How Latin American is my Theory of Change?

March 22, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

A recent email exchange with Asa Cusack of the LSE’s Latin America and Caribbean Centre (plus the Latin American tone of this week’s posts – Mexican, Argentine and Venezuelan guests in one week must be some kind of record) triggered a bout of nostalgia about my early days travelling in and writing about Latin America (roughly 1979-98) and set me wondering: to what extent are the views and arguments in How Change Happens and on this blog shaped by those formative years?

The book’s core focus is on power and systems: In the early 80s, I emerged with a shiny new degree in physics and headed for Latin America and subsequently, a life as a London-based activist and writer on human rights and social struggle in Chile and Central America. I distinctly remember the sensation that I was having to rebore my mental pathways, away from the linear, deductive logic of physics to the inductive thinking of politics – essentially exploring politics and society as a complex system, with multiple feedback loops, where knowledge and understanding were always partial at best.

I also remember being intrigued by the way Central American politicians and guerrilla leaders (this was the height of the region’s armed struggles) talked about ‘political space’ as something almost tangible, endlessly contracting and expanding. It felt like they could ‘feel’ the space – an acute observation and understanding of it determined what you could/couldn’t do, and getting it wrong could be (literally) fatal. When I now talk about understanding ‘power’ as the invisible force field of social change, I often think back to those conversations about space.

As for the book’s focus on Active Citizenship – well, that is quintessentially Latin American. My time in Central America gave me both an interest in armed struggle, and in the social movements that underpinned it – especially the base Christian Communities, where catechists in El Salvador would conduct Freirian discussions aimed at ‘conscientización’, using The Exodus as the core text. More on the role of faith as a driver of change next week.

But at some point in the early 90s, as an editor and writer at the Latin America Bureau, I became influenced by both books and individuals working on a very different region – the ‘Asian Tigers’ of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and more recently, Malaysia and Indonesia. These brought home to me the role of effective states and industrial policy and the painful contrast with the economic failings of import substitution in Latin America. My focus on activism became a duopoly – an exploration of the interaction between ‘active citizens and effective states’ became the basis for my first big non-Latin American book (From Poverty to Power, 2008).

I summed up the change in the introduction to my PhD thesis, written back in 2010, which was actually a PhD by Published Work, including a ‘critical review’ of my previous work (v therapeutic – see here for details):

‘Looking back over the two decades covered by these works, it is possible to discern a clear, but unfinished trajectory in the evolution of my thinking. Faces of Latin America (1991) opens in a continent of embattled popular movements, fighting against elite-controlled governments and an essentially regressive economic system. Heroic defeats are to be expected, albeit punctuated by the occasional often pyrrhic victory. The implicit assumption in this analysis was that economics and economic structures shaped politics, rather than vice versa – structure dominates agency.

By the late 1990s, I had become more involved in trying to understand these economic structures and was beginning to read, and get excited about, the role of the state both as a deliverer of growth and as a potential independent counterweight to domination by both domestic and foreign economic elites. I had also broadened my understanding of citizenship beyond national protest movements to wider discussions of human rights.

With my move to the development NGO sector in 1997, I began to broaden the geographical remit of my research from an almost exclusive focus on Latin America and the Caribbean, to a wider concern with the developing world.’

Full 15,000 word critical review here, for any masochists among you: Duncan Green critical review October 2010 FINAL

What is also interesting is the absence of aid from much of this – if you are a Latin Americanist, aid looks a lot less important (except in a handful of places like Haiti), than it does if you work on Africa, for example. Over decades in the aid sector, I’ve found that a reliable initial guide to the political priorities and assumptions of any new northern colleague comes from asking them where they had their formative experience in a developing country. If it’s Latin America, expect a focus on social movements, struggle and justice; if Africa, a deep scepticism of the state and political elites and strong opinions for/against aid; if East Asia, the transformatory power of economic growth. Not so sure on people who cut their teeth in South Asia – chronic poverty and social exclusion?

Guilty as charged: How Change Happens reflects my Latin America formation. If you want to see some of the books I wrote about the region in those distant times, check out Faces of Latin America, Silent Revolution or Hidden Lives. And if any potential funders want to finance a 30 year retrospective, you know where to find me…….