Systemic change, but how?

Development Policy03 Jun 2013Toon van Eijk

Implementing systemic change requires consciousness development.

Frans Bieckmann writes in his Editorial on 8 May that there is an urgent need for more systemic change in the post-2015 development debate. He also says that everyone involved stresses the importance of their own issues, resulting in an enormous list of subjects to be addressed. What is lacking, in his view, is an analysis of the underlying political, economic and global causes. ‘In the end,’ he says, ‘it is interests and power balances that determine the agenda’. But the question of how to implement systemic change remains, unsurprisingly, unanswered.

Updated ethics

In my view the ‘illusion of intellectual holism’ plays a role here. I think that we simply do not have the intellectual capacity to analyze all interdependent local factors and their complex relations to global factors, let alone that most people are willing and able to adjust their behaviour accordingly in a way that is ecologically and societally sound. Bieckmann quotes Jeffrey Sachs who says: ‘Our institutions and ethics come from a different era and have not yet been “updated” to knit together a globally stable society’. To my mind this could be the crucial issue. If our ethics – and thus our individual behaviour and the collective institutions that are constituted by the sum of our individual behaviour – are not ‘updated’ or ‘upgraded’ to a higher level of performance, then attempts to achieve integrated system change will fail.

Systemic change through synergetic collective behaviour?

The process of development is multidimensional in the sense that it is affected by technological, geographical, economic, political, socio-structural, and cultural & personality factors. At the same time the holistic aspect of multidimensional development (the whole is more than the sum of the parts) only emerges when the interaction between these factors has synergetic effects. The actions of many stakeholders in the development process need to be attuned so that potential synergies can be realized, but who has the intellectual capacity and political power to achieve this? How can people gain a systems perspective and an inclusive, societal rationality? How can systemic change be organized or facilitated? In this context it is important to recognize that all societal structures are formed by individual persons, the ‘building blocks’ of local societal structures and ultimately the whole global system. Basically this means: if you want to change the world, start with yourself. The opposition ‘structure versus agency’ or ‘institutional change versus personal change’ is false – simply because all structures are made up of individuals.

So what about power?

If the proposition is that the personal change of a sufficient number of individuals will lead, gradually and more or less automatically, to system change, it could be argued that underlying power inequalities will prevent this from happening. Powerful governments, multinationals and lobby groups prefer to maintain the status quo. However, the philosopher Bruno Latour maintains that power is not a ‘commodity’ that one can accumulate. As soon as a certain number of citizens start to interpret power in a different way – i.e., power to the people – governments can become powerless overnight. The unforeseen fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unexpected Arabic Spring in 2011, for example, show that the submissiveness of large groups of people can end abruptly. When power is no longer seen as a commodity, selfish behaviour (which is based on a zero-sum perspective in which one’s gain is another’s loss) can transform into altruistic or generous behaviour (based on a positive-sum perspective in which everyone benefits).1 Why is this so? This is where the concept ‘collective consciousness’ comes in.

Collective consciousness

Social scientists like Pitirim Sorokin and Émile Durkheim argue that society is both outside and inside us: it has an objective aspect (concrete societal structures) and a subjective aspect (a collective consciousness). The collective consciousness is the totality of the interacting human minds in a certain collectivity. It is the positive sum of the constituent individual ‘consciousnesses’. The collective consciousness and the societal structures are the inner and outer side of the same reality. Visible societal structures are manifestations of invisible collective consciousness. The collective consciousness constitutes the basis of all societal substructures. All technological, economic, political, social, cultural, educational and religious substructures are connected through this collective consciousness. Individuals, who are the building blocks of these substructures and who together shape the collective consciousness, are connected through a field of collective consciousness. The collective consciousness is, so to speak, the integrating, inner structure of society. The collective consciousness is a kind of ‘invisible hand’ that keeps things together.2

Implications for the post-2015 development agenda

Although systemic change would be preferable over the current MDG-based approach, we do not have local or global institutions with the intellectual capacity and political power to implement systemic change. And without more attention for the underlying collective consciousness it is unlikely that we can create such institutions. The emergence of more ‘updated’ institutions at different levels of social aggregation (from local to global) depends on the coherence of the collective consciousness underlying those societal institutions. In the end this demands attention for ways to enhance the individual consciousness of the constituent members. Without ‘updated’ ethics we cannot move forward, as the current financial, economic and environmental crises show.


  1. Chambers R. (1997). Whose reality counts? Putting the first last. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, page 234.
  2. For a detailed underpinning of the collective consciousness I refer to three earlier publications and two posts on The Broker website:
  3. Van Eijk (1998). Farming Systems Research and Spirituality. An analysis of the foundations of professionalism in developing sustainable farming systems. Ph.D. thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands. Available here.
  4. Van Eijk (2010a). Development and Work Ethic in sub-Saharan Africa. The mismatch between modern development and traditionalistic work ethic. Lulu. Available here.
  5. Van Eijk (2010b). Civic Driven Change through Self-Empowerment. Societal Transformation and Consciousness-Based Development. Lulu. Available here.
  6. Van Eijk (04 March 2009). Multi dimensional development civic driven change and collective consciousness. Available here.
  7. Van Eijk (03 February 2010). The primacy of personal change. Available here.