Dec
27

Kofi Annan – Interventions

Kofi Annan (1938-2018) was the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, a turbulent time to say the least. He penned "Interventions: A Life in War and Peace" (2012) with Nader Mousavizadeh to provide some of the high, lows, challenges and successes of his time leading the UN. The book is a recounting of events, for those versed in the time period, not a lot that is new, barring a few interesting reflections. A few include:

  • "The world abandoned Somalia, allowing it to create for the world whole new forms of civil chaos and human suffering. Somalia would from then on [after 1993] be ignored by Western countries – until years later, when international terrorists emerged there in force, and when scores of well-organized pirates took to the high seas to threaten one of the lifelines of international commerce." (p. 45-46)
  • "We were not along in our optimism. The international development community had been engaged for years in Rwanda, and right up to March 1994, reports were still being written by leading development organizations that praised Rwanda as an unusual success story. But the international community had a thin appreciation of Rwanda's society and history and the force at play there." (p. 51)
  • "The core problem at the top of the UN's power structure is the composition of the Security Council. Today we have five permanent members with veto powers – the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and China – based essentially on the geopolitical reality that existed at the end of World War II. The other ten nonpermanent members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms, on the basis of geographical representation. This situation is intolerable to some; unjustifiable to most. Japan and Germany pay the second- and third-largest contributions to the UN but do not have a fixed seat at its most important table. India has over a sixth of the world's population but no seat. There is no permanent member from Africa or Latin America." (p. 141-142)
  • "It is true that Africa's short and intense experience of colonialism was destructive and divisive. It is also true that many African countries are landlocked and so denied the vital economic asset of direct access to seaborne trade – which many economists emphasize as an essential part of the explanation for Africa's previous poor economic performance as a whole. However, it is inaccurate and, worst of all, irresponsible for Africans to blame colonialism alone. Similarly, if you consider some of the great failures of African development, such economic impediments are not the heart of the problem." (p. 176)
  • "The responsibility lies with Africans, their systems of rule, and their leaders. Africa has had the experience it has, most of all, because of the decisions made by individuals and the systems of rule deliberately enacted by leaders and their supporters. Africa, the poverty of Africa, the violence of Africa, is not the inexorable product of its environment but rather the consequence of choices and decisions made by its leaders." (p. 177)
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Nov
07

Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't

This is the question that drives the recent book by Leslie Crutchfield, "How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't" (2018). This book is about social movements in the US, or that are primarily US-led. It offers some interesting case studies, quite descriptive throughout. The author summarizes the objective as seeking to understand why "some changes occur, but others don't? What are the factors that drive successful social and environmental change campaigns, while others falter? This book examines the leadership approaches, campaign strategies, and ground-level tactics employed by a range of modern social change efforts peaking since the 1980s" (p. 3). The key lessons can be summarized in six points:

  • "Winning movements are fueled by energy that materializes from the bottom up." (p. 12)
  • Do "the yeoman's work of pushing for improvements at the state and local level, advocating town by town, racking up small wins and building momentum incrementally, rather than going for national change at the start." (p. 12)
  • "change public attitudes so people believe the changes they seek are fair and right" (p. 13)
  • Put your "egos and organizational identities to the side (if only temporarily) so disparate factions can come together around a common agenda" (p. 13)
  • "Businesses can affect major change by altering their employee policies; raising their influential voices in public debates; and leveraging their innovation capabilities, as well as their brands and customer loyalty, for causes" (p. 13)
  • "Instead of small handfuls of elites dictating to troops from the top down or an amorphous mob of activists genuflecting for change from the bottom up, the most effective movements find the balance between the "leaderless" and the "leader-led" extremes" (p. 14).

I found the book somewhat repetitive. Given two years had passed since "How Change Happens" (Duncan Green's version) was published, and all the hullabaloo around it, it is odd that the author does not even cite Green's book (same title, same topic). Many of the key concepts this book tried to introduce (e.g. complexity, systems) where already introduced in Green's book. Maybe more disappointing is that Crutchfield does not employ complexity or systems approaches consistently, but rather uses them narrowly and in a specific way. Other findings in this book are reflected in a range of existing books (which are also not cited), such as those on leadership, which includes books that are also specific to the US context. Two relevant omissions were McChrystal (2015) and Bond and Exley (2016). The lack of engagement with all this relevant literature is unfortunate, particularly given the research produced was done by a large team. If you are looking for a book on this topic, I would suggest Green's 'How Change Happens' before this one (unless you are seeking out the specific US case studies).

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Mar
02

Engaging in a Complex World

In development studies and practice there are some key voices advocating for organizational changes. Ben Ramalingam, Duncan GreenDanny Burns and Stuart Worsley, Dave Algoso, and the USAID Learning Lab. They are calling for complexity and systems thinking to support more informed adaptive and iterative decision making and management. As these voices gain traction, and more experimentation occurs, organizations are shifting. However, our learning have largely been within our own development silo – examples of agricultural interventions in Southeast Asia or WASH programming in East Africa. What might we learn from experimentation outside our silo? In comes McChrystal's "Team of Teams" New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World" (2015), taking us into how the military has responded to these same calls.

In many ways the story is similar. Old ways of thinking and working were not working. The author writes "For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case" (p. 3). As with the individuals mentioned above, McChrystal (and co-authors) argue "that the familiar pursuit of efficiency must change course. Efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change has become an imperative" (p. 5).

What I found most interesting is that the experimentation of the US military is not all the same as that in the humanitarian and development sector, and we ought to take note of the ideas emerging.

Change required re-making teams of staff as well as institutions: "In situations of unpredictability, organizations need to improvise. And, to do that, the players on the field need to understand the broader context. At the team level, this is self-evident. But at the broader institutional level, it is more difficult to engineer structures that are both coherent and improvisatory" (p. 143). Horizontal and vertical learning. Early lessons were taken from NASA: "take off the blinders and have people talk to each other. The basic concept requires only the unlearning of fundamentalist approaches to efficiency, but the implementation requires constant maintenance: making sure that everyone has constantly updated, holistic awareness became a full-time job for many, and required commitment and time from everyone" (p. 151-152). Notably, this included global, daily, live meetings with broad participation, having up to 7,000 people joining in. It also included transforming the structure of building and office space. But, the infrastructural changes were just the start: "Our new physical plant provided structure for our transformation, but we knew it was not enough. A new layout with an old culture can deliver the worst of both worlds: countless managers, easer to adopt the new trend that promises innovation but reluctant to abandon the org chart, have done away with cubicles only to produce a nosier, more distracting environment that is neither efficient nor effective" (p. 162).

The military called their thought and cultural transformation "shared consciousness", which McChrystal argues "demanded the adoption of extreme transparency throughout our force and with our partner forces. This was not "transparency" in the sense that it is usually used in the business world, a synonym for personal candidness. We needed transparency that provided every team with an unobstructed, constantly up-to-date view of the rest of the organization. It is the type of transparency that those of us raised in the comfort of bureaucratic silos find uncomfortable. But it would be absolutely critical to our ability to coalesce and succeed as a team of teams" (p. 163). The changes included stronger partnerships with other institutions – beyond connecting, they built relationships, and strengthened them by exchanging staff: "One of our most controversial moves was our embedding program, an exchange system we began in late 2003 in which we would take an individual from one team – say, an Army Special Forces Operator – and assign him to a different part of our force for six months – a team of SEALs, for example, or a group of analysts. Our hope was that, by allowing our operators to see how the war looked from inside other groups, and by building personal relationships, we could build between teams some of the fluency that traditionally exists within teams" (p. 176).

"It is necessary we found, to forcibly dismantle the old system and replace it with an entirely new managerial architecture. Our new architecture was shared consciousness, and it consisted of two elements. The first was extreme, participatory transparency – the "systems management" of NASA that we mimicked with our O&I forums and our open physical space. This allowed all participants to have a holistic awareness equivalent to the contextual awareness of purpose we already knew we had at a team level. The second was the creation of strong internal connectivity across teams – something we achieved with our embedding and liaison programs. This mirrored the trust that enabled our small teams to function" (p. 197). The role of the leader, interestingly, had reduced decision making (which was democratized) and greater visioning (to ensure the new processes and objectives were maintained): "Creating and leading a truly adaptive organization requires building, leading, and maintaining a culture that is flexible but also durable. The primary responsibility of the new leader is to maintain a holistic, big-picture view, avoiding a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging may be. Perhaps an organization sells widgets – designing, building, and marketing them; that's still not where the leader is most needed. The leader's first responsibility is to the whole" (p. 231-232).


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Sep
09

Enemies of Innovation

Dr. Calestous Juma's new book, "Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies" (2016), explains that this is a book Dr. Juma has wanted to write since his early engagement with innovation. That includes his founding of the African Centre for Technology Studies in 1988, being a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and co-chair of the African Union's High-level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and his current role of Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard. He is an avid Twitter user, for anyone interested to follow his work.

For some readers, this book is bound to be cause for (critical) self-reflection. For example, Juma opens with the introduction of mobile phones – technology that has potential health risks, yet has been universally adopted and enabled additional innovations in a range of sectors, from banking and health to education and communication. He contrasts that with biotechnology and transgenetic crops, which also has potential health risks, but "has been marked by controversy that resulted in international treaties negotiated to regulate trade" (p. 2). Juma explains that the book "argues that technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order and stability" (p. 5). The book is about technology and innovation, but also the socio-cultural and economic structures that enable or deter innovation, and why these exist.

The book covers a range of different technological innovations (farm mechanization, printing press, coffee, margarine, electricity, refrigeration, recorded sound, transgenetic crops, and genetically engineered salmon). The focus is not for or against, or weighing costs and benefits, of technologies, rather it is the broader context within which these innovations exist that Juma focuses upon: "Many of these debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety. But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged, socioeconomic considerations. This book demonstrates the extent to which these factors shape and influence technological controversies, which specific emphasis on the role of social institutions' (p. 6).

Juma concludes each chapter with lessons learned about each innovation, ranging from policy to regulation and politics and economics. As such, it may have appeal to a range of audiences. Consider this reflection: "Margarine represents one of the best examples of incumbent industries using legislative instruments to curtail or extinguish new technologies" (p. 117). Or, "the case of refrigeration shows that, contrary to popular belief, regulation can serve as a stimulus for innovation. In this case, many of the advances that made it possible for consumers to access safe and mechanical refrigeration resulted from regulation and new standards" (p. 198). The historical cases are less contested, as the debates have long since ended. I found the last two examples Juma presents (transgenetic crops and genetically engineered salmon) particularly interesting as they are yet to be settled. While the presentation of the issues and Juma's broader work situates his own positionality, these two chapters explore multiple sides of the on-going debates (not only the pro/con positions, but also the challenges faced by regulatory bodies and economic impacts related to export markets). On these on-going debates, Juma concludes that as "the world leader in biotechnology research, innovation and commercialization, the United States could set an example in the regulation of biotechnology innovations to ensure that society derives the highest possible benefit from these technologies in the safest possible way" (p. 277-278).

One component of the argument that Juma do not entertain in much detail is that of choice, and here an interesting analogy could also have been drawn to transgenetic crops. For those opposed to GM food crops, one of the key issues is choice, and thus advocacy for labeling to have the option to purchase GM or not. Embedded within this debate is that GM crops cannot be contained entirely, and spread (and therefore entire bans are advocated). While there are important considerations to be addressed regarding these concerns, it is interesting that mobile phone technology was not given as a parallel: one can choose not to purchase a mobile phone, but it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to electromagnetic radiation because of societal choices (the level differs, as it would with labeling options that allow for a small percentage of GM to be present in non-GM items).

The book concludes with notes on leaders and leadership: "The next frontier of leadership will focus largely on how society is prepared to respond not only to global grand challenges but also to new social problems generated by technological advancement and engineering applications. Leaders will need to be more adaptive, flexible, and open to continuous learning. They will be called upon increasingly to take decisions in the face of uncertainty and amid controversy" (p. 285-286).


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