An Evidence Base for Hope – a new research project

October 19, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Irene Guijt and Ruth Mayne introduce ‘Inspiring Radically Better Futures’, a new Oxfam research programme.

With COP26 looming, everyone is hoping again. We hope that world leaders will make the bold decisions needed to reduce the scale of inevitable climate change. But what Sarah Palin once memorably called ‘that hopey changey stuff’ has gotten a hard rap recently. Take Greta Thunberg’s retort about world leaders – “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.” Hope is a familiar smokescreen for politicians of all leanings, who use superficial references to small successes to divert attention from deeper structural problems. Others though refer to it as a life raft, all we have left to keep despair at bay. To quote President Obama – ‘hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”

Hope matters. It’s the fuel for change, the currency on which progressive movements often rely – the hope of change keeps them pitching in to fight injustice and suffering. The world needs hope more than ever given the frightening convergence of three massive crises: Environmental destruction, economic inequality and injustices rooted in patriarchy and racism make for horrific daily headlines that make solutions feel more out of reach than ever. Hope for better times motivates people, governments and businesses to invest time and resources in countering these crises.

But while many activists contrive to strive for change even against the odds, many others fall into despair or denial.  Opinion polls have shown that, while increasing majorities of people are concerned about the climate crisis, many feel powerless to make a meaningful difference. Hence this research. We believe an evidence base for hope can help inspire and motivate action and show people how they can help make change happen. It can be used to demand change from governments and the private sector.

Evidence for hope of systemic change is not easy to find. At the beginning of 2020, one of us (Irene) decided to tweet daily about any evidence for signs of systems change. I found many stories of islands of success but wondered if what I was looking at was a superficial good news story or an example of system transition. I also found it hard to find regular sources of positive information about how structural change leveraged impact at scale in terms of environmental improvement, gender justice, and economic equality.

Yet many fascinating and inspiring examples exist. History offers the end of formal slavery, making domestic violence illegal in many countries, rethinking the purpose of the economy, and establishing the IPCC and the Paris Climate Accords. More recently we see the spread of social enterprises, better batteries to scale up renewable energy, divestment from fossil fuel, changes of laws that give land to those who have fought for so long, the #MeToo seismic shift that is turning around entrenched patriarchy, and more. Some may dismiss these examples as window dressing, while others may feel the battle has been won. Both perspectives are problematic – they feed apathy or complacency.

Hope can be inspired and action strengthened by examples of evidence-based possibility and stories of meaningful change. Otherwise, as Thunberg warns, power holders can use it as a placebo to pacify social movements.

Four evidence gaps stand out.

First, whilst there is increasing recognition about the need for transformative systemic change, there is less understanding about how intentional systemic change can be achieved, and what it takes to tip the scales into a new normal.

Second, much evidence is about micro project-level successes or national level macro-level change. This misses meso-level change, a vital but neglected arena for transformative change. Meso level change involves many change agents, including civil society actors, at a scale that goes beyond local (micro) successes of projects, programmes or individual enterprises, without duplicating documentation on national level (macro) change.

A third gap are examples of structural change in tough places. The impacts of systemic crises tend to be felt more intensely in lower-income countries where people are more vulnerable with far fewer resources to respond. Countries with weak or fragile governments, conflict, restricted political space and extreme inequalities or injustices may also find it harder to mitigate or adapt to crises. Is radical impact at scale possible in such contexts? If change is possible in the world’s most intractable contexts, then it must surely be possible elsewhere, setting a powerful precedent and a challenge to the rest of the world.   

A fourth gap is around scaling and what it takes, for example, for local efforts aimed at ending female genital mutilation to grow into a cross-continent movement or for governments to support scaling of solutions, rather than symptoms.

Oxfam decided to start filling these gaps and launched a search and call for cases to address the following questions:

  • How can impact at scale be achieved in lower-income contexts? 
  • What type and mix of structural changes are needed to achieve impact at scale and how durable is the change?
  • What timescales are involved, and what contextual drivers, scaling pathways, change strategies and actors are involved?
  • What scale and type of impacts can be achieved and how inclusive are they?

The findings (summarized in our third post) provide evidence for hope. Systemic change is possible, is happening now and is being carried out by ordinary people in their individual lives, their communities, and their workplaces.

Stay tuned.

Irene and Ruth will be back tomorrow to geek out on methodology, before moving on to the findings

October 19, 2021
Duncan Green