Book Launch: How Change Happens

Simon Ming, 04 May 2017

Videos by Cesar Robles, KNL

“Will the aid industry allow this change to happen?” is a feedback Duncan Green received regularly during the book presentations he has held in the past six months.

Green travels to Zurich on April 25th following the invitation of NADEL to introduce his recent book “How Change Happens” and to discuss it with Rupa Mukerji from Helvetas. The latter enjoyed the reading of the book, since “it brings together three main elements of our work: a systemic approach, the understanding of how power is held within societies and understanding institutions”, as she says in the clip below.

As Duncan Green starts presenting the book, the room is packed with colleagues from other organisations, students, experts and researchers. Green summarizes what he believes needs to change in the way activists attempt to transform the world, illustrating his findings with colourful language and descriptive examples. According to Green, the term “activist” applies to anyone from big NGOs to individual people who want to bring about change. In order to be able to influence a situation, one needs power. Thus, the understanding of how power is distributed in societies is crucial.

An example of an analysis in Tajikistan shows that power is not simply distributed between a state and its citizens, but there is a whole ecosystem of power: a doctor, the imam, teachers at schools, drivers – everyone possesses power in certain contexts. As another example of power ecosystems, a map created by the US military shows the network of stakeholders in Afghanistan and thus the corresponding power distribution.

© FP2P Blog

Green compares aid projects to the linear system of baking cakes. “The cake is the project goal, the well-established method is the recipe, the partners and allies act as ingredients and off they go” (cf Green p. 11). It is clearly hard to imagine how a cake-style linear project by a NGO can be successfully implemented in a complex system like the one depicted above. The need for the aid industry to abandon cake projects and move to agile and adaptive project management is very clear, Green concludes, stressing that this requires discussions with donors, too. They often want the projects to be implemented the way they were designed initially – in the future, there will be more feedback loops and course corrections.

Mukerji takes up the last point explaining that organisations have long been reluctant to talk about failures, although the lessons learnt from failures were sometimes the richest. She describes how an external assessment of a water program initiated a process inside the organisation to discuss failure (we blogged about this, here and here) and boils it down to three main findings:

  • Make assumptions explicit
  • Start with learning social norms and behaviour patterns in a given context
  • Make it comfortable to talk about “oops moments”

Mukerji considers Helvetas a facilitator of change, not a change maker by itself, describing “our role to understand a system, and temporarily facilitate to catalyse a change to happen.”

In her experience, there are donors who already are open to this adaptive or iterative way of project implementation, others are still rather embracing the traditional logframes.

The presentation and the panel discussion sparked vivid talks at the aperitif. Felix Gnehm from Solidar Suisse shares his impressions of the evening.

And Isabel Günther from NADEL summarizes what she thought of the book launch:

The book is available as free download. Let us know what you think of it in the comment section below!

Simon Ming
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