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How Change Happens (or doesn’t) in the Humanitarian System

February 15, 2017
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I’ve been in Stockholm this week at the invitation of ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and changing Hum Actoin coverPerformance in Humanitarian Action, which has been holding its annual meeting on the banks of a frozen Swedish river. I was asked to comment on the background paper for the meeting, Changing Humanitarian Action?, by ALNAP’s Paul Knox-Clarke.  I read the paper on the flight over (great believer in Just in Time working practices….) with mounting excitement. It’s a brilliant, beautifully written intro to how change happens (or doesn’t) in the aid business, and to a lot of different schools of thought about change.

The paper starts off with the widespread frustration in the humanitarian sector. Despite dozens of new initiatives, impressive sounding statements and resolutions, and endless organizational change processes, ‘everything has changed, but nothing has changed’ in the words of one African humanitarian veteran.  Changes include an avalanche of information technology, the rise of cash programming, geopolitical shifts towards new donors, growth in the number and size of humanitarian emergencies, organizations and the budgets allocated to them. Yet still people ‘did not see these ‘big’ changes as having made a real difference to the lives of people affected by crisis.’ So the paper is as much as study in how change doesn’t happen as how it does.

The bit of the paper that really grabbed me was the succinct summary of three conventional models of change that underpin humanitarian thinking, and three new ones that could shed new light. None of them are definitive; all contribute to a deeper understanding.

The three conventional models are:

Machine: the aid system is a complicated but controllable device. Change comes from learning how to identify and pull the right levers

Market: the humanitarian system is full of firms – big incumbents and scrappy insurgents – and through competition and innovation, a process of creative destruction generates steady, if painful, progress.

Political economy: humanitarian players pursue their organizational interests, aimed at self preservation and increasing their revenue and power. The rest is PR.

The three alternative models are:

The system as society: organized by politics and culture (shared meaning), rather than crude economic self interest. Power is held in many different ways and change is far more fluid and unpredictable than a political economy model would predict.

Complex sure, but is it adaptive?

Complex sure, but is it adaptive?

The system as ecosystem: the humanitarian sphere is a typical complex adaptive system, made up of a whole series of agents each reacting to what the others do. Change is unpredictable, emergent and often discontinuous (big spikes, separated by periods of inertia). Feedback often dampens change and drags the system back to equilibrium. Not only that, but the system is ‘constantly changing without our intervention, and our efforts to change it will be more like joining a football game than sitting down to fix a broken clock.’

The system as mind: while cultural models draw on anthropology, this model draws on psychology. This bit is worth quoting at length:

‘Perhaps the most influential approach to individual and organisational change, however, has drawn on Gestalt psychology, which addresses the relationship between the world and our perception of it. Broadly, the approach suggests that human beings do not perceive the whole reality of which they are a part (‘the ground’) but unconsciously select certain elements to create a ‘figure’: an internally consistent representation of reality that is not, in fact, the sum of the elements which initially created it, but which is experienced as the whole. These figures are extremely durable, but can be changed by a process whereby the individual becomes aware of inconsistencies, and then directs energy to breaking down the existing figure and creating a new one. Because ‘human action is a self-regulating system that deals with an unstable state in such a way as to produce a state of stability’; the mind will generally resist this process, as it aims to maintain the stability of the existing figure. Resistance to change, then, should not be seen as a conscious process to subvert it, but rather as a normal and healthy process that enables the individual (or organisation) to retain stability and purpose in a chaotic world.’

This is really good stuff. Apart from being Paul’s praise singer, my comments focussed on what for me is the weakest section of the paper – the ‘so whats’. He makes a general appeal for adaptive management methods, accepting loss of control and encouraging networks and decentralized approaches and rethinking the role of leaders. Beware linear thinking, support changes that are already happening, recruit external drivers of change to shake up the system.

OK as far as it goes, but I think that falls short of really thinking through an internal theory of change. I would have liked to see:

  • A more considered approach to building multi-stakeholder coalitions that acquire the reservoirs of trust needed to act when a critical juncture presents itself (and the humanitarian system appears to evolve through a cycle of catastrophic failures like Rwanda, followed by heart searching and attempts at change). How to channel the next major screw-up into fundamental reform?
  • HR: change begins and ends with the people who are working in the system. How do we overcome the widespread anxiety and fear of failure that cripples innovation? How do we recruit and retain mavericks and risk takers? How do we support the emergence of networks of dissidents to generate new ideas and approaches that will one day become the new mainstream?
  • And case studies from other global networks that have overcome inertia – air traffic control? The postal service? The Vatican?

As usual when change doesn’t happen even when everyone says they want it, inertia probably comes down to a combination of ideas (eg we know best), institutions (eg short term funding cycles for emergency response) and interests (eg CEOs judged by increasing turnover). What could disrupt these forces? I can think of at least 3 (feel free to add more):

New entrants: eg startups with different approaches, or new donors doing things differently

New tech: cash programming really does seem to push power from the providers to the ‘beneficiaries’. Suddenly those affected get to decide what aid money should be spent on, and lots of humanitarians could be out of a job. It may just be the trigger for genuine change

And of course, another horrific crisis and/or humanitarian failure/scandal. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for one of those.

Finally, I was really looking forward to sharing a platform with humanitarian rock star Jan Egeland, but he had to pull out at the last minute. In revenge, here is the genius satirical video about him by Norwegian comic musicians, Ylvis. Enjoy.


  1. Duncan, am agreed on the outstanding nature of Paul’s paper – but have to disagree with your conclusion on the ‘so-whats’. I was reading this paper as providing a platform for discussing the ‘so-whats’ at the ALNAP event i.e. providing readers with a set of shared ideas and perspectives that they could use to support and underpin the meeting dialogue. I think to have done otherwise in this paper perhaps would have turned it into less of a meeting paper and more of a working paper?

  2. Duncan, Ben – many thanks both for your very kind comments on the paper – and Duncan, for capturing the models much more succinctly than I did in the original. For anyone interested in the idea of models as tools for thinking about change I would thoroughly recommend Gareth Morgan’s ‘Images of Organization’. While the models used in the paper are rather different from those presented in Morgan’s work, the basic idea – that the way we try to change something depends on how we perceive it – comes directly from there.

    While Ben is right in saying that the paper could not go very far into the ‘so what’ without anticipating the outcome of the meeting (and having written some excellent background papers, he knows this well from first hand experience!) I think the general point is a good one. Overall, I find that the diagnosis (deriving as it does mainly from theory, and particularly as you point out from theory that largely relates to why change doesn’t happen) is generally easier than the prescription. Part of the problem here lies in the lack of detailed descriptions of change processes in humanitarian organisations, and the broader humanitarian system. Although much blood and treasure goes into these processes, they do not seem to be regularly recorded; and where they are, the record is very seldom public. This leaves us with broad ideas about what ought to work, but with very few examples of what actually worked in practice. In this sense the humanitarian sector is less well served than the development sector, where, in ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’ and ‘How Change Happens’, you have both outlined change processes in detail.

    The ALNAP meeting aimed to bring some of these change narratives to the surface – and these will be incorporated into the Meeting Paper which we will publish (and which will be available on http://www.alnap.org) in a couple of months. We will also include a mini case study on changes related to evidence based medicine, and – perhaps – one other ‘non humanitarian’ area. If any of your readers know of case studies or evaluations of humanitarian change processes, I would also be delighted to hear from them.

    In the meantime, thanks for sharing the Jan Egeland video. I am hoping we can get a Swedish prog rock group to do a follow up: ‘Duncan Green – sees beyond the machine’, something like that?

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