Books, and change in the air

Change is in the air. As I start freelancing after some very rewarding years full time with SciDev.Net, I find myself drawn into a world of books, suddenly noticing some enticing titles around that delve into development in different ways.

I’m reviewing a title on climate change for Science magazine, and have published a review of a book on Ebola on the blog From Poverty to Power, run by Oxfam’s Duncan Green — one of the most influential blogs in development. The review was subsequently published on LSE’s Review of Books and on The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation.

But speaking of change, Green has just last week published, yes, a book: How Change Happens. Last night he gave a talk about it at the LSE and I went along to listen to the discussion, which also featured LSE Professor of of Gender and Development Naila Kabeer.

Here’s a little blurb about the book, pasted from the LSE’s event page:

How Change Happens…explores how political and social change takes place, and the role of individuals and organizations in influencing that change. Duncan will discuss the challenges that ‘systems thinking’ creates for traditional aid practices, and how a ‘power and systems approach’ requires activists, whether in campaigns, companies or governments, to fundamentally rethink the way they understand the world and try to influence it.

I’ve yet to read it so this is no review — but here are a few ideas that emerged from last night’s conversation that are worth sharing.

The activist has to also be a ‘reflectivist’: this was one of the first messages to come through Green’s talk — meaning that to do what they do better, activists need to reflect on their work and their role in the system. I later asked him if that was a little ambitious an ask. They won’t like it, he said, but I’m here to say it. Which is, of course, reflectivist in itself.

Cakes vs. the unpredictable nature of things: when a picture of a fabulous chocolate cake flashed on the screen, I naturally wanted to know more. It was Green’s way of talking about development projects — creations that follow a linear process, using certain ingredients that guarantee you know what you’ll get in the end. Think of logframe as recipe. But the world is complex and made of unpredictabilities critical junctures, sudden shifts etc. Can we think about development without ‘projects’, in a way that works with the nature of systems and change?

Stages of (em)power: I was intrigued by a simple way of conveying empowerment — that power first starts from within, then becomes something we join in with others, then something we exercise to others, and finally over others or a situation. The discussion later came back to this, with Green pointing out how little we know, in development, about that first stage of empowerment within, and Kabeer speaking of her interest in how the individual wakes up to their rights to a better life… how activists are made, not born.

What was that about religion?: memory fails as to how this came up. But it did, twice. Green said he is trying to convince secular organisations to take faith organisations seriously, because these are the institutions that poor communities trust. Religion has negatives and positives, he said, and most people in aid very easily talk about the negative and are very reluctant to talk about the positive. It’s true, in my experience, that religion rarely comes up in conversations about development, to the point that saying it is a daring act.

A point that led to talk of ‘desiccated discourses’: how we speak about development as if there’s no religion, no love, no passion — in sharp contrast to what motivates people to create change.

I’ll leave you with a quote shared by Kabeer, which was new to me and I think captures the fine line that we tread when we talk about and work for change:

The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned. – Antonio Gramsci