Learning and development: three essential books

The Origins of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Remaking of Economics, by Eric Beinhocker, Random House, Business Books, London, 2006 ISBN: 9780712676618, 526. pp.

Investing in the Immaterial: An Annual Digest for Practitioners of Development 2010/2011, by the Community Development Resource Association, Cape Town, 2011, 106. pp.

The Change Imperative: Creating a Next Generation NGO, by Paul Ronalds, Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, CT, 2010 ISBN: 9781565493254, 233. pp.

In the course of only a week or two, many interesting publications demand attention. I therefore try to periodically update my website with items that catch my eye and are worthy of a wider audience.1 They collectively reflect the many angles into what we do and why. Consequently, selecting ‘essentials’ has been difficult. The three I have chosen are important, I think, because they invite us to question how ‘change’ in society will itself change. By this I mean shaking free of decades of assumptions about inducing changes in and – beyond – a given society that will reduce poverty and attain social justice. The three titles speak in different but complementary ways to a necessary shift in the paradigms or frameworks that we use to read the world we live in and act to alter its winners and losers.

Eric Beinhocker's book, The Origins of Wealth, is critical in taking a long view of economics in relation to society and politics. His contribution is distinctive not just for the breadth of the evidence he covers, but for weaving his story around the ideas and principles associated with complexity. It is a thick volume, but Beinhocker is a journalist, so the text is pretty accessible. A main argument is that economics – which still dominates aid thinking – took a misstep when it tried to treat itself as a physical science. Human sentiments do not follow the rigid laws and unerring rationality assumed by this ‘dismal’ discipline. So, we need to treat economics and the fixation on growth that it stimulates as a matter of political choice. It is not an iron law that subordinates people to its rules, whims and volatilities. The economics of markets are amoral, needing active management by society for the social good. Beinhocker's book is a seminal step in this direction, one that is not trapped in projecting the past into a knowable future.

Applying a complexity lens in this way opens up a very different story about how a society's institutions emerge, interact and can be influenced. This story poses significant challenges to the assumptions we typically use, for example, about incentives, about the space available for social or political change, about speed in relation to achieving results, about the predictability of development efforts, and so on. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis points us towards the importance of connections, relationships and processes as starting points for understanding what is going on instead of first concentrating on the actors involved. This latter point of entry is typically found in rights-based approaches that concentrate on citizens as claimants and government as duty bearer. A complexity view pays significant attention to the relations between citizens with obligations towards each other. Social fragmentation, exclusion and xenophobia are generated by interactions within civil society that a complexity lens can help illuminate. And, in illuminating such processes, complexity opens up greater possibilities to be sensitive to the invisible and the immaterial forces that are in play, the substance of my second choice.

The composite volume by CDRA, Investing in the Immaterial, illustrates the potential to better understand and self-reflect on what we do and ‘the games we play’ to try and stay true to the original inspirations of NGO-ism. For those familiar with CDRA, its annual reports were distinctive and original contributions to development thinking and practice. This way of sharing is seen to have run its course. An Annual Digest is its replacement, giving space to voices both inside and outside CDRA. This inaugural book contains a dozen chapters connected by a concern for appreciating the intangible, vital features of development that is truly transformative: a development that values dimensions of change in society and in people, which cannot be counted and enumerated. A ‘philanthropy’ that truly reflects its Greek etymology ‘love of humanity’. Collectively, the texts tease out what has happened over time to divert NGOs from their social and political inspirations and buy into a regime dominated by material change and its measurement. Measuring is legitimate. But the resulting subordination of interest in – and sensitivity to – what works, hidden within social processes, has overtaken and eroded much of what NGOs had to offer. The loss shows up in both detachment from, and inadequate attention to, critical forces and energies within civil society which self-organise and self-regulate to keep relations ‘civil’. In this sense, much of NGO-ism has become socio-politically deskilled.

A recurring query in the book is why and how NGOs have arrived at a place where the economics of self-survival is a major distraction. A recurring answer is that, in ‘playing the game of not playing the game’ NGOs have not been adept at influencing the rules. And, in my view, it is because slowly but surely NGOs have lost their own definition of who they are and what they do – buying into role ascriptions provided by funders and a market philosophy. This process was abetted by relying on financial growth as a proxy for performance with governance and leadership that proved incapable of projecting an alternative story of how societies work and change. The CDRA volume offers a rich source of ideas and insights as a thoughtful counterweight to the prevailing climate of ‘if it can't be counted, it doesn't count’. Can this type of change be changed?

The issue tackled in my third book of choice, is whether or not NGOs, especially those that are large and international, can draw on the CDRA volume and its counterparts to rediscover meaning beyond a concern with numbers.

Until recently, Paul Ronalds was the chief operating officer of World Vision Australia. Written from the vantage point of an insider, The Change Imperative provides a critical assessment on the self-transformative potential of big international NGOs or, as they are to be known at the November 2011 Busan conference on aid effectiveness, big international civil society organisations (ICSOs). His book charts the environments that ICSOs will be facing – a useful source for thinking about strategy. But the main thrust of his story is about the about the ability of ICSOs to adapt in order to better cope with increasing global uncertainties and the demands of scale. Can their organisational change outpace the rate at which their multiple contexts are moving? And, as critically, can this process be transformative for who they are as well as for what they do? Can they, for example, rebalance the (im)material dimensions of social and political change, moving closer to the sense of ‘being’ and ‘soul’ that the CDRA volume describes? Put another way, can they become entities suited to the twenty-first century?

The varied emerging configurations of ICSOs governance and approaches to (de)centralisation illustrate, once more, that no two are the same. Nevertheless, his overall view on their adaptability is not optimistic. But, rather than rehearsing the many existing sources of analysis of why this might be the case – learning disabilities, risk aversion, a confusion between professionalism and managerialism, pre-occupation with growth, and so on – his analysis homes in on some additional demands as well as opportunities that globalisation offers. These demands include: resilience to unanticipated shock; retaining relevance; making use of technologies that assist in responsiveness but simultaneously feed the ‘disintermediation’ of international resource transfers between citizens seen, for example, in Diaspora financing and web-based matching of projects and donors. He argues that INGO relevance is on the line if this self-organised global connectivity is not adequately taken into account.

Further food for thought lies in the knotty area of achieving and demonstrating effectiveness. This volume helps to unpack connections between governance, accountability, transparency and the ‘hard’ evidence that they all require, typically from systems dedicated to monitoring and evaluation. As signalled in the CDRA book, the latter is currently highly contested terrain which makes demands on perhaps the most critical determinant of adaptability – leadership and NGO people.

In the last analysis, Ronalds argues that transformation of INGOs will be determined by clear, courageous, compelling and inspiring leadership and the followership of people who are not just technically competent but sensitive to the socio-political complexity of their work. This conclusion is borne out by new initiatives dedicated to investment in NGO people and growth of leadership from within.2 The book by Paul Ronalds provides a well-founded introduction to what leadership and followership are likely to mean for a twenty-first century NGO. A required reading to add to the pile.


1. See www.alanfowler.org  

2. www.peopleinaid.org and DLP, 2011, ‘Politics, Leadership and Coalitions in Development: Policy Implications of the DLP research Evidence’, Background Papers, Development Leadership Programme, www.dlprog.org