My first mission for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office was to Somalia in the early 1990s. It was also my first ever venture onto the African continent. I could state the obvious: it was a shock with the scale and complexity of the conflict and its human impact unimaginable. As a first visit it also gave me a real insight into the ambivalence of what on face-value appear to be clear humanitarian principles and the rule of (international) law. With malnutrition levels still extremely high and access dependent on the largesse of fighting factions, agencies were debating what levels of food-aid pilfering were acceptable. How many lives would we save? How many more kalashnikovs would we see purchased on the food-aid market? Should we draw the line at 30% or 40% food-aid "losses"?
Much of the theory we, the self-appointed change makers, refer to starts from a high moral position - human rights, ethical imperatives, equality, justice, peace ... i.e. what we call doing the "right thing" and acting "responsibly". We then hit a wall, lose a little of our naïvety and re-package to produce a more pragmatic argument that talks to the cynical and powerful. This tends to bring out the compelling narratives of economic growth and security, minimising the complexity of change and avoiding pointing out responsibilities. Those with the power-in-your-face to implement change are only too happy to take the more easy to swallow linear, off the shelf solutions, even when their own intellectual and emotional intelligence says otherwise. Caught between a rock and a hard stone we buckle to their demands and they to their own survival instincts. We convince ourselves that "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" and reassure ourselves that we're changing the system from the inside.
And then we lose heart...
The more we lose confidence in the possibility of wider effective change the more we retrench. We focus on change that is generated locally and grows outward infecting the system. We sell a story that ownership is key and that context rules. We celebrate incremental change, small victories and welcome human tales of bravery. Notions of positive deviance, community activism and even Ostrom's take on the "commons" and self-governance all resonate purpose. But how far do they take on the challenge of scale?
By now I should have some hardened heads nodding!
The real question is, what is enough? The 70% aid distribution or the community-led process that sees private-public partnership loans to women farmers? When do we sacrifice purity of principle for the reward of sustainable scaled systems change? No doubt localised change is of immense value and should never be discounted, the ripple effect engages us in a game of patience that we no longer have time for if we were to place all our chips on this bet. The Doing Development Differently brigade has gone some distance to addressing this - problem-driven; iterative with lots of learning; engaging teams and coalitions, often producing hybrid solutions that are ‘fit to context’ and politically smart - but remains frustrated by its limited traction, impact and real influence.
At the start of this new year I'd like to suggest a positive and constructive path. One where our collective intellectual and emotional maturity gives us confidence to pursue the universal values we hold justifiably dear while valiantly fighting the good fight of systems change. As true activists we can mobilise our spheres of influence (and create new ones), accelerate these times of transition beyond the tinkering on the edges so common today and bring the local and global together into a network of enabled ecosystems where each inspires the other towards a profound shift.
We are living a perfect storm. The opportunity for collective and positive change is massive. What will it take for each of us to grasp it and truly live by the very values we espouse?
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi