Multiple means to reach a single goal – new paper explores systems to #ShiftThePower

08 Nov 2019

Barry Knight, GFCF Adviser & author of “Rethinking Poverty”

In the 19th century, Victor LeGrand created an orderly, geometric railway system for France which was designed to bring about the full integration of the country. This was reckoned to be far superior to the Prussian rail system, which was a hodgepodge of lines run by 50 different companies. The French system, known as the LeGrand Star, was the envy of the world.

However, in 1870 when the Franco‑Prussian war broke out, Otto von Bismarck could transport nearly twice as many troops to the frontlines as the French. The reason was because the jumbled lines allowed six ways of reaching the destination, compared with the single route of the LeGrand Star, which got to be too congested around Paris.

What, I can almost hear you wondering, do railway systems have to do with our forthcoming “Pathways to Power” Symposium? The Symposium will bring together a range of actors, all deeply engaged – in different ways – in making the case for, supporting, or acting on the frontlines of people-led development. By putting all of these people in the same room for two days, we hope to find new opportunities for working together. We believe that to truly #ShiftThePower and to change the way development is delivered, there cannot just be one organization moving in that direction (à la LeGrandStar) but rather numerous groups of people, and configurations of organizations, pushing towards this change from different angles (like the Prussian rail system).


Systems to #ShiftThePower – a conversation that has been building

Today we are publishing my paper “Systems to #ShiftThePower” which makes the clear case for having multiple means to reach a single goal, and looks at how to harness systems theory to #ShiftThePower. The paper defines #ShiftThePower as “the need to tip the balance of power towards local people and away from external agencies in the delivery of international development programmes.”

Though this is not actually a new conversation, as #ShiftThePower was an idea that emerged from the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy, held in Johannesburg in December 2016. It has now developed into a social movement. We’ve had multiple conversations, retreats and meetings since 2016 with partners who are also fed up with business as usual, and ready to work collectively to tip the balance.

The new paper starts from the premise that we need to set out pathways to get what we want. While #ShiftThePower has much traction among community philanthropy and civil society practitioners in the Global South, funders and INGOs have been slow to respond. On the international front, many INGOs and bilateral donors are stuck in a development lens developed 70 years ago, characterized by resources moving from the Global North to meet needs in the Global South, and a focus on finding solutions. This dominant paradigm continues to treat people in the South as “recipients” rather than “co-creators”, so that power remains vested in Northern institutions wedded to the idea of ‘doing things to,’ as opposed to ‘doing things with’ local people.


Enough tinkering at the edges, it’s time to challenge the status quo

It is hard to shift deeply-embedded ways of doing things among established agencies. As Michael Edwards points out, INGOs like Oxfam “have become a comfortable part of the furniture of foreign aid that was first designed in the 1950s”, and persist notwithstanding the dramatic changes in context that have taken place since then. The status quo carries many benefits for the “supply-side” of international aid, most notably in the form of jobs and careers. Vested interests will continue to resist change.

We are, in effect, dealing with Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which suggests that the status quo persists over time because powerful interests in the “leadership classes” refuse to give up their privileges. A quotation attributed to the writer Upton Sinclair puts this in a nutshell: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” – or as Darren McGarvey said more recently and directly, “How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?”

If we are to make the hashtag #ShiftThePower become a practical reality, we cannot just tinker at the edges, but must go deep and redesign the system. This brings us to the essence of systems theory.


Harnessing systems theory and the “network effect”

If we are to use systems theory, we need to understand the science. Terms such as “taking an ecosystem approach to social change” have suddenly become fashionable in non-profit circles, yet are frequently misused. A glimpse at the science of systems theory would show that such a statement is the ultimate anthropomorphic distortion because it places human beings in a privileged position over nature.

My new paper explores the meaning of various terms in systems theory, showing what it can be used for and – just as important – its limits in producing social change. There is no substitute for creativity, humble leadership and building a broad-based movement with specific demands.

The paper identifies five things that need we need to do:

  1. Put less emphasis on the transactions involving money and more emphasis on transformations using the currency of power.
  2. See that “big is best” for the fallacy it is, and replace it with “small is beautiful.”
  3. Rid ourselves of our colonial mindset of doing things for people, and rather enable people to do things for themselves.
  4. Shift the control of resources from a centralized to a distributed model, so that power moves to the edge of our systems.
  5. Redesign evaluation systems that rely solely on linear and logical methodologies, to more creative ones that use abductive reasoning.

The final part of the study sets out ten points for action. These are not recommendations to be followed point by point, but a framework for ourselves to harness the “network effect.” There is no substitute for building alliances between diverse organizations, changing the narrative, and preparing for the conflict that lies ahead if we are serious about distributing power to the edges of our society, rather than continuing to drip-feed resources to local civil society while keeping all of the power at the centre.

So we are looking forward to the upcoming Symposium, which will begin to build such alliances and – to return to the train metaphor – explore who is ready to come “all aboard” with systems theory, and truly #ShiftThePower.

By: Barry Knight, GFCF Adviser and author of “Rethinking Poverty

Download: “Systems To #ShiftThePower

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