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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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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.257) Conclusion
Source:
How Change Happens
Author(s):

Duncan Green

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.003.0016

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter cautions that progressive change is not primarily about ‘us’ activists: it occurs when poor people and communities take power into their own hands; shifts in technology, prices, demography, and sheer accident can be far more important than the actions of would-be change agents. It argues that activists need humility despite their crucial roles in programmes of change. The chapter reiterates the ideal characteristics of activists on individual and organizational levels mentioned throughout this book, extolling the reader to work in ways that reflect an evolving understanding of power and systems. It is these characteristics, after all, that are vital to a successful campaign for change. Finally, the chapter (and the book) ends on an encouraging note by defining activism as a story of human development, as articulated by Amartya Sen’s definition, ‘the freedoms to be and to do’.

Keywords:   activism, progressive change, activists, human development, power and systems, change agents

Congratulations, we’re nearly done. What you have read thus far (assuming that you haven’t skipped to the end, as I often do) is an attempt to make some sense out of the many things I have done, seen, read, talked about, and thought about for decades.

The story of how change happens is an inspiring one, filled with little-known heroes. And it is a story that never ends. As long ago as the sixth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted, ‘Everything changes, and nothing stays still.’1

But before you throw down the book and rush out to make change happen, some caution is advisable. Progressive change is not primarily about ‘us’ activists: it occurs when poor people and communities take power into their own hands; shifts in technology, prices, demography, and sheer accident can be far more important than the actions of would-be change agents. The first lesson for activists is humility.

That said, activists do play a crucial role. We put new questions into the endlessly churning stream of public debate, and we can help those on the sharp end raise their voices, shifting some degree of power from those who have too much to those who have too little.

Such work is a joy, a privilege, and a responsibility. We need to study the systems in which we operate, immersing ourselves in the complexities of the institutions (states, private sector, international system) that shape the pathways of change. We must get to know the players, both our targets and fellow activists, whether they work for the state, the private sector, or civil society organizations: how they (p.258) see the world and how we can work with them. We have to understand the underlying force field of power that links them in all its varied manifestations.

We will have more impact if we are prepared to take risks, try new, uncomfortable things, question our own power and privilege, and acknowledge and learn from our failures, all the while continuing to work with the zeal and commitment that characterize activists everywhere.

That goes for organizations every bit as much as for individuals. Researching and writing this book has convinced me that my organization, Oxfam, along with many others involved in promoting progressive change around the world, needs to change. We have to work in ways that reflect our evolving understanding of power and systems, becoming smarter, quicker to react, and more innovative. If we don’t, then just like any other sclerotic company that resists change, new, bolder start-ups will enter the fray and eat our lunch (which may be no bad thing, of course).

Finally, I want to go back to what this is all about: human development, so brilliantly captured by Amartya Sen’s definition, ‘the freedoms to be and to do’.2 Despite setbacks and the grim filter of the evening news, that story is overwhelmingly positive. The expansion of those freedoms over the last century has been unprecedented: millions, even billions of human beings leading healthier, better educated lives, freeing themselves from poverty and hunger, expanding their rights, living richer, more rewarding lives. For me, nothing gives life more meaning than being an activist, doing what we can to support that historic struggle.

Notes:

(1) Quoted in Plato’s Cratylus (dialogue).

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