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How Change Happens

by Duncan Green
September 25, 2018

Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB and author of How Change Happens and From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World. He also authors the From Poverty to Power blog.

frank: I want to talk to you about what you've written about a lot, which is how to be an effective activist.

Duncan: Malcolm Gladwell wrote some really interesting stuff off the back of the Arab Spring a few years ago. He was saying, look, the people who really bring about change have deep bonds of trust. They go into scary situations together and face them. Those bonds tend to be built face-to-face, having gone to school with people or having been in organizations with people. More than the quite thin bond you create on Instagram. One thing is that you need to build up that personal network of people you trust, and who you're willing to work with and occasionally take risks with. And that means getting out of the house.

frank: Once you establish that sort of personal connection, how do you scale from there?

Duncan: The book talks a lot about the idea of power. How do you understand power? I find it really helpful when I look at that sort of process that you just described to think, "well, there's a process of power within." People feeling effective, thinking that they have rights, a light bulb moment's come on in the heads of people who are often quite downtrodden, when they suddenly stand up and say,

"No, I've got rights; people should listen to what I want." There's that process of power within them. Then, what you see really quickly, when people have that experience, is that they start to look around, identify people in similar situations, and form organizations.

Where they're going to scale is to unify, to find people who have similar views to yours, or are in similar situations to yours, and learn to work with them, which is not easy. But what you get by working together is irreplaceable.

frank: Do you think there's a way to cross over from NGO work to policy and government?

Duncan: A couple of points on that. The book argues that activism is not just about being a protestor on the streets. It includes that, but it's actually anybody who's trying to bring about change in their context, in the institution they work in, in the situation they find themselves in. That's because I started to find repeat patterns in terms of how people bring about change.

If you're trying to change the world through a private company, through an NGO, through a mass organization, you're actually looking at similar rhythms, similar tactics, you're asking yourself the same questions about, "Who are my allies? Who are my opponents? What tactics might help strengthen the allies, weaken the opponents?" It's the same.

I don't think activists are this separate category. I think anybody who's trying to change the system beyond the walls of their home is, in a sense, an activist.

frank: You mention activists need to become reflectivists. Can you explain that term?

Duncan: This is part autobiography [laughter]. I started off as an angry activist. Lots of things to be angry about. When I was starting, it was what was going on in Central America, it was the U.S. funding a really nasty war in Nicaragua. A lot of the activism was about protest! It was about saying, "this is wrong." And, in a way, that's cathartic, and it might make a difference, but I never really thought about how this protest was likely or unlikely to bring about any kind of change. It was much more of an expression of outrage. Over time, I got more impatient.

I wanted to see results, so I started to think more about the process of activism, and that moves into advocacy.

When you're trying to do more insider influencing, you tend to work in different ways. It's not all about numbers on the street. It's about contacts, and language, and ways of doing things. People try and change the system from the inside, and from the outside.

Outsiders will be numbers on the street. Protest movements in civil society is a big part of the work I've looked at. I've worked with a lot of those organizations, I've been in those organizations. Then there's an insider track of people who are trying to get meetings with ministers, or trying to get meetings with officials, trying to come up with the kind of evidence that might persuade them doing pieces of research. There's an uneasy relationship between the insiders and the outsiders. If you're an insider, if you're trying to get a company to worry more about the labor standards in its supply chain, in the factories that produce its goods, it's great to have protests. It's great to have outsiders putting pressure on the company, so the company talks to you.

My rule of thumb is that insiders, if they're sensible, love outsiders. Outsiders have a much more ambivalent attitude to insiders, because if you're an outsider, and you're doing a protest, and you want to keep things clear, you don't want to have all these people messing up, coming up with compromises, making things halfway okay. That really messes with your campaign. The outsiders are sometimes more hostile to insiders. Insiders are usually quite happy about the outsiders. It's kind of asymmetric.

frank: Do you think it's a mistake for outsiders to be hostile towards insiders?

Duncan: It depends what your purpose is. If your purpose is to bring about change, I would say yes it is a mistake, because that combination of insider and outsider is ultimately very effective. If your actual purpose is to mobilize as many people, and make them really angry and get them to join your party, or whatever it is you're trying to do, then it does mess things up. So it's a sign, really, of what's actually motivating people.

There is also a political difference, sometimes, which is that the outsiders are kind of maximalists. They want really transformational, big change. They want to get rid of capitalism. If you've got an insider who is making capitalism a bit nicer, that actually makes it harder to get a big change. So, there are political reasons for the differences, as well as motivational ones.

frank: Are there any movements at the moment that you think are really successful, that are doing a good job at not only provoking more thought, but also enacting real change?

Duncan: There's loads. But, I'll talk about one which is really close to home, which is an organization in London, in the U.K. called Citizen's U.K. I love it because it's really different from Oxfam, and the kind of NGOs that were. It is a community-based organization based on the same principles that Obama applied when he was learning his trade in Chicago all those years ago. It's got the same kind of intellectual gurus. And, they work. They basically go around to poor communities working in particular with faith institutions (mosques, churches, synagogues), and with schools. And, they ask people what their problems are. You know, "What's pissing you off?"

On the basis of that, they design a campaign, which is just so good! And, they are really good at mobilizing. They're very sophisticated. They have these enormous, well-orchestrated rallies with choirs, and singing, and celebration. And, the politicians all come, and they grill the politicians, and I just love the work they do. They've had a big impact on things like the living wage, and the treatment of refugees, and much more grassroots, below-the-radar stuff.

But, the reason I know about this is partly because my son works for them, so...

frank: Amazing!

Duncan: Just full disclosure there. He's set up something in one part of London, and they were working with local groups to clean up parks, and to get changes in planning, and to get social housing, and all sorts of things. I love that approach because it's so different from online activism, and it respects the institutions that poor people trust, which is faith organizations and things that matter to them as families, like schools, and starts from there, and I think that's really interesting.

frank: Community based that goes macro from the micro, it seems.

Would you expand more on the kinds of power you define in your work?

Duncan: When people talk about power, they often mean the formal political power who is actually in the government, or who has got the guns and runs the army. That leads you to think that power is a bad thing. I think far too many people go with that line that power corrupts...Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If you stop there, and think, "Therefore, I'm against power," what are you for?

In order to actually change anything, you need power. That's why the book argues that we need to be a bit more nuanced and thoughtful about power. One way of thinking about it is there is formal power. The people who are sitting in the government making decisions. Then, there's hidden power, which is old boy networks, the backrooms, the lobbyists, the people you don't see who sort of seem to influence events. Then there's invisible power, which is actually the power in people's heads, it's close to that "power within" idea. Why do some people think that they're entitled to run the country, and, loads of us, think, "Oh, no, what do we know?" And that kind of thing.

You need to confront those less obvious forms of power if you're actually going to create change. There's lots of different ways of looking at power, but overall I've found, say to people, "Look, power is like this force field, which permeates society. And, most processes of change involve a change in that force field whereby some people get more power, some people get less." The nature of power shifts, so if you're going to become serious about change, you have to make power visible and then try and act upon it.

I think there's lots of different tools for making power visible, and that invisible-hidden-visible is one way.

frank: We're at a particular moment now where more and more people feel an urge towards activism. How do you push people who have no history of activism to participate beyond a march, beyond a like...?

Duncan: There's really interesting studies over centuries about social movements. How do these movements come? They suddenly spike, and then they disappear again. We've got one of those at the moment. We've got the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter. There's a lot of these big, upsurging movements. All of them, when you look at them, they're made up of little grains. They're not amorphous blobs, they've got structure.

Those grains are actually more long-lasting groups of people. It's faith groups, churches, mosques. It's trade unions, it's sports clubs, all sorts of things! Suddenly, they all come together and they make a big noise, and you think, "Oh where did that come from?" When it settles down again, they go back to their grains.

I think one answer to your question is...I am getting to an answer to your answer to your question is, look at your own life and see where are you in a grain? Where are you in a sports club, or a cultural group? Where have you got social capital? Because that might be a place where you should become active.

If you're a parent to your kids at school, and if you're in a faith organization, if you're a believer in some religion, whatever it is, any of those could become big, whereby you're not alone. I'd say my advice would be think about doing that, not just doing the online petition.

Get out and try to talk to people, even if it's scary.

frank: Is there anything at the moment you feel really urgent about? Anything you think people need to be taking into consideration but aren't?

Duncan: It comes back to that point you picked up earlier, we need to be activists and reflectivists. I think one of the aspects of reflection, which I think we need to get much better at, is spotting where things are working in our environment.

If you're concerned about the environment, getting better at seeing where people are doing the right thing for the environment, and then trying to ask, "Why?" There's a whole field of work called positive deviance, which looks at where things are unexpectedly good. I think especially now, we should be consciously looking for these positive outliers, these unexpectedly good results on any given issue, and seeing what we can learn from those.

The reason I like that is because it shows some respect for the people and systems who generate solutions. They're not always waiting for the great, white savior to come in and solve it. It might well be my next book, this positive deviance aspect, because I think it's got fantastic potential as a way of reading about change.