30 Mar 2017

The key to creating change

From Nine To Noon, 10:14 am on 30 March 2017

From local groups in small communities, to grass roots political movements and organised campaigns, people around the world are constantly seeking change.

So what is the most effective way to bring about that change, to systems and institutions that often resist it?

Occupy Wall Street protestors hold a large banner during a demonstration in San Francisco in 2012.

Occupy Wall Street protestors hold a large banner during a demonstration in San Francisco in 2012. Photo: AFP

Duncan Green is a professor of international development at the London School of Economics and also senior strategic advisor for Oxfam in the United Kingdom.

His latest book How Change Happens explores just that, and the role of individuals and organizations in influencing that change.

Speaking with Kathryn Ryan, Green says change is a chaotic and disruptive process - and it’s not always good.

Often similar processes are involved with progressive positive change and negative change, he says.

“If you want to get involved with stopping bad stuff happening, you probably need to think in very similar ways to when you want to create positive change.”

In his work in international development Green is often focused on fighting poverty, and improving women’s and democratic rights.

He says while we often get the impression that things are changing for the worse, that’s not the case in most situations.

“There’s been extraordinary change in those areas over the past 50 years.”

Throughout history there have been changes that had intended impacts, but some things have made major impacts that weren’t intentional, he says.

“The washing machine probably had as much impact on women’s conditions of life in many countries as a whole bunch of things which were intentionally pursued, in terms of social change.”

He says people do lose sight of the extraordinary progress we’ve made.

Communities that have recognised they have the power to impact their own outcomes have been particularly effective at bringing about their own change, he says, including some of those affected by the caste system in India.

“I visited one fishing community which has actually won back the rights to an enormous number of lakes which they now fish and are doing quite well and it all started with… that moment of power within.

“They suddenly realised that they had rights and people ought to listen to them and they shouldn’t just accept whatever life throws at them.”

He says the Occupy movement is an example of change that didn’t work.

“It didn’t want to get its hands dirty by doing deals, by talking to people in positions of authority. It was a protest movement which stayed a protest movement.

“And protest movements spike and then disappear.”

An example of effective change is in Bolivia, where Green says indigenous people engaged with those in power, putting forward candidates in elections where they had effectively been prohibited, and managed to win.

“It’s about these alliances of awkward allies, people that don’t actually necessarily see the world the same way, are often the most effective in bringing about change.”

Successful campaigns for change have often realised the small window of opportunity that they have, he says, and worries that sometimes campaigners these days are too pre-planned.

“What the successful campaigns have done is spot them and make the most of those brief windows.”

Green says little is known about what makes or forms great leaders, an area we should learn more about.

“I think a lot of them are formed by faith organisations and their experiences in churches and mosques, others are formed in school, others are formed… because of their family.

“We need to understand more about how leadership emerges because it’s absolutely crucial in any of these change processes.”