (although only about 10 per cent of employees use it, and critics say it is actually more like 120 per cent time, i.e. on top of your day job).17

As suggested in Chapter 10, there may be a case for investing more in spotting, nurturing, and promoting individuals, rather than funding only projects (which individuals are then obliged to devise). Besides identifying potential grassroots or national leaders early on, activist organizations could promote an enabling environment in which more and better leaders are likely to emerge. Options to be tested could include influencing syllabi, university partnerships, scholarships, competitions, leadership training, and mentoring.

But overall, and despite its allure for managers, I am not convinced that ‘innovation’ is a terribly helpful concept. James Whitehead, Oxfam’s ‘global innovation adviser’, has found that those who truly are ‘innovators’ don’t see themselves as such and don’t label what they do as ‘innovation’. They just carry on working with others to solve problems. Innovation is a by-product of the process of collaborative problem solving, not the destination.18 (p.251)

Implications for funders

Activism costs money, and money is power. Funders can exert significant influence over the ability of activists to adopt a power and systems approach. Of course, funders are often activists themselves, both through the way they allocate cash and negotiate with recipients and through their own role as influencers. Nevertheless, there are a few additional points funders need to consider if they are to get behind a PSA.

The first, discussed earlier, is their standards regarding results and reporting. Is a funder willing to accompany a grant recipient as the organization navigates a complex change process, with changes in both direction and expected results, or does it insist, ‘This is the plan we funded, stick with it’?

Funders, even more than individual activists, should think of themselves as ecosystem gardeners. They should sow diversity to encourage innovation and resilience, rather than institutional monoculture. Funders must embrace the fact that giving an activist organization $10 million may be more damaging than not giving it anything. Can they find ways to break up their funding into numerous small grants?

The good news is that although activists are often pessimistic about funders’ readiness to work in new ways, many of the innovative examples of a PSA in this book actually grew out of ‘good donorship’. In Tanzania, DFID was willing to fund a ‘venture capitalist’ theory of change involving multiple parallel experiments and the expectation that many of them would fail.19 In Tajikistan, the Swiss Development Agency supported Oxfam with a ten-year grant to convene and broker (p.252) national and global institutions working on water and sanitation, described in Chapter 2.20 I hope activists working for funders and their grantees will collect and publicize such examples to make the case for wider change.

More broadly, some of the big funding bodies are in the vanguard of new ways of thinking about change, particularly in the area of governance. The networks ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ are made up largely of aid donors.21,22

How international activist organizations might adapt

Can you take a supertanker white-water rafting?23 The agility of ‘guerrilla’ organizations like Global Witness, and the single-issue focus of institutions like the Ethical Trading Initiative, make them prime candidates for adopting the new ways of thinking and working discussed in this chapter. In contrast, large organizations, whether NGOs or government departments, feel very cumbersome. As one Australian government aid worker complained, ‘We have to be like the incredible elastagirl, stretching between what our political masters demand and what communities need and want.’24

But size brings advantages too, in the form of large knowledge bases and economies of scale, which allow organizations to experiment and exchange ideas between countries and programmes. And when it comes to influence, small is seldom beautiful: governments (p.253) are more likely to listen to bigger players, particularly when they have ‘skin in the game’ (programmes and staff on the ground). What kind of hybrid combination of scale and subsidiarity provides the optimal blend of flexibility and clout?

One option might be a ‘conscious uncoupling’ in which a large international organization transitions from a supertanker to a flotilla, with a medium-sized mother ship and a fleet of small, independent spin-offs and start-ups. As noted above, the smaller, more nimble crafts could include individuals in addition to projects. A flotilla structure could potentially conserve the advantages of scale while fostering the agility and innovation that is essential to success.

Large international organizations will continue to have the ears of Western donors, but the real arena for advocacy in national and local development will increasingly be the interaction between developing country states and diverse domestic players. Big agencies should take care not to usurp that space, adopting a supporting role rather than the star part.

That leaves several important roles for international activist organizations, noted in Chapter 11. They could choose to focus on the growing number of collective action problems that have so far stymied the chaotic institutions of global governance, like climate change, the narcotics trade, and restrictive intellectual property rules.

When they spot new trends and successful innovations, thanks to their on-the-ground presence in developing countries, they can give them greater exposure and place the ideas behind them at the open end of the ‘policy funnel’. And they can raise the alarm when necessary, such as when governments crack down on civil society organizations.

The Washington-based Center for Global Development has made a virtue out of lobbying for policy improvements in rich countries as a way to promote development.25 In areas such as aid policy or tax havens, there is certainly scope for international NGOs to expand their (p.254) engagement, as well as for taking on new and pressing topics such as migration.

Up to now international organizations have had a fitful engagement with debates on social norms and citizen rights. Although measuring effectiveness is a challenge, striving to accelerate normative shifts that enhance the rights of groups currently facing discrimination is an important activity that lends itself to an international approach.

International organizations are also well positioned to help activists link up across national borders, for example, via multi-stakeholder initiatives in global supply chains, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative.26 On the new generation of health challenges in developing countries, such as obesity, tobacco, and road traffic accidents, international organizations could facilitate contact and exchanges between Southern and Northern campaigners who have a track record of success.27 A Northern presence could also enhance South–South exchanges between activists.28


Contrary to the standard rhetoric of management gurus, the status quo probably is an option for activists and their organizations. It’s just not a very good one. If we stay stuck in logframe linearity, we will become ever less effective. New, disruptive organizations and approaches will eventually take our place, or at the very least, take part of our turf.

Thinking more deeply about how change happens should change everything: the way we think and work, the things we try to change, and the structure and activities of our organizations.

(p.255) It certainly won’t be easy. Examples of the PSA can already be found in the work of many activists from local to global level, but rarely do they catch on and spread. One of my biggest frustrations at Oxfam has been how seldom great new approaches and ideas (including many described in this book) have been picked up, replicated, and adapted elsewhere. Harking back to the 3i’s explanation of inertia, I suspect the problem lies not in interests or ideas, but in institutional culture: activist organizations need to change if they are to make the PSA work.

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.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

M. Andrews, L. Pritchett, and M. Woolcock, ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’, CID Working Paper No. 307 (Cambridge, MA: Center for International Development at Harvard University, 2015).

D. Green, ‘Fit for the Future? Development Trends and the Role of International NGOs’, Oxfam Discussion Paper (Oxford: Oxfam GB, June 2015).

D. Hudson, H. Marquette and S. Waldock, Everyday Political Analysis, Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2016).

A. Rao, J. Sandler, D. Kelleher, and C, Miller, Gender at Work: Theory and Practice in 21st Century Organizations (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2016).

C. Valters, Theories of Change: Time for a Radical Approach to Learning in Development (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2015), www.odi.org/publications/9883-theories-change-time-radical-approach-learning-development.

Further Surfing

Doing Development Differently, http://doingdevelopmentdifferently.com/.Thinking and Working Politically, http://twpcommunity.org/. (p.256)


(1) Masood Mulk, personal communication, email, January 2016.

(2) Craig Valters, Theories of Change: Time for a Radical Approach to Learning in Development (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2015), www.odi.org/publications/9883-theories-change-time-radical-approach-learning-development.

(3) David Hudson and Adrian Leftwich, From Political Economy to Political Analysis, DLP Research Paper 25 (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2014), www.dlprog.org/research/from-political-economy-to-political-analysis.php.

(4) See, for example, Aruna Rao, Joanne Sandler, David Kelleher, and Carol Miller, Gender at Work: Theory and Practice in 21st Century Organizations (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2016); Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock, Doing Problem Driven Work, Center for International Development (CID) Working Paper No. 307 (Cambridge, MA: CID at Harvard University, 2015); David Hudson, Heather Marquette, and Sam Waldock, Everyday Political Analysis, DLP (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2016), www.dlprog.org/publications/everyday-political-analysis.php.

(5) Rachel Kleinfeld, ‘Current Aid Design and Evaluation Favour Autocracies. How Do We Change That?’ From Poverty to Power blog, 30 June 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/best-practice-and-linear-thinking-favour-autocracies-so-what-do-we-do-instead/.

(6) Duncan Green, ‘Promoting Active Citizenship: What Have We Learned from 10 Case Studies of Oxfam’s Work?’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/promoting-active-citizenship-what-have-we-learned-from-10-case-studies-of-oxfam-338431.

(7) The Wire, ‘Soft Eyes’, Season 4, Episode 2, aired 17 September 2006.

(8) Aruna Rao, Joanne Sandler, David Kelleher, and Carol Miller, Gender at Work: Theory and Practice in 21st Century Organizations (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2016).

(9) Duncan Green, ‘Doing Development Differently: A Great Discussion on Adaptive Management (No, Really)’, From Poverty to Power blog, 4 November 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/doing-development-differently-a-great-discussion-on-adaptive-management-no-really/.

(10) Robert Chambers, Managing Canal Irrigation: Practical Analysis from South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 230.

(11) Duncan Green, ‘Big Data and Development: Upsides, Downsides and a Lot of Questions’, From Poverty to Power blog, 23 July 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-is-the-future-impact-of-big-data/.

(12) This section draws on Duncan Green, ‘Fit for the Future? Development Trends and the Role of International NGOs’, Oxfam Discussion Paper (Oxford: Oxfam GB, June 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/fit-for-the-future-development-trends-and-the-role-of-international-ngos-556585.

(13) Kate Wareing, ‘What Can Aid Agencies Learn from McDonald’s?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 1 August 2012, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-can-aid-agencies-learn-from-mcdonalds/.

(14) Duncan Green, ‘Do Aid and Development Need Their Own TripAdvisor Feedback System?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 10 April 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/do-aid-and-development-need-their-own-tripadvisor-feedback-system/.

(15) Michael Edwards, Civil Society, 3rd edition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

(16) ‘Engineers Without Borders’, Failure Reports, http://legacy.ewb.ca/en/whoweare/accountable/failure.html.

(17) Jillian D’Onfro, ‘The Truth About Google's Famous “20% Time” Policy’, Business Insider UK, 17 April 2015, http://uk.businessinsider.com/google-20-percent-time-policy-2015-4?r=US&IR=T.

(18) James Whitehead, ‘Unlocking Innovation: Enabling and Blocking Factors in Developing Innovative Programmes in Oxfam GB’, Oxfam Research Report (Oxford: Oxfam GB, June 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/unlocking-innovation-enabling-and-blocking-factors-in-developing-innovative-pro-558453.

(19) Duncan Green, ‘The Chukua Hatua Accountability Programme, Tanzania’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-chukua-hatua-accountability-programme-tanzania-338436.

(20) Duncan Green, ‘“Convening and Brokering” In Practice: Sorting Out Tajikistan’s Water Problem’, From Poverty to Power blog, 17 January 2013, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/convening-and-brokering-in-practice-sorting-out-tajikistans-water-problem/.

(21) Doing Development Differently website, http://doingdevelopmentdifferently.com/.

(22) David Booth, Thinking and Working Politically, GSDRC Professional Development Reading Pack no. 13 (Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham, 2015), www.gsdrc.org/professional-dev/thinking-and-working-politically/.

(23) Jo Rowlands, ‘Do We Drive a Supertanker or Go White-Water Rafting? A Brief Exploration of Complexity in Change Strategies/Types: Plugging a Gap’, unpublished paper for Oxfam GB’s UK Poverty Programme, 2005.

(24) Personal communication, December 2015.

(25) Center for Global Development, http://www.cgdev.org/.

(26) Ethical Trading Initiative website, www.ethicaltrade.org/.

(27) John Gaventa and Rajesh Tandon, eds., Globalizing Citizens: New Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Zed Books, 2010).

(28) Oxfam, ‘Raising Her Voice’ programme, Oxfam website, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/our-work/citizen-states/raising-her-voice.