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How change happens

Economist Duncan Green, the author of From Poverty to Power, proposes a new path
to change for activists, nonprofits and aid agencies. His Power and Systems approach
can help advocates and development agencies engage more flexibly with communities
in need of change. Green, a senior strategic adviser at Oxfam and a professor of
International Development at the London School of Economics, addresses the
theoretical underpinnings of his concept of change, examines how change affects
institutions involved in aid or development work, considers the people who embrace
activism and examines the implications of his approach to bringing about
change. getAbstract believes that government aid workers and development and aid
officers in local and international agencies can benefit from learning about this
approach to creating change.

In this summary, you will learn

How activists, nonprofits and aid agencies can bring about change with a Power and
Systems Approach;
How governments and social norms can change;
Why change requires following complex, multifaceted strategies; and
Why change efforts are more effective if they stem from the community agencies are
trying to serve.

Aid agencies, nonprofits and advocates are likelier to be able to implement change
when it comes from within the communities they are trying to serve.
Community change requires understanding how power works beyond obvious
A power analysis identifies who holds what power and what might enable change.
A Power and Systems Approach rejects the idea that progress is due to cause and
effect. It says to implement several strategies and accept that some failure is
Institutions, ideas and interests that maintain the status quo are deterrents to
Visible Power comes from authority. Hidden Power carries out visible powers
orders. Invisible Power is how powerless people internalize their situation as
The Four Powers Model enables sharing empowerment:
It uses power within based on conviction, power with based on cooperation,
power to based on choices and power over based on hierarchy,
Governments rarely introduce new norms; they may slowly adapt to activists ideas.
Democracies often depend on compromise and horse-trading to effect change, while
closed political systems respond to research and evidence.

Power and Systems Approach

A successful community change effort requires understanding how power works

beyond the obvious political and economic structures. Activists can produce a better
strategy by first conducting a power analysis to identify which people hold what kind
of authority in a given situation and what might allow change to occur. Make sure you
have partnerships, connections and relationships with people who can and will help
implement change. Consider how to sway the people youre targeting for change,
whether through laws and policies, or in social norms, attitudes and beliefs. Consider
what could happen to instigate change: a political event, an environmental catastrophe
or some economic disaster.

Whether youre working within a development organization, an aid agency, a

government office or a nonprofit, you can create change using a Power and Systems
Approach. To make it work, stay flexible and build continuous feedback into your
process. When you work on an aid or development initiative, have your entire team
agree on basic rules. Some activists negotiate through conflict, and others prefer
cooperation. Both fit a Power and Systems Approach (PSA) to creating change. Those
who use a PSA reject the idea that progress occurs by cause and effect. They
recommend implementing several strategies and accepting that some failure is

Empowerment is not so much a single event as a process taking place in a complex

system replete with multiple feedback loops, rather than linear chains of cause and
Remember, also, that success doesnt always occur the way you plan. Human systems
are complex. Change will happen not through one action, but through the interplay of
multiple actions at different levels. Regard any failure as an opportunity to understand
the situation better. That calls for an honest assessment of your projects team, actions,
community and participants.

Aid technocrats avoid discussions of leadership, because it rapidly gets political and
clouds the selective purity of evidence-based policy making and technical
When progress comes from within the community, people are more likely to accept it.
Professionals are accustomed to identifying a problem, designing a solution and
implementing the structures to address the problem. Often, they fail to see the benefits
of local knowledge and of shifting the power structure to empower those within the
community. Meet regularly with members of the community where you are trying to
implement change so you can establish and re-establish relationships and alliances.
Activists must identify community members who have good ideas or who are
implementing change on their own.

Power and Empowerment

Power is how one person or organization retains control of someone elses resources,
actions or innermost thoughts. You will find visible power anywhere money,
coercion and authority are available among politicians, corporate executives and the
military. Hidden power comes from those who carry out the vision of those who hold
obvious power. This includes behind-the-scenes lobbyists, donors and members of an
old boys network. Those with hidden power may recommend small alterations, but
they wont propose radical redesign. Invisible power is how those without power
internalize their situation, accepting it as normal or natural. The status quo
depends on these three forms of power, but instituting a four powers model can open
new avenues for overcoming stubborn, stable power structures. The four powers are:

The abolitionists invented virtually every modern campaign tactic, including

posters, political book tours, consumer boycotts, investigative reporting and

1. Power within The conviction that one is right and deserving of benefits and
2. Power with The effort to work together to share and develop power as a group.
3. Power to The ability to make choices and pursue those decisions.
4. Power over The system of hierarchy that power typically elicits.

Change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic

shifts and in sudden, unforeseeable jumps.
This four-power model enables sharing empowerment. The power within of one
community member often spreads to become power with and power to throughout
a community. Unfortunately, many activists turn power within into finger wagging
as they try to convince those in power to change. They ignore vital mutual
understanding, empathy and trust.

Changing Norms

Implementing change is difficult. Existing institutions, ideas and interests deter

change, and work with social norms to maintain the status quo. Social norms are both
fixed and evolving; they include wars and social and financial crises that shift attitudes.
Family life establishes many social norms. Schools introduce the way the norms apply
within society.

Outsiders should think of themselves as ecosystem gardeners, nurturing diversity

and resilience, and focusing on the enabling environment.
Governments go through a five-step change process: repression, denial, tactical
concessions, prescriptive status and rule-consistent behavior. Governments rarely
introduce new norms. Instead, governments slowly adapt to ideas from activists. Six
dimensions can lead to changes in countries cultural beliefs and attitudes. These
elements, which influence how easily or slowly a culture changes, include: acceptance
of inequality; tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity; individualism versus
collectivism; distribution of emotional roles between genders; long-term versus short
term orientation and indulgence versus restraint.

Given powers central role in determining both stasis and change, I find its absence
from the development lexicon remarkable. The aid landscape is littered with terms
that avoid the uncomfortable truth that seldom is power distributed fairly.
Public figures politicians, celebrities and other role models play leadership roles
in bringing about change. In 1993, the Indian government determined that women
should hold a third of government positions. A subsequent study found that in districts
with female leaders for two election cycles, girls postponed marriage, sought more
education and believed they could choose a career rather than accept one determined
by their in-laws.

Religion plays a role in bringing about change. Outside of the secularization of Europe
and North America, faith is the cornerstone of many communities. Religious leaders
may discourage or advocate for activism within the community, and they influence
whatever change may occur. Learning the history of different local institutions
political parties, government and organizations allows activists to understand the
underlying culture and beliefs. Learning local history can help mitigate the hubris that
often undermines activists.

What people see as normal, desirable or aberrant determines their sense of right
and wrong, and can both drive and hold back the search for social justice.

How States Evolve

States govern by establishing laws and taxes, keeping citizens secure from political and
natural disasters, and providing a unifying message by reinforcing social norms. States
depend on three often-conflicted areas: a central administrative government, an
oversight mechanism like elected officials and a legal apparatus (though the law is a
system that is in constant flux). Wars and disasters often bring about change, but
recent years show the power of nonviolent civil actions.

Activists need to understand where leadership comes from and how we can best
identify, support and work with progressive leaders.
Developing countries fall into three categories:

1. Developmental states These nations generally have a centralized government

that focuses on economic development. The strongest had a government before
colonization, as in South Korea or Singapore. Often, these states impose severe social
2. Patrimonial states These states have high levels of corruption, springing from
strong patronage among political players.
3. Fragile/conflict affected states Conflict and violence undermine efforts at
regular, consistent rule. Public services and the law barely function. Citizens live in
fear of random violence. High levels of poverty and medical need impel aid agencies
to engage with these states.
From the perspective of now, institutions appear to be permanent and unchanging;
in fact, they often depend on that appearance for their credibility.

Horse Trading

Democracies often depend on compromise and horse-trading to create change. Closed

political systems are often more responsive to research and evidence. Aid activists tend
to ignore the historic traditions of the states where they work. They fail to establish
change because they try to force liberal-democratic and free-market institutions into
action where they wont work well. Hybrid institutions that work with local customs
and then introduce egalitarian ideals from developed nations can create lasting
change, such as when the governments of Mali, Niger and Senegal brought students
into their French secular national education system by incorporating the religious
education that students parents wanted.

When communities make the discovery for themselves, behavioral change can take
root providing what the authors call social proof.
Laws introduce change. Customary law stems from local values and addresses family
arrangements such as marriage, separations and children, as well as public services
use of land and water. Formal laws are government dictates.

International law is still developing and hard to impose. It helps shift norms. Some
fear that the spread of international law is the first step toward international
government; it dictates behavior in times of war, but increasingly it focuses on
overseas trade and environmental negotiations.

Familiarity with the complex world of party histories, cultures, structures and
decision making is an essential part of understanding and influencing how change

The Role of Organizations and Corporations in International Change

The development of the United Nations after World War II, the World Health
Organization in 1948, the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1950 and the World
Trade Organization in 1995 exemplify the importance of international systems. They
influence programs, as do activists, lobbyists, philanthropists, businesspeople and
politically engaged academics.

Getting advocacy right requires political maturity, the right combination of tactics
and allies, and making the most of windows of opportunity as they come along.
Activists dispute the role of Transnational Corporations (TNCs). These businesses
can influence the global economy progressively when they respond to consumer
demands for improved employee working conditions, better environmental practices
or other such concerns. The World Bank estimates that TNCs provide $1 trillion in
bribes annually to lock down deals. Four factors influence whether a corporation will
engage in progressive change: the effect on the brand, the cost, the likelihood of
forthcoming government regulation and the potential competitive gain over their
rivals. Some see corporate social responsibility as just spin, while others argue that it
represents a market-friendly approach to change. Activists must consider how to
make TNCs part of any strategy.

Leading Change

Activists tend to minimize the role of leaders when they think about groups and
institutions, but leaders are vital proponents of change. However, leaders are not
necessarily successful managers.

Research and evidence often plays second fiddle to political horse trading in
democratic systems.
The Development Leadership Program identified education as a major factor in
creating leaders. Other factors include travel, faith and the shared experience of
resistance. Leadership that comes from the top of a hierarchy tends to operate
transactionally by using the systems in place, rather than redesigning the situation
in a transformational way. Leadership from below depends on communication.
Activists and agencies rarely support the development of leaders, which may limit the
positive change they can implement.

A PSA Theory of Change

The PSA theory of change comes from two fields, evaluation and social change.
Evaluation is central to understanding the impact of any action. Activists project the
way they think change will come about, but their actions may not have the intended
impact and change may not happen through the proposed means. Appreciating that is
important in long-term strategic planning. Three things stand in the way of change
within the activist sector.

1. The attraction of a top-down approach Great theories coming from

consultants at think tanks or academics at universities seem better articulated than
ideas generated within the troubled community. Be aware that the people on the
ground often have valuable knowledge, recommendations and ideas.
2. Toolkit temptation A toolkit provides a clear pathway, with an initial strategy,
a development plan that provides questions and specific measures for confirming
3. Easy evidence Linear strategies offer easier success since X either caused Y, or

The PSA succeeds by accurate evaluations of change efforts, and by accepting lessons
learned and failures. Greater change will occur if agencies consider change coming
from within communities and know accountability is the glue that constitutes the
social contract between citizen and state, and between communities and those who
hope to help them change.