On 31 October 2016, SIID and SPERI welcomed Oxfam GB’s Duncan Green to launch his new book, ‘How Change Happens‘, as part of SIID in the Spotlight week. Dan Brockington, SIID Director, gives a review of the book:

If you are going to try to make a positive difference to the world with your life, if you are going to do something about making it more just, prosperous and sustainable, then how are you going to do so most effectively? Many readers’ efforts are channeled through their work in the private sector, in education, or working for government in some way. But how are you going to attempt this if you are working for or with NGOs? The vast majority of these organisations are small, often ephemeral, and yet even the most powerful are dwarfed by the resources of governments and industry. So how can NGOs use their resources to provide powerful catalysts of change that leverage far greater influence than their bank balances, political weight or brand visibility might normally allow?

Duncan Green recent book How Change Happens (freely available here) attempts to answer this question, and Green is particularly well placed to do so. He holds a rather unique position in international development circles as a public intellectual, whose blog attracts a huge readership for its insightful, sometimes biting, criticisms and perspectives on the day-to-day business of international development. He is currently a senior strategy advisor for Oxfam, was its head of research and has held a variety of other positions in government, the private sector and NGO circles.

How Change Happens is aimed at ‘activists who want to change the world’ (page 2), and at its core is a plea that development NGOs need to work differently. NGOs need to move away from a project focused approach which delivers measurable outcomes from fixed recipes of change, and onto a ‘power and systems approach’. This is distilled into a 2 page guide right at the start and entails both a Robert Chambers inspired positionality (being reflexive, curious and humble), and a concise list of searching questions that examines, inter alia, where power lies, what strategies to effect change might work for who and how we can learn from previous examples. The book goes onto examine in more detail what a focus on systems, power and social norms entails. It looks at some of the key structures that activists take on (states, corporations, the law, politics) and what activists can and cannot do through their leadership, advocacy and activism.


There is a lot here to reflect on. Learning from positive deviance – the exceptionally good cases that provide insights as to what might work in otherwise depressing situations – is a constant theme. Its frank depictions of everyday encounters in development activism help to ground the book. My favourites were the account of ineffective lobbying of a government minister by a weak NGO (page 215-6), and the meeting with a powerful corporate executive who just wanted to make the world better for his grandchildren (page 170) . And it is disarmingly honest about the author’s own background, and personal activism – Green claims to be ‘the most inactive citizen’ he knows (page 179).

But its also useful for how it came to exist. This book derived from a remarkably transparent and consultative process, distilled from Green’s prolific blogging, the reactions that has generated, readers’ responses to early drafts as well as commissioned research into 10 case studies. Its also the result of an intellectual journey (recounted on pages 220-225) that began in 2005 during the contentious Make Poverty History campaign[1]. Then, Green felt that too much attention was directed at international aspects of development issues (trade, debt) and not enough on national level change. His early book From Poverty to Power was an attempt to redress that balance and focus more attention on national level processes. This latest book retains that focus on the national and local, but recognizes that international campaigning too has a place.

In part because of how this book has been written, and in part because of the experience it distills and communicates so well, this is an important work. You can be certain you will not agree with all of it. Neither its intended audience, or its author do consensus very easily. But it is a really useful book to think with. It challenges and provokes. In that sense it would be particularly useful to read this alongside other polemical and thought-provoking accounts on activism, or more mainstream explorations of what has made for successful development advocacy in recent years.

So what’s missing? This is not a book about how to lead. We do not hear anything about ‘vision’ until page 197. Nor, interestingly, is there much reflection about the role of networks of NGOs, and how particular configurations of different organisations might work together sharing power and resources to catalyse change. Again it is useful to read this book alongside Alex de Waal’s recent edited collection Advocacy in Conflict and Alex’ own chapter in that which has mapped out changing patterns of international activism. Its also important to understand how contested the distribution of power and resources currently is between networks of national and international NGOs.

What will prove most contentious? There is bound to be criticism that this book is too cosy with power – and I raised this during the Sheffield launch event. The response was a good one – Green has little patience for people who demand radical change but no idea as to how to achieve any of it. He also observes in the book how an adversarial stance is can actually be useful and desired by apparent opponents (because it gives allies hidden in the opposition levers they can use to effect change from within). But in the write-up of the Paris accord (page 171-175) Green presents this agreement as purely a positive thing. Compared to Copenhagen its an improvement. However many argue that it is too little, too late and too weak – and those possibilities are not even mentioned in this book.

And what concerned me? Green makes the extraordinary claim that, in academia, there are ‘no departments of change studies’ (page 2) to sort out the different theories of how change happens. But there are departments of history. There are also departments of sociology, politics, geography, anthropology, economics and development studies whose bread and butter is all about understanding and explaining social change. I was concerned, however, not because I thought the claim was wrong. I’ve heard this before, a similar claim has been made by another prominent development leader, Jamie Drummond, who also wants more directed targeted understandings of what makes advocacy effective. Somehow all the academic analyses that are being done on social movements, on progressive development, on successful advocacy are not scratching where activists itch. Perhaps they are a permanently itchy bunch. But the change that I would like to see happen entails academics getting better at communicating their understandings of how change happens to this sort of audience.

[1] See here, here and here for an insight into why it was contentious, and here or here for two analyses)


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