(Duncan Green, OXFAM): ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’,
said Karl Marx in one of his most celebrated passages, which eventually became one of his two epitaphs (the other one being, ‘Workers of all lands, unite’). Marx was certainly right to argue that social theories should be not just about understanding the status quo but also about offering a vision for its improvement; but he was wrong to imply that no one before him had thought like that.
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 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 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.
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 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 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.
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