Refinery or ecosystems? Programs for social change

Organization: Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute

Social questions often have many stakeholders, are subject to conflicting socio-political interests and are layered in their composition. Take, for example, moral questions, like abortion or euthanasia. Complex systems with a public or social function display the same characteristic – consider the so-called “Vogelaar neighborhoods”, the unification of 26 police corps into one national force or the introduction of Dutch standard curriculum for middle schools.

Interventions that strive to address these questions or improve such systems aim to bring about change. The aforementioned characteristics of these systems – the volume of stakeholders, conflicting interest and their layered nature – make interventions complex and unpredictable in terms of their results. Complexity and unpredictability require, in turn, high quality standards . Looking at interventions as change processes in the form of programs, three observations can be made:

-          There is no point in defining detailed objectives, goals and milestones for these programs in advance. This only serves to create a fictional reality that does not account for the fact that the solution is part of the problem definition and the change process itself;

-          There is also no point in specifying program resources – personnel, funds, time and requisite knowledge – in detail in plans and budgets. Obviously, ball park figures should be established, but experience shows that complexity and unpredictability generate unforeseen costs.

-          Finally, it does not make sense to run social change programs as if they were industrial maintenance processes: operationally, cost effective and following a strict schedule. Social change is too unruly and dependent on political opportunities.

To illustrate the point, take the iconic civil rights movement in the United States. What if the “funders” of the movement had insisted on a four-year change program with a logframe? Perhaps the movement would have wrapped up in the 1870s when the federal government fought organizations like the Klu Klux Klan to protect the civil and political rights of African Americans. However, this population group remained economically marginalized, politically disenfranchised and were treated as second class citizens for decades in the Southern states. Legislation and a practice that adequately guaranteed civil rights to African Americans was only put in place in 1965 after Martin Luther King’s march on Selma, Alabama.

So, what should be done? Designing and implementing more adaptive programs would be a good start, when and where social change is the objective. This means setting broadly defined objectives only, supported by a few clear parameters that can be achieved in different ways. It also requires flexibility of program resources in the sense that they must be scalable, depending on the opportunities and possibilities of a program at a given moment. Finally, programs must have the capacity to learn: is a program able to turn inevitable failures into effective interventions, and to exploit effective interventions in pursuit of further success?

All of this requires a quality of change management that is not easy to learn or to practice. Developing new insights must proceed in parallel with reasonable continuity of the envisioned objectives. At the same time, stakeholder and process management must balance engagement, decisiveness, and, sometimes, holding off.

The notion that social change processes are difficult to influence from the outside, don’t unfold in linear fashion (regression is inevitable), but can generate creative and positive surprises if their local pace is respected, is gaining a foothold within the field of development cooperation. Engaging with this notion requires that development programs stop pretending that development in another country is analogous to maintaining a refinery that can be “adjusted” or “optimized”.

Our own experience in The Netherlands shows that such an understanding of development is too simplistic. Instead, we would do better to think of development as an ecosystem: a complex system that has many entry points to stimulate organic growth. Many methodologies already exist to enable programs to interact with such ecosystems without losing sights of results. Examples include political-economy analysis, strategy testing or outcome mapping. These methodologies are equally applicable to our own society.

This blog post appeared originally (in Dutch) on 

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