(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.
Change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic shifts and in sudden, unforeseeable jumps. Nothing seems to change until suddenly it does, a stop–start rhythm that can confound activists. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he most feared in politics, he reportedly replied in his wonderfully patrician style, ‘Events, dear boy’. Such ‘events’ that disrupt social, political, or economic relations are not just a prime ministerial headache. They can open the door to previously unthinkable reforms.
Much of the institutional framework we take for granted today was born of the trauma of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The disastrous failures of policy that led to these twin catastrophes profoundly affected the thinking of political and economic leaders across the world, triggering a vastly expanded role for government in managing the economy and addressing social ills, as well as precipitating the decolonization of large parts of the globe.
Similarly, in the sharp rise in oil prices (and consequent economic stagnation and runaway inflation) marked the end of the post-war ‘Golden Age’ and gave rise to a turn away from government regulation and to the idealization of the ‘free market’. In Communist systems, at different moments, political and economic upheaval paved the way for radical economic shifts in China and Viet Nam. Milton Friedman, the father of monetarist economics, wrote:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine,17 argues that the Right has used shocks much better than the Left, especially in recent decades. Klein cites the example of how proponents of private education in the United States managed to turn Hurricane Katrina to their advantage: ‘Within months, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.’ According to the American Enterprise Institute ‘Katrina accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.’
NGOs are not always so nimble in spotting and seizing such opportunities. Three months into the Egyptian Revolution, I attended a meeting of Oxfam International’s chief executive officers (CEOs), at which they spent hours debating whether the uprising in Tahrir Square was likely to lead to a humanitarian crisis. Only then did the penny drop that the protests, upheaval, and overthrow of an oppressive regime were also a huge potential opportunity, at which point the assembled bosses showed admirable speed in allocating budgets for supporting civil society activists in Egypt, and backing it up with advocacy at the Arab League and elsewhere. But by then valuable time had passed; soon the optimism of revolution gave way to the violence and misery of repression.
Some progressive activists engaged in policy advocacy are better attuned to Friedman’s lesson. Within weeks of the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over people in April, an international ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’19 was signed and delivered.20 A five-year legally binding agreement between global companies, retailers, and trade unions, the accord mandates some astounding breakthroughs: an independent inspection programme supported by the brand-name companies and involving workers and trade unions; the public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports, and corrective action plans; a commitment by signatory brands to fund improvements and maintain sourcing relationships; democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories; and worker empowerment through an extensive training programme, complaints mechanism, and the right to refuse unsafe work.
In hindsight, we can point to several factors to explain how this grisly ‘shock as opportunity’ drove rapid movement toward better regulation:
• A forum on labour rights in Bangladesh (the Ethical Trading
Initiative) had already built a high degree of trust between traditional antagonists (companies, unions, and NGOs). Trust allowed people to get on the phone to each other right away.
Prior work, ongoing since, had sketched the outline of a potential accord; the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act on it.
• A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire
Safety) gave outsiders something to support and build on.
• Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions (Industrial and UNI Global Union) helped get the right people in the room.
Perhaps we should add to Friedman’s instruction ‘to keep alternatives alive and available’: progressive activists also need to build trust and connections among the key individuals who could implement the desired change. I am not suggesting that activists become ambulance chasers, jumping on every crisis to make their point. Rather, we must understand
the windows of opportunity provided by ‘events, dear boy’ as critical junctures when our long-term work creating constituencies for change, transforming attitudes and norms, and so on can suddenly come to fruition.
The world is complex—so what?
Many activists are, above all, doers, keen to change the world, starting today. They instinctively reject the first lesson of systems thinking: look hard before you leap. They get itchy with anything that smacks of ivory tower ‘beard stroking’ and worry about ‘analysis paralysis’. In the development arena, donors often accentuate the penchant for short-termism by demanding tangible results within the timescales of project funding cycles.
My advice would be to take a deep breath, put your sense of urgency to one side for a moment, and become a ‘reflectivist’ who, in the words of Ben Ramalingam, should ‘map, observe, and listen to the system to identify the spaces where change is already happening and try to encourage and nurture them.’
That said, 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’.
Be flexible: You should be willing to shelve the current plan in response to emerging events and your organization’s culture should thank the staff who alert it to signals of change. In the world of humanitarian response, this approach is standard, whereas in long-term aid programmes or campaigns people are often reluctant to shift gears, or simply fail to notice that new opportunities have opened up.
Seek fast and ongoing feedback: If you don’t know what is going to happen, you have to detect changes in real time, especially when the windows of opportunity around such changes are short lived. That means having (or developing) acute antennae and embedding them in multiple networks to pick up signals of change and transmit them to your organization.
Success is often accidental: ‘Fortune favours the prepared mind’, according to Louis Pasteur, pioneer of the germ theory of disease.
Surprising breakthroughs (often subsequently rewritten as triumphs of planning!) are a recurring feature of innovation and change. One reason you need fast feedback is to spot and respond to accidental successes as early as possible. One approach that builds on success born of chance variation, positive deviance, is discussed in the next section.
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