I’ve been in Stockholm this week [February 13-17] at the invitation of ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, which has been holding its annual meeting on the banks of a frozen Swedish river. I was asked to comment on the background paper for the meeting, Changing Humanitarian Action?, by ALNAP’s Paul Knox-Clarke. I read the paper on the flight over (great believer in Just in Time working practices….) with mounting excitement. It’s a brilliant, beautifully written intro to how change happens (or doesn’t) in the aid business, and to a lot of different schools of thought about change.
The paper starts off with the widespread frustration in the humanitarian sector. Despite dozens of new initiatives, impressive sounding statements and resolutions, and endless organizational change processes, ‘everything has changed, but nothing has changed’ in the words of one African humanitarian veteran. Changes include an avalanche of information technology, the rise of cash programming, geopolitical shifts towards new donors, growth in the number and size of humanitarian emergencies, organizations and the budgets allocated to them. Yet still people ‘did not see these ‘big’ changes as having made a real difference to the lives of people affected by crisis.’ So the paper is as much as study in how change doesn’t happen as how it does.
The bit of the paper that really grabbed me was the succinct summary of three conventional models of change that underpin humanitarian thinking, and three new ones that could shed new light. None of them are definitive; all contribute to a deeper understanding.