In Conversation on How Change Happens, Activism and Politics

January 15, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

On Wednesday I was subjected to a gruelling cross-examination on Life, the Universe and Everything (actually ‘How Change Happens’) for the entertainment of some Cambridge Accountancy students. Here’s some of the less embarrassing bits.

Q: How do you stop yourself feeling overwhelmed by complexity?

A: It’s only overwhelming if you think you’re ever going to understand it all. Once you accept that you will only have a partial understanding at best, it can be quite liberating! You have to be good at seeing the shape of things, how they’re changing, and responding. Dancing with the system rather than trying to be some philosopher king who understands everything – that’s a delusion.

Q; How do you manage your own resilience?

A: One of my big influences is Ha-Joon Chang. I came across him at a time when I’d just been working on Latin America, for years, and it was a revelation. Not just because of the contrast with East Asia, which Ha-Joon was writing about, but because he brought a sense of history. For example, with Covid, we’re in the middle of something where you just think ‘it’s all terrible’, but looking at the history of pandemics will tell you that what we are actually in is a critical juncture, which will bring about huge changes. Those changes will look sudden in 20 years time, when we look back. But right now they seem painfully slow. The same on Climate Change – it took 50 years to abolish slavery in the UK, it must have seemed terribly slow, but now we see it as a great triumph. Hopefully climate change will one day look the same way.

Q: Will the forces of conservatism reassert themselves post-Covid and push us back to how things were before, as they did on gender roles after World War Two?

A: There’s a really interesting contrast between the gender impacts of the two World Wars. World War one was followed by women’s suffrage and the roaring 20s, a degree of women’s emancipation; World War Two was Rosie the Riveter turning into the Stepford Wives. What explains the difference? Maybe the existence of the Spanish flu made people more ready to accept change? I’m being highly speculative/man in a pub here!

Covid seems like all bad news from a gender perspective – people shut up with abusive partners etc. But it’s interesting from a generational point of view – everyone my age is stuck at home, terrified. Maybe the boomers will finally hand over power to the younger generations!

Q: How to you reconcile tensions between global and local norms on things like trans rights?

A: I don’t think there’s a right answer on this – not all problems can be solved! There’s a real tension between a belief that rights are universal, which we are all supposed to subscribe to, and a commitment to listening deeply to what people feel about their lives. What if those two things are in conflict? And isn’t it a bit awkward that these universal rights keep changing and evolving? All I can say is ‘don’t think you know what’s right. Invest a lot of energy in listening and being curious’. Educate yourself on these new issues as they arise, but don’t think you have to arrive at a fixed opinion, and definitely don’t feel obliged to share that opinion!

Q: Do you see declining American influence around the world as a good or a bad thing?

A: On one hand, my background is on Latin America where we saw the negatives of US influence, support for dictators, abuse of human rights etc – I spent much of my 20s standing outside the US embassy in London protesting. So in that sense the decline of US influence is hugely desirable – it could lead to a more civilised exchange and a more democratic world system. However, the transition between different stable geopolitical orders is difficult and dangerous – the decline of America and the rise of China is already generating conflict.

Q: If we want to become ‘change makers’, how do we decide where to apply our efforts?

A: What I never did, and perhaps I should have, was come up with a set of criteria, run my analysis and say ‘yes, I am going to work on X’. Instead I followed my passion, which is a lot easier in terms of decisions! Authenticity is under-rated – start with things that make you angry. If that’s mainstream, then great, but if not, it may become so, especially if you do a good job!

Q: How do we deal with ‘then a miracle happens’ problem – the fact that change is often out of our control?

A: You need a balance – you have to accept the existence of miracles, of accidents, but reduce the reliance on miracles as far as humanly possible (by thinking about power, systems etc). And then be ready to be surprised and to change direction – that means having good feedback loops in place.

Q: You talked about following your passion, what makes you angry. What is it today that makes you angry?

A: Oh dear. I’m very British – I’m more offended by things than angry! Extreme inequality, for example. Waste and futility; unnecessary suffering. One of the big questions that activists need to ask early on is ‘is this going to be about my personal experience, or about ‘their’ experience?’ Perhaps I was slightly deceitful – I decided on the latter. I found my cause ‘over there’ in Latin America, which I find questionable now – everything looks so much simpler when it’s far away, so much more black and white! It makes you fired up, but does it make you really question what’s going on? It took years of writing and research to come up with more nuanced questions on Latin America.

Q: What advice do you have to activists to avoid burn-out?

A: Recognize the stuff that derails you and avoid it. Know your limitations and manage yourself. Don’t mistake over-work for effectiveness – in the NGO sector, there is a cult of busyness. And,  (continuing the heresy), enjoy yourself – being tired and bored doesn’t make you very effective!

Q: How effective is ‘speaking truth to power’ as a change tool?

A: Well, here’s my favourite cartoon on this topic! Speaking truth to power has to be a tactic, not a lifestyle choice. It has to be part of a wider effort. But there’s a risk of being too deliberate. If you say ‘today I’ll speak truth to power, tomorrow I’ll be really weaselly’, you’re unlikely to do very well, either. So it has to be both really – combining anger with analysis.

Q: What’s the one change that stands out as your proudest win?

A: First, I’ve always been a genuinely minor player in these things – this is really not false humility! I’d say two things – most recently at Oxfam, all the work around Davos and inequality has been an effective piece of norm shifting on extreme inequality. One I was more deliberately involved in back in the day was on trade and the WTO. A really interesting process where people were critiquing a very crude and unfair form of globalization, working with Ha-Joon Chang. And we were part of a growing opposition that ended up derailing the Doha round and driving the WTO into a state of paralysis. People lament that now, but at the time it was warranted.

Full 80m interview available as a podcast here:

Or if youtube’s more your thing:

January 15, 2021
Duncan Green