What questions help us understand how change happens?

April 8, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

change ahead road signHow do we analyse the stories of change that we all use in development? Such stories shape narratives, illustrate approaches and enrich our understanding of how change happens. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a running theme, but I’m now about to step it up, working with colleagues across Oxfam and beyond to collect and use case studies of change to sharpen our thinking and practice.

What emerges when you do this is the problem of ‘retrospective coherence’. Asked to remember what happened, people rearrange and reinterpret a change story. Typically they downplay the importance of failure and unexpected events, and the role of individuals (eg champions within state institutions). They also tend to minimize the role of actors outside the civil society-state interaction – faith leaders, academics, media, private sector, traditional leaders. What remains is a smooth, well-planned and executed project that bears little resemblance to the messy reality faced by people working in real time. So part of the effort in collecting such stories is to recapture what actually happened.

I’ve got case studies coming out of my ears at the moment – working with Oxfam Novib, in East Asia, and with the campaigns and advocacy team – and will be blogging about them as they develop. But in the meantime, here’s the latest version of the guidance questions I send round to kick off the process – I would really appreciate any suggestions for sharpening them up, references etc. They’re also available as a Word document here.

Starting Point

What change did Oxfam seek? Where/how did the idea originate? Was it specific (eg improving livelihoods for X women) or systemic (changing government policy, prevailing norms)? Was it primarily economic, political, social or a combination?

Power and Change cycle

The remaining questions help you work your way round the power and change cycle, which helps in analysing a wide range of change processes (see graphic)

Power Analysis

What was the nature of the redistribution of power involved in the change? Was it primarily about ‘power within’ eg empowering women to become more active social agents, ‘power with’ (collective organization) or ‘power to’ (e.g. supporting CSO advocacy)?

What was the power analysis of the key forces driving/blocking such a change? What economic or political interests were threatened/promoted by the change? Which groups were drivers/blockers/undecided? Was their power formal (eg elected politicians) or informal (traditional leaders, influential individuals)? Was it visible (rules and force) or invisible (in people heads – norms and values) or hidden (behind the scenes influence)

Which individuals played key roles, either as allies or opponents?

Change Hypothesis

What aspects of (or changes in) political, economic, social context made the desired change more or less likely (eg functioning institutions, political leadership, new technologies, new threats or opportunities)

What was the hypothesis for how the change was likely to come about? What alliances (eg with sympathetic officials or politicians, private sector, media, faith leaders or within civil society) could drive/block the change? What tactics were likely to work best (cooperation v conflict, research v street protest)?

What were the pivotal moments/windows of opportunity (eg new governments; changes of leadership; crises and scandals; election timetables)?

Change Strategy

What was Oxfam’s role in promoting change? As an active player or supporting partners? One programme approach, or advocacy/programme only?complexity sign

Who were our partners – were they ‘usual suspects’ (local civil society organizations and NGOs), ‘unusual suspects’ (private sector bodies, local/national government, faith leaders) or a mixture of both? What was Oxfam’s contribution eg helping them develop a clearer theory of change; bringing partners together with other actors to build alliances; building particular aspects of their organizational capacity; funding?

Implement and Evaluate

What did we/partners actually do (as specific as possible, please!)

What was unexpected? Few change processes go according to plan (although we often rewrite them to make them look that way!) What unforeseen events or realizations (e.g. that something wasn’t working) led to a change of approach? How did the original plan change as the work developed? Were there unintended outcomes and impacts?

Were there early wins that helped build confidence and momentum in the work?

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

How did you monitor and evaluate impact? What evidence can you provide to persuade someone who questions whether your actions actually led to the change described?

What are the top lessons you would draw from this experience for development workers in other contexts?

April 8, 2013
Duncan Green