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how change happens

What happens when historians and campaigners spend a day together discussing how change happens?

Duncan Green's picture

woman offers a flower as a symbol of peace to a Military Police OfficerDuncan Green provides a series of lightbulb moments from a recent conference bringing together historians and campaigners.

Part of the feedback on last month’s post calling for a ‘lessons of history’ programme was, inevitably, that someone is already doing it. So last week I headed off to Kings College, London for a mind expanding conference on ‘Why Change Happens: What we Can Learn from the Past’. The organizers were the History and Policy network and Friends of the Earth, as part of its excellent ‘Big Ideas’ project (why haven’t the development NGOs got anything similar?) About 70 people, a mix of historians and campaigners. Great idea.

The agenda (12 UK-focussed historical case studies on everything from resistance to the industrialization of farming post World War 2 to municipal activism in Victorian Britain to why England (though not Scotland and Ireland) hasn’t had a famine since the 16th Century) was great, as was the format (panels, followed by table discussions, no Q&A).

Working With The Grain: An Important New Book on Rethinking Approaches to Governance

Duncan Green's picture

Even though it’s relatively short (223 pages), Working With the Grain (WWTG) took me two months to finish, but I’m glad I did. It adds to a growing and significant body of literature on ‘doing development differently’/’thinking and working politically’ – Matt Andrews, Adrian Leftwich, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Sue Unsworth etc. (Like Matt and Adrian, WWTG author Brian Levy is a white South African – what attracts that particular group to rethinking governance would make an interesting study in itself.)

Brian summarizes the common elements of this emerging school of thought as:

"An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be;

A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern [...]

Recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation." (pg. 207)

What makes this book special is Brian’s CV – two decades at the World Bank, which experience he raids to provide great case studies throughout. It feels like he’s now gone back into academia (he teaches at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cape Town) partly to make sense of what he’s learned from 20 years of success and (more often) failure (he characterizes the orthodox governance approach as ‘a breathtaking combination of naivete and amnesia’). Unlike most such tomes, I found it clearer on the ‘so whats’, than the general diagnostic, which tends to get bogged down in endless 3 point lists and typologies (hence the two months).

People Power: What Do We Know About Empowered Citizens and Development?

Duncan Green's picture

This is a short piece written for UNDP, which is organizing my Kapuscinski lecture in Malta on Wednesday (4pm GMT, webcast live)

Power is intangible, but crucial; a subtle and pervasive force field connecting individuals, communities and nations in a constant process of negotiation, contestation and change. Development is, at its heart, about the redistribution and accumulation of power by citizens.

Much of the standard work on empowerment focuses on institutions and the world of formal power – can people vote, express dissent, organise, find decent jobs, get access to information and justice?

These are all crucial questions, but there is an earlier stage; power ‘within’. The very first step of empowerment takes place in the hearts and minds of the individuals who ask: ‘Do I have rights? Am I a fit person to express a view? Why should anyone listen to me? Am I willing and able to speak up, and what will happen if I do?’

Asking, (and answering) such questions is the first step in exercising citizenship, the process by which men and women engage with each other, and with decision-makers; coming together to seek improvements in their lives. Such engagement can be peaceful (the daily exercise of the social contract between citizen and state), but it may also involve disagreement and conflict, particularly when power must be surrendered by the powerful, to empower those ‘beneath’ them.

In Praise of Cranks and Contrarians

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I hope you have been fortunate enough to meet a few of these. They live amongst us, but they are really an archetypal category: The Outsider. Our settled views on the great issues of the day, our rules and norms, our codes of conduct, all these things annoy them. They mock us. They dispense rudeness with great liberality. They are stubborn, self-willed and ferociously argumentative. They dress as they please. They behave as they please. They dance to the rhythms of drums that the rest of us cannot hear. They annoy, even madden us; yet, every healthy community needs them; every truly diverse and vigorous public sphere needs them, as well.

Cranks are eccentrics. They are capricious in behavior or appearance. And they are almost always contrarians: whatever the majority opinion is, they are against it. Loudly. Vehemently. Yet there is one fundamental reason why we should not only tolerate but celebrate the cranks and contrarians in our midst: every major shift in public opinion started as a view propagated by a few bloody minded contrarians, boldly, even recklessly, taking on the received or conventional wisdom of the day.  We often credit huge social movements for a lot of the progress we have made as human beings, but before the social movements formed crucial path-clearing work was done by tough, rock-ribbed eccentrics and contrarians.

Blog Post of the Month: The Best Evidence Yet on How Theories of Change are Being Used in Aid and Development Work

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Each month, People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion.

In September 2014, the most popular blog post was "The Best Evidence Yet on How Theories of Change are Being Used in Aid and Development Work"

In this post, Duncan Green, provides an overview of Craig Valters’ new paper ‘Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning or Accountability’  The paper, and Duncan's blog post, help answer the question: will Theories of Change "go the way of the logframe, starting out as a good idea, but being steadily dumbed down into a counterproductive tickbox exercise by the procedural demands of the aid business?"

Read the blog post to learn more!

How Change Happens: Great New Case Studies + Analysis on ‘Politically Smart, Locally Led Development’

Duncan Green's picture

The research star of the show at last week’s Thinking and Working Politically event was a great new ODI paper from David Booth and Sue Unsworth. Bioversity International/Ronnie Vernooy

Politically smart, locally led development seeks to identify the secret sauce behind 7 large and successful aid programmes: a rural livelihoods programme in India; land titling and tax reform in the Philippines; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration in the Eastern Congo; the EU’s global plan of action to reduce illegal logging; civil society advocacy on rice, education and HIV in Burma and inclusive governance in Nepal.

The paper identifies a number of common elements:

Theories of Change, Stakeholders, Imagined Beneficiaries, & Stealing from Product Design. That is, Meet ‘Mary.’

Heather Lanthorn's picture

I have been thinking a lot about ‘theories of change’ this week (as I was here).  Actually, I have been thinking more about ‘conceptual models,’ which was the term by which I was first introduced to the general idea* and the term I still prefer because it implies more uncertainty and greater scope for tinkering than does ‘theory.’ (I accept that ‘theory of change’ has been branded and that I have to live with it, but I don’t have to like it.)

Regardless of the term, the approach of thinking seriously about how behavioral, social and economic change happens is important but often overlooked during the planning stages of projects/programs/policies and linked evaluations. Moreover, they are glossed over in the analysis and reporting stages, left to academic speculation in the discussion section of an evaluation paper and not informed by talking systematically to those people who were intended to benefit from the program.

I think there is growing recognition that building a theory of change is something that should happen, at least in part, backwards (among other places where this is discussed is in ‘evidence-based policy’ with the idea of a ‘pre-mortem‘ and ‘thinking step-by-step and thinking backwards‘).  That is, you start with the end goal, usually some variant of ‘peace,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘wellbeing,’ ‘capabilities,’** etc., in mind and work backwards as to how you are going to get there from here.

The Best Evidence Yet on How Theories of Change are Being Used in Aid and Development Work

Duncan Green's picture

If you are interested in Theories of Change (ToCs), you have to read Craig Valters’ new paper ‘Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning or Accountability’ or at least, his accompanying blog. The paper draws on the fascinating collaboration between the LSE and The Asia Foundation, in which TAF gave LSE researchers access to its country programmes and asked them to study their use of ToCs. That means Craig has been able to observe their use (and abuse) in practice.

What this paper helps answer is the question I raised a while ago – will ToCs go the way of the logframe, starting out as a good idea, but being steadily dumbed down into a counterproductive tickbox exercise by the procedural demands of the aid business?

Why is it so much Harder to Talk about Politics than about Policies?

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been running into some resistance recently in writing about politics, and some interesting patterns are starting to emerge.

Firstly, when I sent round a draft piece on the politics and policies of national redistribution (i.e. when you look at the countries who have reduced inequality, what did they do and what were the politics that led to them doing it?) the subtext from a number of commentators in the countries concerned was ‘love the policies, but could you not talk about the politics please?’

They felt that talking about politics and political players (whether leaders or movements), especially in a positive way (Government of X has done brilliantly on Y), could be politically compromising or just felt anxious about being seen as naive, or being denounced by the radicals. Oppositionalism (all politicians are venal, all leaders betray, any progress is purely a grudging response to overwhelming public pressure from below) seems much easier (see right). If politics is mentioned at all, it’s just through the cop-out of lamenting the lack of political will (which all too often means telling politicians to do things that will get them chucked out of power or shot, and then condemning them when they refuse).

How Can We Get Better at Promoting Active Citizenship? Lessons from Ten Case Studies

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Over the last few months I’ve been writing a series of ten case studies on Oxfam’s work in promoting active citizenship, and blogging the drafts for comments (thanks for those – really helpful). These will be published shortly, along with an overview paper on the patterns that emerged across the ten studies. Here are some highlights – the full paper is here, Active Citizenship synthesis consultation draft. Comments very welcome.

Lessons on Programme Design

The Right Partners are Indispensable: Whether programmes flourish or fail depends in large part on the role of partners, usually local NGOs or civil society organizations, but sometimes also individuals, consultants or academics. Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture (especially important when working with excluded minorities such as the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh); they often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power – crucial for brokering discussions with citizens’ groups. And they will remain working in the area long after the programme has moved on.

Starting with Power Analysis: Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their internal ‘power within’ – self confidence and assertiveness, especially in work on gender rights. In the case of We Can in South Asia or Community Discussion Classes in Nepal, building such ‘power within’ was almost an end in itself. Elsewhere, citizens went on to build ‘power with’ in the form of organization that enable poor and excluded individuals to find a strong collective voice in confronting and influencing those in power. Taking this ‘back to basics’ approach has led to some impressive progress in what are apparently the most unpropitious of circumstances (women’s rights in Pakistan, civilian protection in Eastern Congo).