How Change Happens (or doesn’t) in the Humanitarian System

February 15, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been in Stockholm this week at the invitation of ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and changing Hum Actoin coverPerformance in Humanitarian Action, which has been holding its annual meeting on the banks of a frozen Swedish river. I was asked to comment on the background paper for the meeting, Changing Humanitarian Action?, by ALNAP’s Paul Knox-Clarke.  I read the paper on the flight over (great believer in Just in Time working practices….) with mounting excitement. It’s a brilliant, beautifully written intro to how change happens (or doesn’t) in the aid business, and to a lot of different schools of thought about change.

The paper starts off with the widespread frustration in the humanitarian sector. Despite dozens of new initiatives, impressive sounding statements and resolutions, and endless organizational change processes, ‘everything has changed, but nothing has changed’ in the words of one African humanitarian veteran.  Changes include an avalanche of information technology, the rise of cash programming, geopolitical shifts towards new donors, growth in the number and size of humanitarian emergencies, organizations and the budgets allocated to them. Yet still people ‘did not see these ‘big’ changes as having made a real difference to the lives of people affected by crisis.’ So the paper is as much as study in how change doesn’t happen as how it does.

The bit of the paper that really grabbed me was the succinct summary of three conventional models of change that underpin humanitarian thinking, and three new ones that could shed new light. None of them are definitive; all contribute to a deeper understanding.

The three conventional models are:

Machine: the aid system is a complicated but controllable device. Change comes from learning how to identify and pull the right levers

Market: the humanitarian system is full of firms – big incumbents and scrappy insurgents – and through competition and innovation, a process of creative destruction generates steady, if painful, progress.

Political economy: humanitarian players pursue their organizational interests, aimed at self preservation and increasing their revenue and power. The rest is PR.

The three alternative models are:

The system as society: organized by politics and culture (shared meaning), rather than crude economic self interest. Power is held in many different ways and change is far more fluid and unpredictable than a political economy model would predict.

Complex sure, but is it adaptive?

Complex sure, but is it adaptive?

The system as ecosystem: the humanitarian sphere is a typical complex adaptive system, made up of a whole series of agents each reacting to what the others do. Change is unpredictable, emergent and often discontinuous (big spikes, separated by periods of inertia). Feedback often dampens change and drags the system back to equilibrium. Not only that, but the system is ‘constantly changing without our intervention, and our efforts to change it will be more like joining a football game than sitting down to fix a broken clock.’

The system as mind: while cultural models draw on anthropology, this model draws on psychology. This bit is worth quoting at length:

‘Perhaps the most influential approach to individual and organisational change, however, has drawn on Gestalt psychology, which addresses the relationship between the world and our perception of it. Broadly, the approach suggests that human beings do not perceive the whole reality of which they are a part (‘the ground’) but unconsciously select certain elements to create a ‘figure’: an internally consistent representation of reality that is not, in fact, the sum of the elements which initially created it, but which is experienced as the whole. These figures are extremely durable, but can be changed by a process whereby the individual becomes aware of inconsistencies, and then directs energy to breaking down the existing figure and creating a new one. Because ‘human action is a self-regulating system that deals with an unstable state in such a way as to produce a state of stability’; the mind will generally resist this process, as it aims to maintain the stability of the existing figure. Resistance to change, then, should not be seen as a conscious process to subvert it, but rather as a normal and healthy process that enables the individual (or organisation) to retain stability and purpose in a chaotic world.’

This is really good stuff. Apart from being Paul’s praise singer, my comments focussed on what for me is the weakest section of the paper – the ‘so whats’. He makes a general appeal for adaptive management methods, accepting loss of control and encouraging networks and decentralized approaches and rethinking the role of leaders. Beware linear thinking, support changes that are already happening, recruit external drivers of change to shake up the system.

OK as far as it goes, but I think that falls short of really thinking through an internal theory of change. I would have liked to see:

  • A more considered approach to building multi-stakeholder coalitions that acquire the reservoirs of trust needed to act when a critical juncture presents itself (and the humanitarian system appears to evolve through a cycle of catastrophic failures like Rwanda, followed by heart searching and attempts at change). How to channel the next major screw-up into fundamental reform?
  • HR: change begins and ends with the people who are working in the system. How do we overcome the widespread anxiety and fear of failure that cripples innovation? How do we recruit and retain mavericks and risk takers? How do we support the emergence of networks of dissidents to generate new ideas and approaches that will one day become the new mainstream?
  • And case studies from other global networks that have overcome inertia – air traffic control? The postal service? The Vatican?

As usual when change doesn’t happen even when everyone says they want it, inertia probably comes down to a combination of ideas (eg we know best), institutions (eg short term funding cycles for emergency response) and interests (eg CEOs judged by increasing turnover). What could disrupt these forces? I can think of at least 3 (feel free to add more):

New entrants: eg startups with different approaches, or new donors doing things differently

New tech: cash programming really does seem to push power from the providers to the ‘beneficiaries’. Suddenly those affected get to decide what aid money should be spent on, and lots of humanitarians could be out of a job. It may just be the trigger for genuine change

And of course, another horrific crisis and/or humanitarian failure/scandal. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for one of those.

Finally, I was really looking forward to sharing a platform with humanitarian rock star Jan Egeland, but he had to pull out at the last minute. In revenge, here is the genius satirical video about him by Norwegian comic musicians, Ylvis. Enjoy.