“And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds. They are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they are going through.”
Change is in the air, or at least in the news. So I thought I’d share a few things that have been on my mind about change and how it relates to aid and development.
Firstly, If we are really serious about eradicating poverty or reducing inequality then we will need some major changes to the way the world currently works. On a smaller scale, if we aspire to be a knowledge organization one that generates, shares and uses knowledge and empowers others to do the same we will need to make some fundamental changes in our current way of working.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can achieve what we aspire to do by incremental efforts and tinkering around the margins of the current systems. There are structural barriers in the way of where we want to go that form part of the existing system.
Secondly, as we try to promote change the system will fight back, as if change were a kind of infection. One obvious reason for this is that there are people with powerful interests in the status quo who want to maintain their current advantages and benefits. But that’s not the only reason. Many individuals in a system might be disadvantaged and want to improve things for themselves or for others – but they have to set this aside the uncertainty and personal risk of change and the predictability and comparative safety of the current situation (“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”). So in many cases there isn’t sufficient momentum for change. The current situation is a kind of equilibrium between the various people and forces at play – not optimal, not fair, but stable. It’s therefore hard to budget even if there are strong logical reasons and latent desire for change.
Thirdly, change can be a long time coming, but when it does it can come very quickly, and often unexpectedly, although looking retrospectively you might often see that the seeds of change were slowly building over a long period of time. What triggers change? This is the multi-billion dollar question but it is often due to small changes in the balance of risk for the disadvantaged between trying to change and not trying to change. If the level of disadvantage becomes too frustrating or difficult that people are pushed to react, if the number of people frustrated and willing to act increases to a big enough number, if people sense an opening for change in the current power structure, or are inspired by successful change elsewhere (in other countries or other organizations), or if external forces put strain on the existing system (economic crisis, competition from other countries or other organizations, a scandal, a natural disaster).
So if we want to promote change we have to work with these factors, how do we take advantage of crisis as an opportunity to promote change, how do we help connect and mobilize people so they will demand change, or how do we inspire them by change happening elsewhere. This is a lot different from how we normally think about development assistance. It’s not just about technical interventions – creating momentum and engagement is at least as important.
Fourthly, the outcome of change is not always predictable and the new “equilibrium” reached after the change might not at all be what was expected or wanted by those pushing for the change. The greater the resistance to change by the existing system then the more likely it will be that the change will be sudden, dramatic and unpredictable in outcome. Of course this also means that the change is not always for the better, sometimes new power structures emerge that are as unfair or inefficient as the old ones, just in new ways.
This means we need to look out for unintended negative consequences of what we are doing, and also be ready to take advantage of unforseen opportunities – and quickly since once change happens it happens quickly.
Lastly, change agents are important in fostering change, but cannot make the change happen alone. Change either comes from mass mobilization of people who take action, or from the existing leadership who take steps to make change happen, or a combination of the two. In the world of aid where we are trying to support change, it can only work if the change is embraced and moved forward by the people we are seeking to help and its direction is ultimately determined by them. You can’t change someone else you can only change yourself. Similarly in the case of organizational change – you can be a change agent, but for real change to take place both leadership and rank-and-file have to take it on, not only the change agents themselves. That’s why “ownership” is so important.
In conclusion – we are not working in a technical field, we are in the change field, we should recognize it and start acting accordingly.