31st ALNAP Annual Meeting Background Paper, 14 - 15 February 2017, Stockholm, Sweden

Paul Knox-Clarke
Publication Date
February 14, 2017

Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP)

"Despite the time, money and energy that is spent on change, there has been very little attention paid to the processes by which change actually happens in the humanitarian 'system' (a term which, in itself, has implications for how we think about change...). The focus of change initiatives is generally on what should change and why, rather than on how this change can effectively be achieved."

This background paper for a February 2017 Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) meeting provides an introduction to how change happens (or doesn't) in the aid business and describes several different schools of thought about change. ALNAP is a sector-wide active learning membership network dedicated to improving the quality and accountability of humanitarian action.

Paul Knox-Clarke begins by unpacking what "change" means, noting that, although there is no universally accepted typology of change, there are some organising principles: dimension, design, depth, degree and speed, and distance (the distance of the object of change from the people designing or managing the change process). This paper focuses on the profound changes that come when we intentionally try to create very big shifts in the status quo, in a number of related dimensions of activity, or in "deep" ways that require people to make a fundamental reassessment of their basic assumptions and attitudes.

"One of the main ideas this paper will illustrate is that the way we seek to change something depends largely on the way in which we understand what that thing is. With this in mind," Knox-Clarke considers some of the aspects of humanitarian organisations and of the humanitarian system that affect the way in which it changes, or can be changed. For instance, in terms of structure and organisation, humanitarian organisations tend to be geographically dispersed and have fairly weak systems of command and control, which can make it difficult to "drive change" from the centre of the organisation. Another factor that influences change in the humanitarian sector is humanitarians' "strong emotional, values-based investment in their work, and in their organisations. This can make people ambivalent, or even openly resistant, to change....Many observers see the sector as risk-averse, or at least preferring to default to tried and tested solutions." Knox-Clarke also points to "the very high degree of connection between the system and other external systems, in particular national and global political systems....[M]igration has influenced political discourse in many countries, from the UK [United Kingdom] to Myanmar, in ways that challenge humanitarian principles, but which also open avenues for debate and advocacy."

Changes in the context in which humanitarian sector operates have included increased use of information technology, the rise of cash programming, geopolitical shifts towards new donors, and growth in the number and size of humanitarian emergencies, organisations, and the budgets allocated to them. "The humanitarian system has repeatedly been criticised for failing to change in response to these many and varied currents in the world around it. Many, both inside and outside the system, say that the system is 'bad at change'. How accurate is this assessment?" Interviewees for this paper seemed to feel that the key changes in humanitarian action have been essentially reactive. Interviewees also spoke about systemic changes that were more consciously planned: particularly the Transformative Agenda (TA). "Whatever the overall success of the TA, there is general agreement that in one area - that of enhancing the accountability of humanitarian actors to people affected by crisis - there has been only limited improvement." In terms of the degree of change, Knox-Clarke finds that the changes "have been quite significant - humanitarian action in 2017 looks very different to that in 1997 in a number of important ways – and yet very limited. Interviewees generally did not see these 'big' changes as having made a real difference to the lives of people affected by crisis: 'we're where we've always been'; 'the needs are the same, [but] the world has become much more complex and in a way much more dangerous'."

Lack of change, such as in the area of accountability, "poses real questions about change. How much change is possible? Why does change fail to happen even when key stakeholders say they want it to? What are the best ways to address these constraints and support change?" To approach these questions, Knox-Clarke provides a summary of three conventional models of change that underpin humanitarian thinking, and three new ones that could shed new light. The three conventional models are:

  1. Machine: The aid system is a complicated but controllable device. Change comes from learning how to identify and pull the right levers.
  2. Market: The humanitarian system is full of firms (both big incumbents and insurgents) and through competition and innovation, a process of creative destruction generates steady, if painful, progress.
  3. Political economy: Humanitarian players pursue their organisational interests, aimed at self-preservation and increasing their revenue and power.

The three alternative models are:

  1. The system as society: Organised 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.
  2. 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."
  3. The system as mind: While cultural models draw on anthropology, this model draws on psychology. "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....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....From this perspective, a broad range of activities, including many we often think of as contributing to change, can be seen as unconscious attempts to prevent change from happening."

Noting that none of the models outlined in this paper is a perfect description of the reality of change, in the next section, Knox-Clarke outlines some of the main insights arising from the latter three, the alternative models of organisations and organisational change:

  • We have much less control over change than we think. Therefore, we should: (i) Collect - and act on - information as situations unfold; (ii) provide as much certainty as possible (e.g., clarify roles); (iii) use networks and decentralised approaches; and (iv) rethink the role of leadership.
  • We need to be aware of the size, shape, and composition of the thing we are changing. Accountability is about changing the way that an organisation works, not just about discrete projects that involve making changes within existing ways of working. It can be useful, Knox-Clarke suggests, to anticipate how structures, procedures, relationships, and skills might affect systemic or organisational behaviour, and how changes in one area might support or impede changes elsewhere. Be aware of dynamics (the system is always changing), he urges, noting that it is also important to go outside the system: "Advocacy activities can influence the perceptions and programmes of political actors, which in turn influence what is possible on the ground. Knowing this, actors seeking change in the system can use the media, or political networks, to enhance the possibility of achieving this change. In some cases, then, it might be necessary to use different tactics and approaches that catalyse change outside the system in order to make changes within it."
  • Organisations cannot change unless the people in them change their behaviour. We should pay attention to the role of emotion: There is value in actively seeking out concerns and disagreements, and discussing them with interest and respect. Furthermore, "[t]o the degree that reality is social, then changing that reality is also a social activity....'Many innovation processes start through collective recognition of problems or opportunities enabled by an informal interaction....Conferences, workshops, coffee shops and emergency response settings have all served as incubators for initial introductions and the sharing of ideas, frustrations and approaches that have eventually led to an innovation' (Obrecht and Warner, 2016:55)." Knox-Clarke also suggests that we over-communicate about the reasons for change, the benefits it will bring, and the scope and nature of the change process. Finally, "[i]f we hope to support change, it can be useful to question our own actions - and those of others. How much of what we do around change is actually unconscious resistance?"
  • Change is difficult: It takes a long time, and success is not guaranteed. Therefore, we should check and align expectations and allow more time.

Knox-Clarke concludes: "One key challenge in writing this paper is the very limited number of written descriptions of change processes in the humanitarian system. While we collectively expend vast amounts of time and expense on attempting to make changes, we appear, both in absolute terms and in relation to other sectors, to have spent very little time on trying to identify 'what works'. We hope that the 31st ALNAP Meeting will go some way towards addressing this."


"How Change Happens (or doesn't) in the Humanitarian System", by Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power blog, February 15 2017, accessed on March 15 2017.