Funded by the Governance and Civil Society Program, Ford Foundation (usa) 1Table of Contents


Social Change and the Implications for Assessment and Learning



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Social Change and the Implications for Assessment and Learning

Social change, as discussed in this document, is a collective process of conscious efforts to reduce poverty and oppression by changing the underlying unequal power relationships. Understanding the visions of social change that guide such efforts is an essential starting point for assessing it and learning what to do better. Such efforts have several characteristics that hinder the application of mainstream approaches to assessment. This section discusses these issues.

Understanding Social Change


The term ‘social change’ is generic and neutral, hence opening it up for co-option and the subject of confusion. Unless qualified with terms like ‘developmental’ or ‘pro-poor’ or ‘people-centred’, the term ‘social change’ can be either positive or negative. In this document, the term does not refer to the happenstance of historical processes that emerge over time but rather to the result of conscious efforts that seek specific societal transformations. During the Gray Rocks conference that was a precursor to the ASC initiative, social change-oriented development was defined as focusing on “fundamental social, economic and/or political reform that helps poor people and others who face discrimination, marginalization and exclusion”1. This was the starting point for defining the ASC group’s use of the term (see Box 4).

Box 4. Why not just ‘development’?

What does the term ‘social change’ add? Why not just stick to ‘development’? Using the term ‘social change’ forces recognition of transformation that is societal and implies a long time horizon. Much of development is delivered through projects with short time horizons of three to four years. Such efforts are often essential for the larger scale and more fundamental changes that occur over a longer time period. But they are not sufficient for the type and nature of social change on which the ASC dialogue focused.


Poor people, power and process are central to understanding social change, which essentially, and immutably, concerns transformational processes related to the (re)distribution of power. Poor people’s structural battle with institutionalised injustice-triggered poverty is the ultimate goal of developmental social change. Social change processes require facilitating changes in vulnerable constituencies, as well as those who decide and manage resource flows. Challenging and redressing power inequities and dominant discriminatory norms in favour of the marginalised is the focus of social change work. This means emphasising structural change of society, its institutions and norms, as part of a more equitable sharing of resources and opportunities. It requires ongoing efforts and seeing social change as a process that challenges power relations at all levels. Therefore, it is not about building latrines so much as how the latrines are built, the power and equity issues that lie underneath the lack of access to latrines, and thus the process and what it can generate in terms of collective insight and action, rather than the product. A process perspective becomes logical, and with it a focus on milestones.

Change, in general, is a given but pro-poor social change efforts require conscious actions. For pro-poor social change, this means analysing how change is perceived by those involved and together deciding on a focus and strategy that is appropriate for the existing ongoing shifts. Efforts can be proactively seeking a specific improvement, such as legislation that recognises marital rape as a criminal offence (Samba 2007) or small-miners’ rights to traditional land (Mwasuru 2007), or be a reaction to adverse societal shifts, such as reduced funding for public schools, parks and libraries as part of market liberalization (Reilly 2007). Non-government organisations (NGOs) engage in both ways – seeking specific pro-poor changes and managing other unwanted changes. Such conscious efforts focus on counterbalancing the impact on the vulnerable, marginalised and the poor, and dealing with the tensions of imbalanced access to resources, goods and/or services.


However, even in the context of pro-poor social change, there will be competing versions of and trajectories for social change. Differences exist within pro-poor social change organisations but most clearly between civil society alternatives and mainstream development organisations. Hence dealing with differing perspectives on ‘pro-poor social change’ will always be needed. These are often not articulated but shape personal ideas of strategic priorities and sense of progress (see Box 5). Each person needs to locate her/himself within these versions and be aware of the potential dominance of some versions in certain interactions. For example, one of SPARC’s insights about these differences came when the women pavement dwellers did not want to use confrontational strategies with the police – they did not have the luxury of dealing with the adverse consequences. Their vision of change differed from SPARC: “We would readily have embraced a strategy of resistance, but for our commitment to explore solutions jointly. And the women had clearly indicated their preferred strategy of negotiating rather than fighting” (Patel 2007).

Box 5. Articulating our explanations of change (excerpt from Eyben et al 2007)

“Making explicit our explanations of change and sharing these with our colleagues can reveal that we may be using different theories, or mixing and matching them in different ways. When we argue over strategic choices, much of our disagreement may be due to different but possibly buried ways of understanding how change happens. Explicitness can encourage asking why we favour certain explanations over others. Is it because a certain theoretical lens – for example rational choice theory – appears to help us best understand all and any kind of societal process? Or is our choice of theory more subjective and influenced by our identity? Do we think that drivers of change depend on the context? How much is our thinking about how the world works learnt from how we have been educated? And to what extent are our theories influenced by those we work with? Thinking explicitly about the origins and uses of our personal and collective theories of social change may also help us appreciate that those in whose interests we claim to be acting may have very different ways of understanding how change does or doest not happen.”


Multiple dimensions of action and systemic impact characterise pro-poor social change efforts. Affecting power inequalities requires societal-level interventions alongside personal transformation efforts (see Table 1). Positive change at a local level or large scale will not necessarily lead to more structural changes at national or international level. Although one might focus on a more local level, social change is simultaneously subject to macro-level influences that cannot be ignored. It touches the political, cultural, and economic spheres of people’s lives – anywhere where injustices due to power abuses and inequities are present. Hence strategic alliances for a multi-pronged strategy become critical. Such strategies will engage with:


  • citizens and their groups by building of rights awareness and capacities, mobilising their collective action and leadership development;

  • the state to influence policy at different levels, to ensure accountability and transparency of government funding, and contracted or collaborative programme/service delivery;

  • the business sector by monitoring corporate behaviour, accessing markets, and economic policy influencing;

  • donors of all kinds by influencing their policies, strategies and procedures to make possible development innovations that sustainably improve the lives of the poor.

Table 1. Seeing power and working to reduce forms of inequality (based on Just Associates 2007)

Forms of power

Mechanisms through which exclusion and privilege occurs

Examples of efforts to overcome mechanisms of exclusion by people’s organisations and intermediaries (see Box 3 for sources)


    Visible power (formal decision-making mechanisms)




Making and enforcing rules, structures and policies that serve certain people over others, decision-making processes in which certain groups are excluded

Sauti ya Wanawake, Kenya:

  • Lobbying parliamentarians to ensure passing of the Sexual Offences Bill

  • Producing databases of violence cases and using these to open community discussions and action


SPARC, India and the Alliance:

  • precedent setting of alternative housing construction models based on women’s needs

  • collaboration between Indian Railways, Govt. of Maharashtra and the Alliance for voluntary relocations

  • publishing community-led surveys of slum dwellers


Kasighau Small-scale Miners:

  • First time participation with stalls at Annual Agricultural show with stalls to display precious stones and open up discussion on lucrative local industry shrouded in secrecy that was only benefiting the rich

  • helped form and joined a district-wide Small-Scale Miners Cooperative Society

  • participate in national conference to discuss a new mining act that would consider interests of small-scale miners and local communities

    Hidden (setting the agenda behind the scene; forms of exclusion)

Setting the agenda and being heard, with the explicit inclusion or exclusion of certain groups and voices


Sauti ya Wanawake, Kenya:

  • creating strategic networks and linkages with organisations and partners to provide women with technical support in various fields


SPARC, India and the Alliance:

  • organising women pavement dwellers into savings and credit groups that created social linkages and sharing opportunities

  • undertaken surveys to make visible those with no formal residence and therefore without a formal identity

    Invisible forms of power (social conditioning, ideology, bias)




Shaping meaning, sense of self and what is normal

Sauti ya Wanawake, Kenya:

  • trainings for women on their rights, children’s rights, paralegalism, counselling, and transformatory leadership

  • meetings with women who shared personal stories of challenges and transformation

  • educating wider community, especially community structures (local chief, village elders) and institutions (religious institutions, police)

  • campaign on violence against girls is being carried out in schools


SPARC, India and the Alliance:

  • exchange visits (nationally, internationally) with women slum dwellers


Kasighau Small-scale Miners:

  • Undertaking participatory action research on core issues and effectiveness of strategies to deal with small-miners’ rights

A clear understanding of what individual development professionals and the groups with whom they work mean by social change is of utmost importance. As Sheela Patel says: “It is the ‘meta-framework for one’s activism and partnerships for change … in project design and formulation and at M&E of what we set out to achieve”. It is not about establishing a single valid theory of change but about developing a common understanding, that is context- and issue-specific and will be dynamic (also see section 3.2.3). Articulating an understanding of social change means answering questions such as:


  • Who should benefit from the change?

  • Which injustices are being/to be addressed?

  • What power forces impede progress? Including the motives/agendas of NGOs?

  • What is the timeframe and ingredients of that process that are within and outside one’s control?

  • Why is and how is capacity to drive processes built in a constituency?

  • How do the individuals and groups involved think this particular type of change occurs (evolution, shock, incremental change, transformation)?

  • Who owns/drives/initiates/carries the process - and what legitimacy does it have?

  • Who is perhaps adversely affected by the change trajectory? Which (implicit) exclusions occur when making choices of what to include?

Social change interventions can be viewed as projects but also as evolutionary transitions. Reeler (2007) argues that it is essential to recognise three fundamentally different types of change: emergent, transformative and projectable change – each of which has significant implications for assessment and learning. Emergent change, perhaps the most prevalent and enduring type, describes the daily “unfolding of life, adaptive and uneven processes of unconscious and conscious learning from experience and the change that results from that.” Transformative change emerges in situations of crisis or entrenched thinking. Different from emergent change, which involves a learning process, “transformative change is more about unlearning, of freeing the social being from those relationships and identities, inner and outer, which underpin the crisis and hold back resolution and further healthy development.” Finally, Reeler turns to ‘projectable’ change that are most effective under relatively stable conditions and relationships and to address more tangible needs. He stresses that these forms of change intermingle but that under certain conditions some forms may dominate, support or induce another kind of change and dictates the terms of development.


Whatever vision about change exists, it is critical to create a collective critical social consciousness if efforts for social change are to be sustained. Charismatic individuals are not enough to carry the scale of change required – those affected by inequalities and oppression need their own critical awareness. Other critical components for effective pro-poor social change relate to information, communication and organisation/leadership (see Box 6).

Box 6. Critical components for effective pro-poor social change (ASC, 2005)


  • Analysis of power injustices and the institutions in society that perpetuate these.

  • Building and galvanising power for action, individually but also through alliance building.

  • Building relationships and clarifying individual positions, as insiders or outsiders to the process, but also in terms of whose side is being taken and the perspectives on social change that shape actions.

  • Accessing, sharing and analysing information about the issues at stake.

  • Enhancing citizen capacities to engage – building confidence and the ability to aspire for changes that they consider valuable, a capacity to seek a space in the design and decision-making, a capability to have agency, voice and change when changes occur locally or globally, all of which require working on attitudes, skills, knowledge, and strategies.

  • Creating spaces to negotiate and initiate change but also widening access to existing political/democratic spaces to those most marginalised groups whose voices are not heard in policy processes or in civil society organisations.

  • Understanding the inherent risks against powerful political and economic forces but also seeing who is implicitly excluded in the process
  • And, of course, time.



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