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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. They offer valuable insights into the complexities of purposeful interventions in other countries. But the challenge remains how to translate these insights into practical guidelines for people working in countries in distress, whether they are involved in development, humanitarian or military 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: top-down, using expert advice and financial incentives with a focus on planning, formal structures and systems; and bottom-up, focusing on learning from action and experience.

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.

Understanding the system

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. If a particular problem is not recognized as such, stakeholders will be viewed in a certain way, or the wrong strategy and tactics will be used, and thus the opportunity to bring about positive change will be lost. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, according to some observers the Taliban may have been so negatively stereotyped that any effort to try to transform their behaviour is bound to fail.

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 actual outcomes of interventions in complex systems are often completely different from those envisaged at the outset. This means continuous learning about the effects of interventions is therefore essential to deepen understanding and determine the course of action.

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. This insight into processes of change is supported by complexity science: in any system there are always processes of self-organization and decay at work that are path-dependent. There is thus never a clean slate on which to project and construct a new order. Endogenous forces at work in a social order may produce a more complex order, or cause a social order to disintegrate. Therefore any intervention in a given system will always upset ongoing processes and the existing interactions of forces that are at work. These endogenous forces are almost always much stronger than the outside forces the international community can apply. In development practice we often tend to pay very little attention to these forces that really determine the direction of processes of endogenous change. Nor do we pay enough attention to the question of how these forces are affected by outside interventions, or how they use interventions by the international community for their own benefit.

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.

Imagining the future

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. For example, is sustained economic growth most likely to be achieved through agricultural transformation or by promoting export industries? In Afghanistan, is the goal to build a fully fledged democracy or to prevent new terrorist attacks on the West?

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. The most effective interventions combine different visions of change at different stages in the process.

But whose vision are we talking about? That of a poor farmer, a local NGO, or the country’s president? The mantra is that developers should not start with preconceived ideas of how change should be brought about, but from the needs of the target groups and the realities on the ground.

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 The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith speaks of the ‘end to be achieved, the way it is to be achieved and the means allocated to be used in this way to the end desired. … Means are being risked to achieve the end in the way intended. … If the end is not thought worth the risk to the means, then either the way or the end must be changed until a balance is achieved’. Politicians, however, often resort to the principle that ‘at least doing something is better than doing nothing’, even if there is insufficient capacity to achieve their strategic goals. But for any intervention, military or development, the credibility of the commitment to deploy resources until the ultimate goal is achieved, is crucial. Otherwise, the support and confidence of stakeholders will be seriously eroded, possibly with dire consequences.

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.

Sensing the urgency to change

The tension between the current reality and the realization that a better future is possible creates a sense of urgency to change. This is a core concept in change management thinking. On one side, we have a group of people who understand their current situation, their needs and interests, and on the other we have a vision of a better future. This creative tension can lead to a commitment to work towards change. The sense of urgency to change comes from the belief that they can rise above their current situation and work out a better, more productive and positive future. Without this tension, change will not happen.

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. In the context of interventions by the international community, this coalition of change consists of the groups 1 and 2 mentioned above. If the difference between the interests of the interveners and most groups in the society is large, the interveners have to apply massive capacity to succeed in their mission. A common challenge is that the interests of the interveners (e.g. democratization and good governance) overlap with those of the poor, but not with those of local elites. For example, the interests of group 3 (part of the local elite) may be regime survival, for which they need patronage. If the interest of groups 1 and 2 is to get more value for money in service delivery (better education and healthcare, for example) and the intervention is aimed at exactly achieving that goal, groups 1 and 2 will run up against the willpower of group 3 who will protect its interests.

Can people be made to care, if they don’t already? Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, is an interesting example of a deliberate attempt to create a sense of urgency about the need to combat climate change. By introducing transparency and competition, and collective learning, people can be encouraged to become more aware of their interests. If an elite group feels threatened by competition from other elite groups, for example, they are more likely to want to take steps to maintain their position.

Implementing change

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, and to drive change from the top down. With complex problems, the most practical strategy is to analyze and interpret, to find patterns, learn from ongoing interventions and move ahead incrementally. For William Easterly of New York University, the only way to arrive at a solution is through experimentation and trying out what works.

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. An important insight from complexity science is that any effort to intentionally bring about development and change should be built on and link into supporting, self-reinforcing processes of endogenous change. These processes should be understood before an intervention is attempted. As Ben Ramalingam and colleagues at the UK Overseas Development Institute have observed, ‘One should be prepared to approach problems as patterns of self-organization … so that more beneficial and robust solutions can emerge’. What immanent, endogenous processes lead to state building, to democratization, to economic growth? What processes drive a limited access order to become an open access order?

Western countries have learnt something about the processes that can lead to state-building and democratization, such as the crucial role of taxation in building accountable government institutions and the role of war-making in building states. Charles Tilly, who coined the famous phrase that ‘the state made war and war made the state’, asserted that state- and war-making are in fact forms of organized crime. Domestic accountability has never been the product of administrative reforms alone, but the outcome of political struggle.

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’. Patrimonial power structures should perhaps be accepted as effective ways of organizing power that prevent (renewed) violence. Some have 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, and helping one party to attain military victory.

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. Depending on a country’s phase of development, some interventions will be more effective than others. Paul Collier of the University of Oxford, UK, has argued that development aid is most effective in the immediate post-conflict reconstruction phase, and that attempting to introduce multiparty democracy in a fragile society can often lead to renewed violence. In undemocratic societies, ensuring inclusiveness in a political system is often more important than the results of premature elections.

Six strategies

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, these strategies differ in terms of who owns the problem, who senses the urgency to change, who initiates the intervention, whether the change is driven from the top down or the bottom up, whether change links into intrinsic motivations versus change that uses extrinsic motivations, and so on. They can be seen as points along a continuum, ranging from those imposed by outsiders to those driven from within by the objects of the intervention, who thus become subjects of their own process of development and change.

The first, most extreme, strategy involves forcing a solution – mostly likely through violence – on a system or people, most of whom do not share the vision of the interveners. In order to achieve this in a conflict situation, the will of the people who are the object of the intervention and who resist it, needs to be broken. Examples include military interventions, containment and embargoes. Change is brought about from the top down using extrinsic motivations to change the behaviour of the people concerned. A critical success factor is ‘escalation dominance’ – local militias need to be convinced the outsiders are willing and able to destroy them if they do not obey orders. The failure of Dutch troops to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 is a painful example of the lack of credible escalation dominance.

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, conditioning behaviour, involves using positive and negative incentives to change. Examples include promises to provide or withhold budget support or entry to markets, and the conditionalities attached to the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The local people are forcefully persuaded, with the right incentives, to change their behaviour, systems or structures. The intervener initiates the process, owns the problem and feels the urgency to act. The incentives need to be strong enough to change behaviour and outweigh the costs – of the extra effort that is required to change a government policy, for example. Donors may offer a huge sum of money to persuade a government to introduce a specific, well defined policy reform, like pension reform, that would not happen without a strong incentive. And any threat must be carried out, and the proposed cuts large enough to hurt.

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.

Coalition building, the third strategy, sees the world in terms of power, conflict and interests – in a word, diplomacy. Different groups are brought together in a political process of negotiation and consensus seeking. The intervener takes the initiative but focuses on building a coalition for change with stakeholders. The intervener has to be accepted by all parties, and any deal codified in an agreement. The assumption underlying this strategy is that change will not happen if it is not supported by a coalition of the powerful. Examples include the special envoys and peace brokers involved in international negotiations, such as IKV Pax Christi in northern Uganda. Embassies too can bring together different parts of a government that do not normally meet around a table.

Direct help, the fourth strategy, is self-explanatory: the intervener takes care of a concrete problem, becoming a co-owner of the problem. The goal is to achieve a result: to deliver humanitarian aid, to save a rainforest by buying it, to build a road. The aim is not to transform behaviour, structures or systems, but to provide direct relief.

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, direct support, is transformation. The intervention is also a means to achieving further goals – an intervener provides direct support for the host government and becomes co-owner of the problem and co-initiator of change. This can be effective when, for example, a donor works closely with government officials who need outside support to implement change. These inside drivers of change are willing, but lack adequate capacity to design, coordinate and implement reforms. The interaction between donors and Ugandan Ministry of Finance officials is a good example. The downside of interveners playing a prominent role is that it hampers local ownership and the long-term effectiveness of change.

With the sixth and final strategy, facilitating change, the local people are the sole owners of the problem. They take the initiative and are wholly motivated. They want change but may lack specific knowledge or capacities to bring it about. The intervener acts as a process consultant giving feedback, offering ideas, knowledge and financial and technical assistance if needed. The assumption is that sustained change happens through learning, and that learning happens only when people decide they want to learn. A good example of a facilitation strategy is that of the advisory service of SNV, a Dutch NGO, whose aim is to strengthen the capacity of local governments. A department within a central bank that seeks advice and support from a donor, or a law reform commission that wants to learn from experiences in other countries are other examples of opportunities for facilitation of change. A facilitation strategy thus assumes a certain level of commitment and urgency to real change. Neo-patrimonial states in Africa do not fit that picture. Societal change then has to start elsewhere, outside the direct influence of the neo-patrimonial state. Another option is to facilitate change that is in the self-interest of elites, but that leads to impersonal rights and impersonal relationships between elites. This can in the long run lead to fundamental political and social change.

Sustaining change

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 can make the leap to a different future, thereby enlarging the coalition for change. As the coalition for change grows, more complex and challenging problems can be tackled.

But sooner or later resistance to change will emerge as the system ‘pushes back’. Change is upsetting. Some groups will lose out and oppose it. Interveners must continually strive to recognize and understand the warning signs. Why is the system pushing back? Have the interveners become the sole owners of the problem? Have the interests of those in the system changed? Perhaps the implementation strategy needs to be changed?

Interveners should be aware that some implementation strategies, if used in combination, can undermine each other. Donors cannot expect government officials to be open to learning after cajoling them into accepting a policy by threatening to cut aid. The negative consequences of an enforcement strategy are self-evident. Military forces that have just bombed a village will find it difficult to win hearts and minds if they then support the local administration. Seen from this perspective, the 3D approach to counter an insurgency will always be extremely difficult to implement successfully.

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.

At least do no harm

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 clearly does not exist. Another reason may be that, all too often, interveners fail to employ the right change strategies. Despite the rhetoric about ownership, empowerment and capacity building, power strategies have been used more than real facilitation.

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.

 
Author: Jeroen de Lange

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