How Change Happens

Governments, activists, NGOs, politicians and development programs all want change. It is why donor dollars are raised and people protest in the streets. But, how much do we actually know, or reflect upon, how change actually happens – and to what extent is that embedded within how development works? "How Change Happens" (2016) by Duncan Green, blogging celebrity of From Poverty to Power, seeks to answer these questions. The book is available open access, as is the author's last book, From Poverty to Power (2012). It is "for activists who want to change the world" (p. 2), but the author does not offer a manual for change. "Indeed one of its conclusions is that reliance on checklist toolkits is on 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" (p. 5).

Avid followers of Duncan's blog will encounter some familiar terrain. I have not focused on the norms and institutions that make up significant parts of the book, rather upon a selection of specific points that I think contribute in unique ways to the conversation about how change happens, starting with a reminder for those skeptical of any change at all: "People seeking change are often impatient, intent on addressing the problems of the world. In the words of one of the greatest activists of them all, they are consumed by 'the fierce urgency of now.' From the perspective of 'now', institutions appear to be permanent and unchanging; in fact, they often depend upon that appearance for their credibility. But 'now' is merely a moment on the continuum of history, and history shows us that the status quo is far less fixed than is appears" (p. 75).

Green offers a sufficient amount of detail to challenge notions of simplicity found in the toolkits and checkbox lists, without burdening readers with drawn out contextual information. For example: "In fragile states, where power resides mostly in outside the state, activists may be better off working at a local level, with municipal officials and non-state bodies like traditional leaders and faith groups. In developmental states, engaging directly with efficient bureaucracies, using research and argument rather than street protest, often makes for a better (and safer) influencing strategy than challenging politicians… In more patrimonial systems, the best influencing strategy may be to network directly with those in power" (p. 91). The book is full of similar short notes that provide food for thought and illuminate points with examples that may not have been considered.

Politicking and creating political parties are not often priorities on the list of activists. Yet, Green argues that some successful "social movements organize as parties because as movements they tend to rise and fall in sudden bursts of protest and can rarely muster the long-term engagement with the state required to achieve lasting change. What's more, civil society organizations find it hard to make any legitimate claim to represent the will of the people because no-one has elected them" (p. 116). At the same time, not all movements and organizations should become political parties. "Civil society can help the state become more effective, and states can in turn promote citizen activism by addressing" different kinds of power (p. 190). Thus, civil society itself has an important function outside of politics. The author has weaved diverse examples throughout to demonstrate different pathways to how change can occur, rather than promote a specific action (although a particular approach – the power and systems approach is promoted as a means to help determine what pathway(s) ought to be taken). Indeed "the range of possible advocacy tactics is limited only by the imagination of the advocates"(p. 217).

At the outset, Green writes that he "was moved to write this book by a combination of excitement, fascination, and frustration" (p. 1). The self-reflective style of writing is engaging, particularly when Green grapples with the intersection between excitement, fascination, and frustration. For example: "Based on research in Pakistan, Masooda Bano argues that aid often erodes the cooperation that underpins CSOs. When foreign money flows in, the unpaid activists that form the core of such organizations can lose trust in their leaders, whom they now suspect of pocketing aid dollars. In Bosnia, my conversations with CSOs suggest that even their supporters view them as little more than 'briefcase CSOs', only interested in winning funding. I find such conversations painful, as they force me to acknowledge that the aid dollars Oxfam has spent so many years advocating for can in some circumstances do more harm than good" (p. 192).

I found the commentary on the role of leadership an important addition. As Green notes "aid technocrats avoid discussions of leadership, because it rapidly gets political and clouds the seductive purity of 'evidence-based policy making'" (p. 199). Activists too "tend downplay the role of leaders and leadership in driving change. Development studies as a discipline has little to say about the Big Man in the presidential palace, and even less about leadership from below" (p. 198). Green writes: "Part of the art of outstanding political leaders such as Gandhi or Mandela lies in their ability to go beyond merely reflecting public norms and instead influence them for the better. Even the endless reception of simple messages, which may be one of the most off-putting aspects of politicians' daily lives, helps challenge old norms and cement new ones. Of course, politicians can also reinforce norms that should change, for example, by whipping up hatred against ethnic or religious minorities or desperate migrants" (p. 53-54). There are some emerging program supporting emerging leaders, but these remain few and far between, and often ones that support established leaders rather than strengthen the skills, network, capacity and opportunities of emerging ones.

Duncan Green is hopeful that the simplified narratives of complex realities, remedied by simple solutions, are (slowly) changing. Different approaches to storytelling show that the good/bad narrative is not the only means to tell an effective story (although certainly it has been used to tell compelling ones, even if they are not entirely factual). "Such narratives squeeze out the more nuanced views of local people and the deeper, underlying causes of conflict, and end up promoting superficial victories rather than real change" (p. 223). I am somewhat less optimistic that the messier stories of complex systems and power will have the same broad appeal as the simple ones – but such stories need not always have broad appeal and strategic approaches might be tailored as we navigate from simplicity to complexity. 

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Two Faces of Civil Society

A number of authors promote civil society as a mechanism to improve aid: Dwyer (2015) argued it as an alternative to traditional, top-down aid, Roy, Negron-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker (2016) as poor people's movements, Eyben (2014) of the people-centered alternative vision of civil society, and Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) about the necessity of collective action for democratic transitions. But, little is offered in the way of critical reflections on civil society, and the ways in which it can reproduce marginalization, disempowerment and exclusion. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to come across Stephen Ndegwa's The Two Faces of Civil Society: NGOs and Politics in Africa (1996). Although the book has its weaknesses, it draws out an important nuance that is often missed in the promotion of, and enthusiasm about, civil society.

Ndegwa seeks to assess how NGOs, as one part of civil society, "contribute to democratization in Africa and what conditions facilitate or inhibit their contributions" (p. 1). At the same time, there is a recognition that conditions are insufficient, drawing upon two case studies, which one "actively advocating political pluralism, and the other remaining politically obtuse" (p. 1). At the outset, Ndegwa suggests that: "there is nothing inherent about civil society organizations that makes them opponents of authoritarianism and proponents of democracy" (p. 6). And, therefore, civil society cannot "be assumed to be congenial to or supportive of democratic pluralism by its mere existence, expansion or level of activity" (p. 7).

On this note, which I believe is the greatest contribution forwarded with this book, the author highlights examples wherein organizations had the potential to act as brokers of change, working with marginalized people and interacting with the government, but made no attempts to do so. Instead, the NGO was "more concerned with carrying out its development projects than in engaging the state over issues touching on the interest of its client communities" (p. 66). Ndegwa suggests that the main lesson "from this case study is that although civil society organizations may be conscious of their political roles in the democratization movement and may have the resources, capacity, and political opportunity to mobilize, they may still be captives of their own institutionalization and especially of their connections to the state they are expected to challenge" (p. 78).

The context is particularly interesting, as this book focuses upon Kenya in the 1990s, and yet it appears in the mid-2010s we are having a similar conversation (as demonstrated by the authors mentioned above). The author explains: "The channeling of immense resources through NGOs reflects the conventional wisdom regarding the ability of official development agencies and, in particular, African states, to carry out development work. Riddled by inefficiency, corruption, and authoritarianism and generally lacking in accountability to its citizens, the African state has been isolated as the greatest bottleneck" (p. 20). Similarly, the experience of increasing governmental concern and regulation of NGO activity is resurfacing (including in Kenya and Ethiopia), then and now, strong civil society organizations pose threats to political power. A WhyDev blog outlines how donors are hesitant to challenge authoritarian government, so long as the expected outcomes are met, yet the Kenyan experience demonstrates how donor agencies were active and effective in supporting civil society and openly criticizing the government of Kenya, including the suspension of aid, supporting the reinstatement of multiparty elections (p. 29).

The book outlines four key factors that contribute to NGO success:

  • "the availability of political opportunity to voice dissent and to pursue oppositional action. This political opportunity included institutional openings allowing access to the state to express disagreement with policy and to lobby for changes" (p. 50)
  • "the level of NGO collective organization and their combined resources. In particular, the formation of the NGO Network and the elected NGO Standing Committee gave NGOs a strong collective voice" (p. 50)
  • "the NGO alliance with international donor agencies. Institutional donors consistently facilitated the NGO effort to fight the controlling legislation in various ways" (p. 51)
  • "NGO alliance with other oppositional forces in civil society was equally important" (p. 51)

Acting upon these factors, however, is not given. And, the "explanation for the two faces of civil society lies in the willingness of the leadership of these organizations to use organizational resources against the repressive state" (p. 111). Ndegwa concludes with a recommendation not on encouraging more courageous NGO leadership, but with a shift of NGO activity towards: "Grassroots empowerment… Through projects that enhance the political capacities of local communities" (p. 117).

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PhD: The Politics of Big Data

The Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) of the Faculty of Humanities is looking for a PhD candidate to join the ERC-funded project 'Data Activism: The Politics of Big Data According to Civil Society'(DATACTIVE), with Dr. Stefania Milan as Principal Investigator. DATACTIVE investigates citizens' engagement with massive data collection, seeking to understand how activism evolves in the time of datafication.​

As datafication progressively invades all spheres of contemporary society, citizens grow increasingly aware of the critical role of information as the new fabric of social life. This awareness gives rise to new sociotechnical practices taking a critical approach to 'big data' and massive data collection, which fall under the rubric of 'data activism'. Data activism takes at least two forms: re-activedata activism, whereby people increasingly resist the threats to civil rights that derive from corporate privacy intrusion and government surveillance (e.g., by means of technical fixes such as encryption); and pro-active data activism, whereby citizens take advantage of the possibilities for campaigning and social change that data availability provides (e.g., data-based advocacy). The DATACTIVE project explores how activism broadly defined evolves in the age of big data. We take a critical look at, among others, citizen empowerment through data; civil society's privacy practices; surveillance and internet activism; governance of data flows and internet infrastructure; open data and civic tech networks.

You will join an interdisciplinary team working under the leadership of Dr. Stefania Milan (the Principal Investigator) and collaboratively examining the emerging dynamics of data activism at the intersection of its social and technological dimensions. We offer a multidisciplinary, interactive and international research environment in a leading department (Communication and Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam currently ranks number 8 in the QS World Rankings).

More details.


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The Anatomy of Giving

Most of the time development folks just speak with and to other development folks. Outsiders can bring a healthy voice to the conversation. Augusta Dwyer, in her 2015 work "The Anatomy of Giving" offers such a perspective on the aid industry, focusing upon Haiti. With a background as a journalist, she sets out to answer what has changed since she first visited Haiti 26 years ago. She asks: "Where can I see the evidence that the billions of dollars and loads of helpful advice given to the people of Haiti have, even incrementally, improved their lives? Would they, as some suggest, be even worse off without it? Or, like the key around Woodley Angelito Vrissaint's neck, does is not seem to be doing much good?" (p. 16) Worthwhile questions. Answers that will inevitably result in too broad of generalizations to appropriately do justice to the broad spectrum of experiences.

The book opens with the work of a doctor, who "is different from many who come to Haiti convinced they have something – some new idea, or program, or better way of doing things – that will finally bring the nation to its feet. Rather, he recognizes how little he and people like him can do, working around the edges of the kind of structural poverty that seems immune to any kind of lasting solution" (p. 3). Herein lies one of the challenges of the outsider – this idea is not as rare as assumed. Take the term used in this description, structural poverty, about which there have been rich discussions since the late 1960s. It is also a space where much has been written, including about Haiti. Most well-known of which is probably Paul Farmer earlier books, such as AIDS and Accusation (1992), The Uses of Haiti (1994), Infections and Inequalities (1999), and Pathologies of Power (2003). These works, somewhat surprisingly considering their relevance to the topic and the questions raised, do not feature in this book. Consider one quote, written almost three decades before Dwyer's work, in a book primarily about Haiti:

  • "Talk of "appropriate technology" and "sustainability" had sounded good to me, at least initially. The problem was that these sounded silly, even sinister, to the landless peasants with whom I worked and to many of their staunchest advocates…during a year of transformative experiences [in the early 1980s], I ran head-on into the fundamental disjuncture between "expert views" on these matters (as promulgated, for example, in scholars journals and in schools of public health) and the views of those whose commitments was more to radical changes in the circumstances endured by the poor" (Infections and Inequalities, Farmer, 1999: 21).

The author is supportive of civil society organizations and social movements as an alternative to the traditional, top-down aid. While I agree with this support, there are also instances wherein civil society may not be the best mechanism or have the authority, such as developing a national highway system or setting minimum standards for pollution levels in water. In taking a view that 'good' development equates to individual empowerment, the narrowing of what is praiseworthy is a natural outcome. However, within that narrow framing of good development, the book mentions Time to Listen, but insufficiently addresses the problems that arise within community-driven and civil society organizations, often times reflecting the challenges of NGOs. More so than any other comment, however, I wish that the author had taken the NGO-criticism and reflected that in her own work, wherein the voices of people experiencing chronic poverty are greatly outnumbered by those of NGO workers and academics.

These comments are somewhat critical, but the book offers plenty of insight, particularly for those not familiar with the aid industry. One example – of many – is the role of aid in relation to human rights:

  • "Today it is countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia that continue to serve as examples of governments receiving lots of aid money despite their lack of democracy and accountability. When human rights organizations complained of the mistreatment and forced removal of peasant farmers in Ethiopia, for instance, the [World] Bank – co-chair of the Development Assistance Group there – rebuffed those accusations by talking instead about the countries "impressive performance with economic growth accelerating on a sustained basis since 2003, despite the global economic crisis." This growth implied, it said, that Ethiopians were, as a whole, better off. While they had no effective way of voting in a different government, this did not matter." (p. 150)

Notes on moving forward:

  • "What we, the givers, can do, perhaps, is think about poverty, and how to eradicate poverty, in a different way. We can learn to better understand the systems that cause it, and we can support organizations that acknowledge and resist them… We can also recognize that our governments are using us as a pretext for their own self-interested giving, and maybe even start campaigning for them to stop doing so. And instead of doling out things, as if the problems of the poor are such that we can't find the time or patience to help them deal with them, we might enable ourselves to stand alongside them as they decide what needs to happen." (p. 166)
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Logan Cochrane

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