First Draft of ‘How Change Happens’ now ready – anyone want to read it?

Now for the scary part. Can I ask for a big favour? The first draft of my next book, How Change Happens, is ready,

They probably need to read this book
They probably need to read this book

and I’m keen to get comments from as wide a range of people as possible. Deadline 10th December. Anyone out there prepared to chip in? If so, you can download the whole manuscript here  – it’s not pretty but click on the page icon on the RHS and it should work – let me know if there’s a problem. Just below it is the page for the outline, in case you want to read before deciding whether to download the whole (160 page) thing. If you are able to comment, please do so in the comments section on this blog, or by email to acoryndon[at]Oxfam[dot]org[dot]uk.

The book will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2016 (in hardback, and free online as a pdf – props to them for going full Open Access). It will be accompanied by an online platform with extra materials, and a MOOC (online educational course). All v funky and exciting.

I’m now making a disorienting transition from a year in an ivory tower (well, my spare bedroom) writing to non stop consultation and powerpoint. Internal conversations next week in the US at Oxfam America, USAID and a public meeting at CGD in Washington next Wednesday at 2pm, if you’re around. Something at DFID later in November, then Melbourne and Canberra (tba). There may be other events to follow – I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s the basic pitch for the book, from the outline:

‘‘There is nothing permanent except change’, Heraclitus, 6th century BC

author_sell_thyselfThe philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’ Karl Marx, 1845

Human society is full of would-be ‘change agents’, a restless mix of campaigners, organizers and development workers, both individuals and organizations, set on transforming the world. They want to improve public services, reform laws and regulations, guarantee human rights, achieve greater recognition for any number of issues or simply be treated with respect.

Striking then, that universities have no Department of Change Studies, to which social activists can turn for advice and inspiration. Instead, scholarly discussions of change are fragmented with few conversations crossing disciplinary boundaries, or making it onto the radars of those actively seeking change.

This book brings together the latest research from a range of academic disciplines and the evolving practical understanding of activists. Drawing on many first-hand examples from the global experience of Oxfam, one of the world’s largest social justice NGOs, as well as the author’s 35 years of studying and working on international development issues, it tests ideas on How Change Happens and sets out the latest thinking on what works to achieve progressive change.’

A student at LSE asked a colleague recently ‘isn’t he that bloke who keeps banging on about his book?’ Oh dear, and still a year to go til publication……….


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


15 Responses to “First Draft of ‘How Change Happens’ now ready – anyone want to read it?”
  1. I have downloaded, would like to read and also organise a collaborative discussion around a few of the key questions emerging (which maybe you would like to participate in, if there is space in your busy schedule?!) If you would like to email me to have a further chat about this that would be great? Thanks, Joanne (

  2. Alice Evans

    Really enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing, Duncan. A real treat.

    On norms and FGC, you might like to look at United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2013) Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Statistical Overview and Exploration of the Dynamics of Change (New York: UNICEF). Gerry Mackie (one of the authors you cite) contributed. It reports that the prevalence of (and support for) female genital cutting is lower in urban areas. It suggests that this is this because in urban areas there is greater likelihood of exposure to groups that do not practice FGC. Realising that such persons do not suffer a loss of social respect may shift people’s beliefs about cultural expectations. Observers come to see that something that they thought essential for respect (FGC) is actually not that cardinal.

    This raises a point that may be too ‘academic’ (i.e. unnecessarily theoretical for a more practically-orientated toolkit), but…

    I think it’s useful to theorise norms in a way that focuses on the individual, i.e. a person’s beliefs about cultural expectations. How a person thinks they are likely to be perceived and treated. Different people living in the same community may have slightly different beliefs about cultural expectations due to different experiences.

    Norms don’t actually exist independently of people, nor do they have any causal impacts independently of people’s beliefs about what those norms are.

    Besides gender, beliefs about cultural expectations are also useful in analysing engagements with the state, e.g. beliefs about the possibility of social change; whether I think others will support me in speaking out in a village meeting.

    I talk about this distinction more here: [ungated version].

    Final comment: such an awesomely clear, easy-to-read text.

    Wel jel.

    • Duncan Green

      Correct, this is not about internal change processes, with all the attendant management literature, but about how change happens in the world at large. If you think I’m missing something significant, please suggest some reading material to fill the gap!

  3. Chris Alford

    Ah this book has come out with great timing! I’ve decided to go back into (part-time) education this year and have started a postgraduate course with the Open University on Systems Thinking in Practice, the first module of which is about Managing Systemic Change, so will be interesting to see how this book ties in with all the materials in that course on systemic change. Might take a few weeks until I can sit down and read through it with all the other readings I have, but really looking forward to making my way through it.

    Quick question – if I wanted to reference it in any work I do for the current module I’m studying would I have to wait until the official publication next year or is it OK to reference the current draft?

  4. Suzi

    Hi Duncan, an interesting read, two pieces of feedback, 1: that the feminist movement’s history is a great case study for what you are describing here, the local womens’ activists i work with are certainly working where your book ends, it would be great therefore to have a few more references to this, i note Batliwala is included and women are in the women and leadership space, but i think the feminist movement demonstrates what you outline. 2: tiny thing – the power over, within, with to, is referenced on just associates website – their how change happens series from 2002 or 2006, with an earlier referenced in their publication, which is not the person you have referenced, I couldn’t find the reference you mentioned in the book, so thought i’d just note it for you to look at. All the best with final work on it, Suzi

  5. Francesco Caberlin

    Was a great reading and I have several comments (will send a separate email with them). However, there is a point that probably stands out: is there a specific reason why the critic to the “linear” mindset of major donors and agencies was not tackled more directly? In the book there are some critical remarks, especially about toolkits, but I was a bit surprised not to find a more explicit critic on how the aid industry works nowadays and the limits of its approaches. What is suggested in the last part of the book, as a matter of fact, is hard to implement if the environment around you (especially people with money) is pushing to do something deeply different and possibly preventing from adopting different approaches. And will be the wish to do something effective, together with the risk to be outclassed by more dynamic organizations a strong enough incentive for agencies to change, if this could mean, in the short period, the risk to run out of funding? I feel that this tension between what is suggested and the constraints posed by the way the industry is working now, is a point that should be problematized more.
    Thank you and best of luck for you work

  6. Thanks for sharing this Duncan. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for ages. Unfortunately I’ve only got half way through it by today’s deadline day for feedback, so forgive me if my comments are addressed later in the book. Overall, I’m finding it very readable and stimulating. As an advocacy professional (Oxfam Campaigns Manager followed by 15 years of consultancy), I would sometimes want the book to go a little deeper and explore more of the challenges, but I guess that I am not your main target audience.

    So why doesn’t change happen? Often, it is because NGOs design advocacy/campaign strategies according to how they would like change to happen in some mythical reality, rather than how it actually happens in our real-life messy and complicated world. Another reason is that approaches are replicated from one context to another without any thought of whether they will work (the bane of my life is consultants who have had an advocacy success – for example, in a public media campaign in the UK – and then go around telling everyone else from Nigeria to Nepal that this is the only way to win). Context is everything.

    It would be good if you gave greater emphasis to the difference between empowerment and awareness-raising. Many confuse the two, and I believe much time and money (and advocacy space) is wasted on awareness-raising campaigns that rely on the discredited “trickle-down theory of behaviour change”. How often is lack of awareness then main barrier to change?

    When you look at stakeholder analysis and influencing strategies, you only talk about identifying allies. I think this is a big mistake. For almost all challenging advocacy asks, we will probably need to engage with and convince soft opponents. NGO people spend too much time talking to people who agree with them (after all, its safe and comfortable) and don’t actually do any persuading. i know you don’t want to get into toolkits and stuff, but you might find my stakeholder analysis guide here useful.

    On complex systems, you could explore in more depth how we can go about de-stabilising systems until they reach a tipping point, and so create a new stability. Just changing the elements in a system without changing its relationships will achieve little. Greenpeace has been doing some work on this.

    In your section on TNCs, we can explore different forms of influence according to the particular strategic vulnerability of that company and industry. See
    I also think your stats on African telecoms is probably too out of date to use in a 2016 publication.

    I’m reading the section on norms at the moment and very much enjoying it. Like you, I have been sceptical about the value of some work on global agendas and agreements, but this is making me think afresh. I still see it as following on from advocacy at the community and country level, however, and not as something that can or should be done in isolation.

    That’s all so far. I hope this is helpful, and good luck with the next draft. I look forward to it.

    Best wishes,

  7. Justin Williams

    Thanks Duncan for the opportunity to comment. I found this an impressively clear read. You have an amazing ability to explain complex ideas in simple language, to condense the key points from fat academic tomes into short paragraphs, and add your take on the implications for development actors. This is an enviable skill!

    The book is hugely wide ranging and this is (in my view) both its strength and its weakness. Your broad interests and clear thinking allow you to, as it were, put complexity theorists, political scientists, historians and activists into a room together and force them to agree on how change has happened in the past and how activists might influence change in the future. This is great, and your final chapter is an excellent synthesis of how activists and development workers might apply the various overlapping or sometimes contradictory lessons from these different disciplines. It will be helpful to many people in development agencies who are grappling with the same issues as you are. On the other hand, in some of the early chapters (I’m thinking mainly chapters 3-5 on the state, the courts and political parties) it feels like you’re trying to pack too much in. The histories of the various institutions you review (e.g. democracy, pp47-49) are necessarily high level, focusing on the ‘what’ of change – i.e. what happened to democracy over the past 200 years – rather than ‘how’, especially the role of activists within that process. For me, these chapters sometimes have the feel of a textbook or policy statement, with lots of good research well summarised but slightly lacking a sense of excitement, e.g. about disagreements between different researchers, or your own strongly felt views about what matters. I found myself frustrated by short comments on big subjects like the impact of colonialism on developing country governments, or whether democracy can deliver development… these are such huge questions that it seems wrong to whiz past them! Ultimately ‘how change happens’ is an enormous subject, impossible to cover in such a short book, and my suggestion would be to miss out some of these big debates altogether and instead focus more narrowly on the role of activism in history – how activists have succeeded and failed to bring about change, e.g. within and through the state, courts, political parties etc. That would be both interesting and practical. I see you’ve already started to get into this subject (blog post of Nov 26th) but I think the book would be enriched by quite a bit more consideration of that and less on the general history of the various institutions. By the way I think this would be excellent material for your proposed Department of Change Studies…

    Once you get onto the areas where you have played a more personal role (the international system, transnational corporations, advocacy etc) I felt the book livened up quite a bit and I thoroughly enjoyed your frequent observations as the ‘wise activist’ who has been forced to confront some uncomfortable truths, e.g. the attraction of ILO convention 169 to indigenous Bolivian activists, or the positive sides of Bangladeshi garment factories or elite boarding schools!

    One final point – you reflect on the ‘role of outsiders’ in the chapter on advocacy but to my mind there is a more fundamental distinction between activists who are campaigning to make their own lives better and those who are campaigning on behalf of others (e.g. abolitionists or international development actors). I even wonder if it would be worth having a whole separate chapter on development agencies (bilaterals and NGOs at least, since you cover the multilaterals in chapter 6) to try to help us all see ourselves from the outside and understand the role development agencies have played in preventing or supporting change – intended or unintended, positive or negative – over the past 80 years or so. Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, is excellent on the origins of the modern development project in the late colonial period (1930s and 40s) and how it evolved in the run up to independence in the 60s. If you do decide to include such a chapter it would be also a good opportunity for you to include some of your criticisms of the aid business head on. At the moment these are mostly implied rather than set out in one place…

    Anyway hope this is helpful and good luck with all the consultations, redrafts and presentations!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.