A Three-fold Theory of Social Change and Implications for Practice, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation
We need good theories of social change for building the thinking of all involved in processes of development, as individuals, as communities, organisations, social movements and donors. The conventional division in the world today between policy-makers (and their theorising) and practitioners is deeply dysfunctional, leaving the former ungrounded and the latter unthinking.
Good concepts help us to grasp what is really happening beneath the surface. In the confusing detail of enormously complex social processes, we need to turn down the volume of the overwhelming and diverse foreground and background “noise” of social life, to enable us to distinguish the different instruments, to hear the melodies and rhythms, the deeper pulse, to discover that “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” We need help to see what really matters.
As social development practitioners we need theory to help us to ask good questions, more systematically and rigorously, to guide us to understanding, to discovering the real work we need to be doing, primarily assisting communities and their organisations to understand and shape their own realities.
A theory of social change is proposed through this paper as one small contribution to a larger body of theorising. It can be seen as an observational map to help practitioners, whether field practitioners or donors, including the people they are attempting to assist, to read and thus navigate processes of social change.
There is a need to observe and understand the change processes that already exist in a living social system. If we can do this before we rush into doing our needs analyses and crafting projects to meet these needs, we may choose how to respond more respectfully to the realities of existing change processes rather than impose external or blind prescriptions based on assumed conditions for change.
Economic and cultural globalisation, climate change, competition for markets and for strategic and scarce resources are forcing new complexities on all sectors of societies the world over. Yet entrenched structures and patterns of power are still playing themselves out in old managerialist and militaristic ways. We are in the thrall of a global economic and political system that is increasingly inappropriate and selfcontradictory, unable to come to terms with itself. The most powerful are at odds with themselves, neither able to comprehend the consequences of what they do nor the complexities of social change they become mired in, unable to respond, even in their own interest, threatening to lead everyone to ruin.
While millions have been lifted out of dire poverty in the last decade, particularly through the rapid industrialisation of Asia in the image of the West, these may be only temporary gains, with serious doubts emerging about the ecological and economic sustainability of this path. And global warming threatens to turn our development efforts into “sand-castles at low tide”.
Many counter-trends can be found where millions of the most marginalised, on all continents, are becoming more threatened than ever as local sovereignty, diversity and eco-systems disappear under multiple forces of change that are not easily visible to them and seemingly out of their reach to influence. Social movements of all kinds – economic, social, cultural, political and religious – have developed out of these conditions and are burgeoning in opposition, with some promise but mixed success and with many facing cooption or suppression. There are some, North and South, pursuing intolerant fundamentalist and sectarian agendas which serve to deepen rather than to resolve the crises.
So while the world is globalising and homogenising in many ways, it is at the same time polarising in reaction. The most marginalised and voiceless in the South continue to pay the heaviest price for this.
Poverty is now being perceived as a large enough threat to gain the attention of the rich and powerful. Development is becoming a global Project. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and plans to roll these out have been taking centre stage in global and national development initiatives.
The relationship between Governments, donors, NGOs, CBOs, growing legions of freelance international development consultants, private companies and even some social movements is increasingly being shaped by this trend of putting Projects to tender, paying people as service providers to achieve centrally determined outcomes. Development funding is fast becoming a marketplace governed by tender processes and business-talk.
The “development sector” of NGOs and CBOs, who struggle to be businesslike, is under renewed pressure to show results and justify its existence, to compete in this new marketplace. There are less and less funds for them from politicians who are looking for more convincing ways to put money into development that can quickly and easily display ‘measurable impact’.
Enter the private sector, initially as suppliers of goods and services to development organisations, but now increasingly winning the tenders as prime service providers. The marketplace of development Projects has never been so clearly visible as it is today.
This projectization of development work has a deeper consequence. Short-term Projects are effectively replacing established organisations with temporary organisations that can be turned on and off, like taps. Organisations, that have become vehicles for Projects live under the same threat, the same taps. Projects are the casual labour of the sector, apparently low risk. This contrasts with indigenous organisations driven by their own needs, that can be resilient and can learn, adapt and improve and bring sustainability.
It is the season of accountability. Projects promise this. But over the past few years, almost every organisation or project I have visited is stressed with issues of monitoring and evaluation, anxiously shopping around for methodologies to measure and report on impact to satisfy donors. Adverts for M&E specialists abound as donors seek to further outsource this function to experts, robbing organisations of rich learning processes to which M&E should contribute.
Donors themselves face the same pressure to account to their backdonors, who in turn must report to their political masters (supposedly accountable to their electorate), who are, for good and bad reasons, asking harder questions and setting higher standards each year. In an age where the “speak” is becoming more participatory, bottom-up or horizontal there is, paradoxically, a strengthening of pressure for upward, vertical accountability to the North.
But as practitioners, donors and back-donors, we might want to ask ourselves more honestly whether the real reason we are struggling to measure and report on impact might be that as a sector we are simply not achieving the results we have promised each other when we sign Project contracts. Monitoring and evaluation methodologies that are centred on accountability, rather than on honestly learning from practice, will not bring us the measures or the value we want. In other words the problem is not effective measuring and reporting but effective practice itself, as guided by the logic of Projects.
It is ironic that the very Project approaches that donors insist be used for planning, monitoring and evaluating practice and impact, like Logical Framework Analysis and its cousins, have tacitly introduced an unspoken theory of social change that is often misleading and self-defeating. This theory of change is briefly described and critiqued next.