‘Odd but Interesting’: Clare Short reviews How Change Happens

December 20, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Clare Short was DFID’s first minister (1997-2003) and a force of nature (for example she was one of the originators of what became the Millennium Development Goals). Greatclare-short when she agreed with you, pretty brutal when she didn’t. Which in the case of NGOs, was quite a lot of the time – she had the traditional Labour Left dislike of middle class, self-appointed, self-righteous dogoodery (a grotesque caricature of us activist types, I hope you realize….). So I reckon I get off lightly from her thoughtful review (paywalled) in The Tablet (the magazine for the Catholic intelligentsia):

‘An odd but interesting book. Duncan Green, who has worked for development organisations for 35 years, aims to explain how change happens so that activists might be more effective in achieving their objectives. The activists are not defined precisely; Green seems largely to have in mind those in development agencies who campaign for change across the world. There is a general assumption that what they wish for are uncomplicatedly good things; there is no discussion of where their legitimacy comes from.

There is a lot of arrogance in development agencies. They are full of people of good intent who are too easily convinced of their own righteousness. It would do them good to read How Change Happens. It calls for a change from seeing international development as like baking a cake with a clear recipe and a clear outcome to being more like bringing up a child. Green stresses that systems are complex and are constantly changing. Activists need to have more humility, to study the history of the institutions they are trying to change and to be more conscious of their own prejudices and power.

Green gently remonstrates with some of his colleagues in the development world. He clearly fears that many of them reject the way of thinking he’s advocating. They worry instead about “analysis paralysis” and prefer to take action without reflection. Green believes that the problem of rushing in too quickly to solve a problem is accentuated by donors who demand easily measurable results in a short timescale. He’s right – the bureaucratic demands in the current international development system stymie creativity, flexibility and effectiveness.

dogbert-speaking-truth-to-powerGreen makes an interesting categorisation of different kinds of power – there is power within ourselves, power with others for ­collective action, power to decide what action to take and, finally, power that gives domin­ation over others. And again he cautions that many non-governmental organisations and faith organisations over-invest in individual empower­ment and fail to support collective action to take on oppressive power because they are leery of “politics”. Studying where power lies, he concludes, is crucial to effect change.

Green gives examples of successful change-making and examines why the Paris talks on climate change in December 2015 were successful, while the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 had been such a spectacular failure. He was of course writing before the election of Donald Trump threatened the progress achieved in Paris.

Perhaps surprisingly, but I think rightly, Green is pragmatic about how states evolve and reform, and takes a sober and realistic view of the possibilities of working with multinational companies. He begs forgiveness from his more anti-capitalist colleagues, but he is honest enough to report that his time with the Ethical Trading Initiative has given him a lasting respect for the dynamism and seriousness of some of the people who run transnational companies.

This book is hugely ambitious. It attempts to explain how change can be driven in all parts of the international system. Although its lessons are drawn from the world of development activism, they are applied more broadly. Senior figures in the development world lavish fulsome praise on Green’s analysis. I’m not sure that it is quite as seminal as they suggest, but I was struck by this quote from Milton Friedman that he includes: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

This is of course exactly what happened in the 1980s, when Keynesianism was sidelined, the market became king and inequality was allowed to rip. Maybe now is a good time to read How Change Happens, to reflect on how we got to the state we are in and to prepare some alternative ideas, so that when the next crisis comes we will be able to use them to build a more generous and equitable future.’



December 20, 2016
Duncan Green