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Mastering the Conditions of Change

Antonio Lambino's picture

On a recent trip to Hong Kong and Macau, China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), I was reminded repeatedly of people's tendency to search for heroes to make things better in public life.  The two SARs are engines of growth in the region -- the former due primarily to international trade and finance and the latter due to tourism and gambling -- and have highly developed infrastructure and efficient transportation services.  I was traveling with a large group of fellow Filipinos, all of us from a country struggling to improve governance in various sectors and the provision of public services.  Walking the streets of Hong Kong and Macau, many comments were made regarding the ease of public transport and modern facilities, from sidewalks and roads to air and sea ports.  Almost all of these conversations led to two persistent questions: “When will our own country catch up?” and “Who will stamp out corruption and lead the country to prosperity?”  I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t much discussion about how.

An opinion piece published last week in the Philippine Daily Inquirer focuses precisely on the how.  Televised debates among candidates for public office, says sociologist Randy David, “… reinforce a mindset that magnifies the role of political will in social change while ignoring the concrete conditions that make certain solutions possible or not possible.”  Whether influenced by these slickly produced TV debates or whether these debates reflect everyday conversations among citizens, that’s what my friends and I usually sound like when attempting to solve society’s ills over cups of coffee.  The story's all too familiar.  Someone must come along, put an end to corruption and, in so doing, raise the country out of poverty.

But David holds an alternative view and posits that “… moralizing must give way to sociological understanding.  Any effective check against corruption must come from the society itself… when people… begin to participate as economic or political actors in their own right, they will, in the long run, not tolerate corruption.  And so we come full circle to the prior need to free our people from the trap of mass poverty.  This is not just a matter of mustering political will.  It also demands mastery of the conditions that make change possible.”

CommGAP has attempted to synthesize what we know about “mustering political will” and the “conditions that make change possible” from various reform efforts from around the world, successful and otherwise.  We have proposed five categories of interrelated challenges, explored and validated them in a global learning event, and published what we have learned in a book entitled Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions.  I think you'll find that the five challenges, presented below in a series of questions, resonate quite well with David’s thinking: 

• How do we secure political will—demonstrated by broad leadership support for change?  What are the best methods for reaching out to political leaders, policy makers and legislators?

• How do we gain the support of public sector middle managers who are often the strongest opponents of change, and foster among them a stronger culture of public service?

• How do we build broad coalitions of pro-change influentials? What do we do about powerful vested interests?

• How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?

• How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability in order to sustain governance reform?

The how is about mustering political will and mastering conditions that enable change.  It’s about thinking broadly and understanding the complexity of social, economic, institutional, and cultural challenges.  It’s also about parsimony and recognizing recurring refrains inherent in successful and sustainable reform.

Photo credit: Flickr user sylvar


You might have added the thought (it may have been in your mind anyway) that Hong Kong and Macau are hardly suitable places to be hankering after heroes. Arguably, neither owes much of their success to any particular individual.

Submitted by Robert de Quelen on
Randy David is a very wise man. I used to read his column when I lived in the Philippines and always found it very insightful. yes, the old man is absolutely right, one of the reasons why people's conversations seem to be going round and round is that the word "how" is not as often heard as "who" and "when". Magical thinking versus empowerment. You can't have both at the same time. People in the Philippines easily get bored when you talk about such dry topics as institutions, infrastructure, urban planning... And yet there are some people, some organisations, NGOs doing a fantastic work there. Maybe they just need a little more support and attention.

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