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'How Change Happens' by Duncan Green

‘How Change Happens’, this book is called, but really that is a misnomer. For example, you won’t find much in Duncan Green’s book about the ‘cognitive revolution’ which changed the way humans thought and communicated 70,000 years ago: read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri for that, or catch up with the works of Jared Diamond. Nor will you learn about technological revolutions in more recent times: follow Tim Harford on the BBC World Service to learn about the ‘fifty things that made the modern economy’, the diesel engine, say, or the barcode, and watch out for his next book.

No, this book should be called something like ‘How Twenty First Century Activists Can Make Change Happen’. Think of it as an aspirational playbook for social activists in developed and developing countries – and just hope that most of the sales are to progressive activists, and not, say, to those on the populist right. Sauce for the goose, I fear, can also be sauce for the alt-right gander.

Anyway, it’s a good book, rich, readable and useful. It consists of 12 chapters, organised into four sections.

Part 1 introduces key pillars of what Duncan calls a ‘power and systems approach’, with chapters on ‘power’ and ‘systems’ and – no, not ‘approach’ – social norms.

Part 2 discusses three arenas in which change happens, viz states, law, and politics (with media tacked on), and also has chapters on change in the international system and with respect to transnational corporations.

Part 3 talks about what activists can and can’t do, with chapters on citizen action, leadership and advocacy.

Part 4 pulls the analysis together, recapitulating the power and systems approach.

Conveniently, there is a two page summary right at the beginning of the book, and guidance on how to help activists ‘dance with the system’. ‘A Power and Systems Approach (PSA)’, Duncan says, ‘encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse’ (Pg 7). An understanding of power is at the ‘heart of change’, and power, crediting Jo Rowlands, has different dimensions: power within, a sense of rights and entitlement; power with, through organisation, solidarity and joint action; power to, the capability to decide actions and carry them out; and power over, the power of hierarchy and domination (Pg 33). Understand systems, and understand power, runs the argument, and use the understanding to plan everything, from service delivery to project implementation, as well as grassroots mobilisation and global advocacy.

This is ambitious, and at the extreme, hubristic, but Duncan has read widely and has lived the activist life at different levels. The book is replete with quotations, anecdotes and case studies. If all Duncan had done was to rack up failures, we might be entitled to be sceptical. But that is not the case. He has proved to be adept at delivering change. Duncan is the person who produced the statistic that every cow in the EUEuropean Union was subsidised to the tune of $US 2 per day, which for years provided a stick with which to beat the Common Agricultural Policy. That is not mentioned in the book. What is in the book is an anecdote I especially liked of breakfast with Gordon Brown, persuading him not to back the EUEuropean Union on including investment in trade negotiations (Pgs 212-213). That might or might not have been a good idea, a point to come back to.

So, I am a fan, but I am also not completely convinced by the originality of the PSAPublic Service Agreement model. The system part is mainstream, especially with its emphasis on complexity, and Duncan is, in this respect, the child of Bill Easterly (remember his work on ‘planners’ versus ‘searchers’, I reviewed it here), and Ben Ramalingam (whose book on complexity I reviewed here). All three, of course, owe a great debt to Robert Chambers, who pioneered the application of these ideas to international development in the 1980s. As to power, well, yes, we need to understand it. John Gaventa and his colleagues at IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex have worked on this in a similar context to Duncan, and have come up with the Power Cube, with facets representing visible, invisible and hidden power. The concept is now so well established that it even has its own website, rich in case studies and practical advice on strategies to follow. Duncan references the concept, but not, I think, the authors, or many of the strategies and cases. (One complaint about Duncan’s book: it would have been helpful to have a single bibliography at the end, rather than references at the foot of each page; and/or to have included the names of referenced authors in the index).

Perhaps the value-added of Duncan’s book is that it brings complexity and power together. But then I find myself wondering who else might have done that, and am led quickly to literatures not really referenced in the book, which emanate from policy analysis and the idea of bridging research and policy. On policy analysis and the politics of policy change, see for example the work of political scientists like Merilee Grindle, or David Booth (on ‘working with the grain and swimming against the tide’), or more recent work by the ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) politics team on Doing Development Differently. On bridging research and policy, I have worked on the topic myself (see e.g. here and here), but there are other sources. The work of the RAPID team at ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) is especially relevant. For example, RAPIDResearch and Policy in Development has since 2004 been working on the ROMA method by which researchers influence policy: political economy analysis and positioning is central to the method. Or see Harry Jones et al on Knowledge, Politics and Power.

I suppose it doesn’t matter that Duncan is fishing in the same pond as others, especially if his flies are tied to attract fish that others might miss: the activist community may constitute an epistemic community impermeable to those who do not share its culture. And anyway, Duncan has written an erudite and engaging book that should appeal across disciplinary boundaries. There may be an issue, however, if the analysis or prescriptions differ.

On that topic, and without braving the comprehensive, comparative literature review that would explore the point, just one observation: that it would have been helpful if Duncan had paid just a little more allegiance to the value of research. A number of times, he acknowledges that his own enthusiasm for a particular position has changed with better information available – for example, his attitude to the World Bank has softened (Pg 142). I wonder what he now thinks about the point made to Gordon Brown about not including investment in trade negotiations?

‘Activists’, let’s face it, are not always right – and are not made more right by having read Duncan’s book and being better at activism than they were before. In my own work, I have often found myself at odds with (some) activists – on the value of (certain kinds of) food aid, for example, or the contribution that cash crops can make to livelihood, or the contribution of business to development, or, indeed, the potential of official aid. It would be a pity if those arguments were settled by the number of followers on Twitter, or the turn-out at protest rallies, and not by dispassionate and collegiate debate about the quality of evidence. Think-tanks need activists, and need to work with them. The reverse is also true.

(P.S. I wanted to work in a reference to the book by Felix Dodds and Michael Strauss: ‘How to lobby at intergovernmental meetings’ – but couldn’t find the right place. Never mind, here is the reference anyway.)

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