Drivers of Change in Egypt: Mulling over the comments on last week's post

Here’s my reaction to a couple of dozen very helpful comments and links on last week’s posts on this blog and the Guardian site, along with a couple of new articles.

There are two main clusters of comments: the most important is probably the one that distinguishes between the drivers of change, and the dynamics of change. Thinking in terms of drivers (as I largely did in my first post) is a bit static, despite the name – you unpack context, institutions, agents and events to get a reasonably comprehensive X-ray of the actors in the drama, but just knowing the cast-list doesn’t tell you much about the play. That’s where the dynamic comes in.

I sometimes use this diagram to show the different kinds of dynamics. Some (on the right hand side) are fairly predictable and linear – if you change dynamicsbuild more schools, fund education and train more teachers, you can predict improve educational outcomes. Others, like the revolution in Egypt, are much less so. And here the comments from Ben Ramalingam and Chris have focussed on the topic of Complexity (on which Ben is writing a book, by the way). I blogged a while back on this (based on a 2008 paper by Ben) and reckon it’s worth going back to – particularly the comments from Chris Roche, Chris Mowles and others.

Ben sees what has happened in Egypt as an example of dynamic, self-organized, non-violent and entirely unpredictable change, almost completely outside the sphere of ‘usual suspects’ in development – state, NGOs, trade unions, old media etc. The key mechanisms driving such ’emergent change’ include feedback (e.g. the army failing to repress early protests) and amplification (via social media and others).

To which my reaction is, “is this a purely descriptive exercise, or does it give us useful information either about what is happening in Egypt, or elsewhere? What is the ‘so what’ of this analysis, eg in terms of advocacy and influencing in the post-revolutionary environment?”

The second cluster of comments further refines the breakdown of drivers of change. On the Guardian, Apollo13 asks (and answers) the fascinating question, why did Mohammed Bouazizi’s act of self sacrifice trigger a revolution, when similar previous acts by others caused barely a ripple? Rosemary points to the power of example, in this case learning from peaceful protest movements in Serbia. Cristina and Kate ask what role was played by more ‘formal’ civil society organizations, and all the funding for capacity building and training programmes, whether national or international – anyone got any info? Jennifer points to the importance of ‘power within’ – the lightbulb moment when people lose their fear.

The Economist this week dwells on the generation gap, likening today’s upheavals to 1968 in Europe:

“The frustration of the vast throngs in Cairo and Tunis was directed not so much at the leaders themselves as at what they stood for: paternalistic, unaccountable authority….. [They] echo the upbeat message and youthful promise of the 1960s in the West. Like the Western youth of that era, young people across the Middle East have inherited a world of immensely greater possibilities than the one inhabited by their parents. Even in the tribally conservative, religion-saturated cities of Saudi Arabia, drag-racing, daredevil youths take over quiet boulevards on weekend nights. By internet and text, they exchange jokes about ageing royal princes.

Since the fall of Mr Mubarak, numerous mini-revolutions have taken place across Egypt. Journalists have overthrown their editors, workers their union leaders, professors their university deans. Even the police have returned to the streets, striking to demand the removal of the senior officers they blame for their disgrace.”

Finally, Soren, Ben and others wonder what happens next, in particular what role the army will play. To see the wisdom of whoever warned ‘never make predictions, especially about the future’, have a look at successive weeks’ graphics from the Economist. The first is an attempt at a table of at-risk countries, the second shows what was happening a week later – top marks on Yemen, Egypt and Libya, but what about Bahrain and Tunisia?

shoe throwers indexEconomist Arab revo mapSo. Anyone fancy doing a drivers of change analysis on Yemen or Libya?

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Comments

3 Responses to “Drivers of Change in Egypt: Mulling over the comments on last week's post”
  1. Chris

    Duncan. I think the point I was trying to make in your last post on Egypt was not that feedback and amplification where necessarily THE key mechanisms, but were elements that were missing from the analysis, and helped explain, as you suggest, some of the dynamics of the process.

    As for the ‘so what’ question two things spring to mind a) the importance of supporting local actors in repressive situations who can seize political opportunities when they emerge and then spread and amplify feedback to trigger more profound change – and not expecting them to produce ‘results’ according to some predetermined pathway and timeline as aid donors increasingly require, and b) recognising that ‘outsiders’ can and sometimes do create different forms of feedback into the process i.e through advocacy, media releases etc, but the outcomes of these are highly unpredictable. Local actors will usually have a better insight into the possible consequences of ‘outsiders’ actions and therefore can provide important local ‘intelligence’ that can help decision making in this regard.

  2. I would very much second Chris’ thoughts on the ‘so what’ qustion.

    I would also add that if international aid agencies want to bring about change in developing countries, then understanding the process of change as emergent and unpredictable is no bad thing, and may in fact be essential.

    It has implications for how we think about and do our work. At a minimum:

    (1) decentralise strategic thinking to the local level, so that it is happening where decisions are being made. This means that the reflection that you are leading here, Duncan, would also need to be happening at the equivalent of Oxfam’s Egypt office, supported by folks like yourself.

    (2) accepting the fundamental unpredictability of cause-and-effect means you don’t do one big thing, but try many small things and try hard learn from what works.

    (3) ensure that feedback from local stakeholders is the main selection pressure on what is done and how it is done.

    Of course, as Chris says, all of this has implications for donor relations, the size of aid budgets etc etc etc.

    In the extreme, it flies in the face of the ‘growth at all costs’ mentality prevalent in so many agencies…

  3. Matt Desmond

    Cristina and Kate’s questions about the role of formal civil civil society organisations is of particular interest. These are moments when INGO’s have the opportunity to assess their change-models and whether they have actually partnered with civic agents of change.

    I have no knowledge of Oxfam’s “civil society” work in Egypt. However, there are already signs that the US-funded civil society and youth organisations are deeply co-opted into a new Washington agenda for reform. Whether Oxfam’s civil society partners in Egypt continue to support grassroots’ voice will become clear in the coming months.

    One of my current projects is a study of the role of formal CSO’s in Thailand 2006-2010, especially those that received decades of INGO support. I am keen to connect with others who are looking at this question in other contexts.

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