Power and systems, and their role in developmental change: Guest seminar with Duncan Green

Oxfam GB Strategic Advisor Duncan Green discussed the themes of his latest book, How Change Happens, at a recent International Development Department guest seminar at the University of Birmingham.

Considering the problem of how practitioners and policymakers can encourage progressive change, he asked how power and systems shape change, and how can they be influenced. Discussing the linear nature of much development programming, he offered the metaphor of ‘a problem with cakes’ to illustrate a key difficulty of aid and aid activism.

In much the same way that a recipe specifies the ingredients, equipment and method required to produce a cake, he said, projects are often designed with the assumption that there will be an outcome – a ‘cake’ – and that the linear process of producing it will help practitioners learn how to ‘bake a better cake’ next time.

Yet human society is complex. Communities are full of would-be 'change agents', a restless mix of campaigners, lobbyists, and officials. They want to improve public services, reform laws and regulations, guarantee human rights, get a fairer deal for those on the sharp end, achieve greater recognition for any number of issues, or simply be treated with respect. At the same time, those who want change may have no influence, and those who have influence may not want change.

How Change Happens tries to bridge the gap between academia and practice, exploring social and political change by linking the best research from a range of academic disciplines with the evolving practical understanding of activists.

In his guest seminar, he shared in-the-field examples of the complexity of change from the global experience of Oxfam. One, a program to add fish eggs to a community pond in India, demonstrated how political turmoil and social conflict could be sparked by an apparently simple technical intervention intended to promote positive change.

The pond had been accessible to lower caste groups, but when the added eggs made the pond more valuable, higher caste groups tried to exclude them. The unintended consequences of the fish pond project also helped illustrate the positive role such conflict can play in triggering social change. Lower caste pond users were galvanised into staging mass protests and seeking support from the high-caste Brahmins of their community. And, ultimately, a massive social shift was put in motion when women were encouraged to run the ponds.

Learning to ‘dance with the system’, in environmental scientist Donello Meadows’ phrase, is essential for those who hope to be effective change agents despite the complexity they face, said Duncan. Crucial to this is an understanding of the role power plays in development and change. Seeing power and complex social systems clearly is the first step towards supporting those who have little influence but want to see change, and to find ways to spark interest in change among those with influence.

A recording of Duncan's seminar can be heard here as part of the International Development Department's guest seminar podcast series. 


Image: tracyshaun, Flikr

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About DLP

The Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) is an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development.

DLP focuses on the crucial role of home-grown leaderships and coalitions in forging legitimate political settlements and institutions that promote developmental outcomes, such as sustainable growth, political stability and inclusive social development.

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