Winning hearts, changing mindsets
Much has been written about what should be done to help poor and fragile states. What will spur economic growth? What is the best way to fight malaria? What will prevent state failure? Far less has been written about how to find out which solutions may work, or how to bring about and sustain a process of change.
A number of recent articles in The Broker on complexity science and systems thinking have dealt with the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of interventions.
Clearly, the international community lacks an appropriate framework to guide interventions aimed at changing the structures and processes within a country, as well as individual behaviour, perceptions and values. The conceptual framework presented here could help ask the right questions to ensure that interventions are more effective. By regarding an intervention as a process of managed change, the framework brings together insights from the fields of change management and complexity science that are relevant for systems at any scale, from small organizations to fragile and failing states.
The change management literature offers many lessons that could be usefully applied to development, humanitarian or military interventions. Change management can be defined as a structured approach to transitioning individuals, teams and organizations from an existing to a desired future state. Originally, the approach was applied to businesses that needed to change, but it has been increasingly applied to nonprofit and government organizations. Many typologies have been used to describe strategies of change. Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School, for example, identified two approaches to organizational change:
The framework outlined here contains elements that are common to most theories of change, and consists of five iterative phases: understanding the system that needs changing; imagining the future; sensing the urgency of the need for change; six strategies for implementing change; and sustaining change.
Any intervention intended to bring about change must start with an understanding and framing of the system: What is the problem? Where are its boundaries? How do people within the system interact? How do local people perceive the things that are happening? What internal processes of change are taking place?
Those engaged in international interventions need to recognize and understand the type of problem they are dealing with, yet this phase is often skipped, sometimes with disastrous results.
Different methodologies, disciplines and perspectives are needed to arrive at an understanding of a system or society that is the object of an intervention. Political economic analyses of the realities underlying government institutions will help understand what political forces are at work. Or an anthropological and action research perspective will help uncover people’s needs and interests as they themselves see them. First, however, a systems understanding of the society is needed. Most problems the international community is faced with are complex or even chaotic, which means they are not easily knowable.
The agent interfering to develop the capacities of another is often referred to as the trustee. The trustee always faces the inherent difficulty of bringing an intention to develop to bear upon a process of immanent, endogenous development, which encompasses the essential unity of both destruction and construction. Change always entails the disappearance of the old, and the construction of the new.
Perhaps most important is to know when to act and when not to act. Many problems are resistant to policy. Some may resolve themselves more effectively if outsiders do not intervene. In such cases, interventions may do more harm than good. Edward Luttwak, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, argued that war should be allowed to run its course, as it may achieve sustainable peace in the end. A military intervention may stop violence in the short term, but it can create problems for years to come. Development aid may cushion elites from pressure to reform structures and policies, in which case the country might be better off without foreign assistance. Short-term harm may be unavoidable in order to achieve long-term transformation.
Any effort to achieve change needs a vision of a future that is an improvement on the present. That vision will help to determine strategic goals and the principles that will steer processes of change.
Interventions may either have as vision to achieve fundamental transformation, or to deliver direct results or relief for a target group. Another distinction is between a vision of top-down, authority-driven change, and one of participatory bottom-up processes of change.
But whose vision are we talking about? That of a poor farmer, a local NGO, or the country’s president?
Most change management theories recognize the need for a shared vision that resonates with people within the system as well as with outside stakeholders. A vision that undermines the interests of elite groups will backfire unless there is support and capacity to implement it. And without ownership of the vision by the very people the vision is for – often the poorest in a society – sustainable change will not happen. The wider the gap between the vision of the interveners and that of the local people, the harder it will be to achieve lasting results.
Without a good fit between the vision, implementation capacity and commitment, a vision is likely to be little more than a pipe dream. In his book
In all interventions, at least three groups of stakeholders can be discerned: (1) the interveners, (2) the members of society who share the same vision of change as the interveners, and (3) those who resist the vision of change of groups 1 and 2. This group will resist the implementation of the vision of change (see below). In the development literature, the members of group 2 are often referred to as the drivers of change, assuming that the interveners themselves are capable drivers of change as well. Here, it is assumed that the interveners consist of one group, although in reality there are of course multiple interveners, which compounds the complexities of purposefully and effectively intervening.
The tension between the current reality and the realization that a better future is possible creates a sense of urgency to change.
At the point of intervention, some crucial questions need to be asked. Who feels a sense of urgency to change a given situation? Who owns the problem? Who cares about the problem – the aid workers, the local poor people, the local elite? Or are constituencies in the intervener’s country demanding action after seeing starving people on CNN? All too often, interveners end up becoming the owners and paymasters of a problem. Change management experience shows that if the client doesn’t care, very little will be achieved. Next to the differences in the sense of urgency and the interests of the interveners and the clients, a distinction can be made between the long-term and short-term interests of different groups of stakeholders, and between the interests of society and those of individuals.
For an intervention to be effective, the interests of the interveners have thus to overlap with those of some groups in the society concerned. For any successful change a guiding coalition is necessary.
Can people be made to care, if they don’t already? Al Gore’s film,
The drivers of change, then, are the shared vision held by those involved, alongside the level of urgency they feel about the need for change. But only by implementing and sustaining change will a different reality emerge. For these parts of the framework, the key questions are what to do to solve a problem, how to implement change and determine the sequence of actions to take. These questions are intrinsically intertwined, since finding solution for complex or chaotic problems goes hand in hand with their implementation. Yet, when faced with these types of problems, the international community often tries to apply linear approaches – analysis, best practice, blueprint designs and implementation – that will only work if the problem is known or knowable,
Although Easterly’s ‘searching’ is an important method, it cannot answer all questions. Certain questions are impossible to answer using experimentation and evaluation. For example, to know what should be done to spur economic growth in a country, a binding constraints analysis needs to be carried out. This could show whether it is the lack of good infrastructure or of financial markets that hinders economic growth most.
Western countries have learnt something about the processes that can lead to state-building
The most effective interventions build on these immanent processes of change that lead to political stability, accountability and wealth by taking away or by facilitating binding constraints. Donors who undermine these local processes probably do more harm than good in efforts to build a state accountable to its citizens. It has been argued that the international community should perhaps shorten a civil war not by fighting all parties and trying to impose a liberal democratic order but by choosing sides, helping one party to attain military victory. There is widespread disappointment with the performance of the good governance agenda in Africa. Some academics, such as Tim Kelsall of ODI, recommend ‘going with the grain’ of African societies: ‘The question is how to redirect development efforts so that they stop working against and start to build upon, the extant notions of moral obligation and interpersonal accountability’.
One issue that is often overlooked concerns sequencing and timing – determining what to do, and when. People and systems need to be ready for change. Harvard economist Dani Rodrik argues that the ‘scarce political capital of reformers’ should be used as efficiently as possible by proposing the right sequence of reforms, beginning with tackling the most binding constraints to growth.
In its efforts to implement change, the international community may use various strategies, either alone or in combination. Based on the approach developed by Léon de Caluwé and Hans Vermaak of the Twynstra Group, the Netherlands,
The first, most extreme, strategy involves
In old-fashioned wars, strategic goals would be achieved by military means. In a war between citizens, however, such as the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, military means alone cannot achieve strategic objectives, but need to be part of a broader enforcement strategy using additional methods such as the so-called ‘3D approach’: defence, diplomacy and development.
The second strategy,
Incentives are often only effective if they strengthen the position of an internal group trying to bring about change, and if the vision of change is shared by powerful groups. In Kenya, for example, the government was offered several incentives to change certain policies, but each time, as soon as the promised incentive was received, the reforms of public finances and public service management were turned back. The reforms were clearly not in the best interest of the key power holders.
But direct help has its downsides. Large, costly projects driven by international agencies without an understanding of local needs and problems are doomed to fail because the people themselves do not care about them. Africa is littered with such failures. Direct help can create a culture of dependency – witness the refugee camps in northern Uganda – and can also cushion elite groups from pressure to change. Humanitarian aid can remove the urgency of real transformation.
The strategic goal of the fifth strategy,
With the sixth and final strategy,
Once the intervention has set in motion a process of change, ‘quick wins’ and easy successes are important to maintain the momentum. To maintain the impetus of change, successes must be communicated. Those not yet convinced need to be shown that positive change is achievable, and that they
But sooner or later resistance to change will emerge as the system ‘pushes back’.
Interveners should be aware that some implementation strategies, if used in combination, can undermine each other.
Since the processes of change are never linear, there is often a tipping point, a point of no return, when, for example, a new power configuration makes it impossible for those resisting change to turn back the clock. Some observers argue that in certain situations sequencing of implementation strategies is to be preferred to simultaneous use of different strategies. In Afghanistan the Taliban have to be first defeated militarily –thereby creating a new power configuration – before development can begin, since a lack of security frustrates all development efforts.
Ultimately, sustainable change can only be brought about by winning hearts and changing minds. Change needs to be supported by the intrinsic motivation of a large enough coalition of people. Enforcement, conditioning, coalition building and direct support are in essence all power strategies: the intervener drives the change. Such strategies may be needed in some situations to change the power configuration and to enable processes of bottom-up change. In the long run, however, change can only become sustainable by facilitation, by enabling people to learn, by supporting them to discover solutions to problems themselves and by making sure they become (again) the owners of their own problems and drivers of their own change.
Why have so many interventions fallen short of expectations? Some have suffered from unrealistic visions that feed unreal expectations, or go too much against the grain of the system, or lack the persistence and commitment needed to apply enough capacity. Others have been carried out by fragmented groups of interveners with different understandings, visions, interests and objectives.
The international community could achieve more than it does now if it were to base its interventions on the framework presented here, rather than on grandiose policies and plans. But given the messy reality of interventions by a fragmented international community, their complex nature and the manifold preconditions that have to be met for interventions to be effective, the chances that the framework will be applied in full are slim. However, deeper insight into the complexities of purposeful interventions in other societies should lead to simpler, less ambitious policies and interventions. When the conditions for effective interventions cannot be fulfilled, no intervention is better than upsetting endogenous processes of change. The least we can do is to do no harm.