The change is now – but how?

01 Mar 2024

This blog originally appeared in Alliance magazine’s special feature section on reforming international development


After 18 months of work with the H & S Davidson Trust on its Reforming International Development programme, it is clear that the system is broken. As the world drifts towards ever more violent conflict, there is less freedom and more polarization than ever before. Too few resources continue to reach local communities and when they do, our evidence suggests that the way they are delivered often “disempowers” and causes harm. 

Rebecca Hanshaw & Barry Knight, Adviser to the GFCF

The #ShiftThePower Global Summit held in Bogotá in December 2023 produced an immense amount of energy among 700 people from 70+ countries. It is clear that demands for reform are mobilizing around the #ShiftThePower movement and building momentum. The question now is to decide how to turn this appetite into action.

This is hard because changing systems involves tackling embedded ways of doing, and there are many agencies and actors that benefit from current arrangements. This appears to be a classic case of Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which dictates that the status quo persists over time because the “leadership classes” refuse to give up their privileges. As a quotation attributed to Upton Sinclair puts it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

This creates a great chasm between rhetoric and reality, such that the talk of change is everywhere yet change is hard to find. As Amitabh Behar, acting director of Oxfam International, has recently put it:

“…large philanthropic foundations, bilateral donors, and international non-governmental organizations have been slow, even reluctant in some cases, to change and shift the power. While the decolonization rhetoric is publicly embraced by many Global North groups, actions to give it substantive roots remain hollow.”

The result is we have decolonized language without decolonized practice. We have “localization” without clarity on what defines “local.” We have participatory grantmaking but, as Nina Blackwell notes: “The power of issue identification, action design, outcome determination, grant size, [and] who gets to participate…is typically retained by funders.” We have endless talk of “systems change” but little detail on how to achieve it.

So, the question becomes, “how do we produce authentic change?”

Help is at hand in the shape of a book by Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici. The systems work of social change combines academic sophistication with real-world application to address the complexity of systems design. There are only two approaches that make sense – “high level scenario modelling” and “participative processes.”[1]

While the international development sector is quite effective at getting people in a room to talk about systems change and ways to increase participation, scenario modelling is a rarely used tool. This means that action tends to be driven by personal opinion or anecdotal evidence rather than systemic modelling of the future we want. As a result, discussions can be circular and repetitive – leading to endless talk without a clear direction.

Modelling can give such direction and provide some much-needed clarity. To give an example, the GFCF collected data from meetings in Kenya, Nepal, Malawi, Romania and Uganda held in preparation for the Bogotá Summit. Using hierarchical regression modelling of participants’ views about what was needed to build a good system of international “development”, three necessary changes were identified:

  1. Trust: Governments, funders and public organizations become enablers, trusting people and communities to take the lead to build the societies they want.
  2. People power: Community activism is nurtured, supported, and resourced so all people take charge in building the societies they want – generating empowerment, ownership and agency.
  3. Feminization: The world embraces feminist values, and universal dignity and wellbeing for all people is the superordinate goal over economic growth.

It is in the nature of models that the interaction of all three of these factors are needed to drive change. It is also in the nature of models that they must be seen as incomplete because they simplify highly complex material and cut out extraneous detail. They should also be seen as provisional but well-grounded hypotheses to be used for further elucidation and development – and as ever, we should not let the pursuit of perfection jeopardize progress.

So, how can we develop the model further?  There are two main answers to this question. One is through dialogue so that people can use the systems analysis described here as a way of guiding emergent design processes. The other is through action to support genuine alternatives that place dignity at the core of “development.” By amplifying positive deviance and demonstrating positive results, a pathway which supports the conditions for systems change will emerge. This will create momentum and help funders abandon short-term transactional programmes in favour of ones that offer transformational change – along with dignity and well-being for all.

These perspectives will guide the plan of the next stage of the Reforming International Development programme. Details of this will be available later in March.


By: Rebecca Hanshaw & Barry Knight, Adviser to the GFCF

[1] Rayner, C. and François Bonnici (2021). The systems work of social change: how to harness connection, context, and power to cultivate deep and enduring change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 124.

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