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How will change happen? In search of a theory of systems change for the humanitarian sector

By Hannah Reichardt, Start Network’s Senior Innovation Manager

In a recent blog, my colleague Neil Townsend laid down some pretty fundamental questions about systems change in the humanitarian sector, including asking ‘how will change happen’? This question has been plaguing my mind, and so I plunged myself into the search for a Holy Grail of systems change.

Innovation team at work as part of A Single Drop for Safe Water, Working Differently Challenge in the Philippines
Innovation team at work as part of A Single Drop for Safe Water, Working Differently Challenge in the Philippines

Changing a system is not about just rearranging the parts or players, but about addressing the conditions that maintain the problem in its current state. Typically this is where we reach for a theory to make this enormous and difficult task both understandable and do-able.

Theories and conceptual models can be enormously helpful: making the complex easier to understand (a cognitive comfort blanket); doing the heavy lifting of rallying others to bring them with us (the magic of a convincing theory of change); providing reassurance and confidence that we have a way-forward (a plan! phew!). Theories can provide us with both cognitive confidence and ‘permission to play’.

The humanitarian sector is characterised by complexity; it’s dynamic, unpredictable, constituted of multiple subsystems and impossible to clearly delineate from other systems. And for complex systems, the journey to a new system is inherently unknowable in advance… it doesn’t yet exist. The promise of a clear and organised pathway to change is tantalising but likely to provide false-comfort and lead us astray from the real work. So, where does that lead us in terms of driving the systems change we recognise to be urgent?

Our behaviour as actors in the humanitarian sector is currently characterised by planning, organising, controlling, modelling. But this way of working has its limitations when responding to complexity because a tendency to control can limit creative opportunities. So, how do we meet complexity with appropriate action and not resign ourselves to fatalism?

There are a wide range of different theories of systems change that suggest different ways of changing a system, from which we may learn:

  • The mechanistic and abstracted modelling referred to as Systems Theory (largely thanks to the excellent work of Donella Meadows) helps us to see how systems function and where leverage can be placed to alter feedback loops that keep it in its state.
  • The two loops model developed by the Berkana Institute presents a theory of change as non-linear, with emergence of innovation breaking free of the restrictive status quo of a dominant system leading to its inevitable demise as a new system finds space and opportunity to grow.
  • The Rockwool Foundation in their white paper on Building Better Systems presents a set of ideas that direct us to look at different stakeholders/roles, different levels of action, and different ‘keys’ to critically consider (purpose, power, resources and relationships) when figuring out where to effect change.
  • FSG offers a model with six conditions of systems change, categorised as structural (policies, practices, resource flows), relational (relationships and connections, power dynamics) and transformative changes (mental models), underlying the multi-dimensional thinking required in systems change work.
  • Theory U, developed by Otto Schamer challenges us as individuals within a system to explore our own thinking processes and assumptions through curiosity about past patterns and reflection to allow new ideas and opportunities to emerge (“learning from the past and the future”).

Other systems change theories focus on the roles that are required in complement to one another, the critical role of multi-stakeholder collaboration, or the importance of changing our foundational principles that determine our practice (rather than focusing on the practice alone). There’s a lot of valuable thinking out there but it can feel quite overwhelming. Where do you start?

I can’t help but feel that the current systems change conversations in the humanitarian sector are a bit stuck. We’re often searching for a theory that will ‘work’, in line with our commitment to rationality (evidenced by our addictions to logical frameworks and theories of change). While we agree that the humanitarian system must change, we don’t really know how best to direct our efforts to make this happen. And our normal tools are ill-equipped for the actual complexity we’re faced with.

So where does that leave those of us who make it our business to drive systems change in the humanitarian sector? Below is a tentative set of ideas in response to my question of ‘how will change happen?’, that perhaps might grow into a practical systems change playbook one day. It’s not an emerging theory, but an acknowledgement of a pluriverse of ideas and approaches.

  • A core mindset to hold is that systems don’t change unless the people within them do. For this to happen, we have to explore the assumptions and values that are baked into core activities and infrastructure, challenge their seemingly intrinsic nature, and create space for an ethical evolution. This is uncomfortable work; it means listening openly, active self-reflection (particularly where we feel our own resistance), challenging respectfully and accepting that we will all change as a result. As Peter Senge states: people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.
  • A pathway to change doesn’t exist in advance but exists through its ongoing creation. We are all inherently creative but the humanitarian system’s drive for consistency and control erodes space for imagining aid differently. We need to invest in creative endeavours: experimenting abundantly, daring to imagine and think differently, forging working relationships with different people in new ways. In doing so, we will craft a new system through ongoing and deliberate practice, not through planning.
  • Competencies required for changing a system are currently underinvested in the humanitarian sector. Creativity, curiosity, empathy, imagination are likely to be critical competencies to support systems change, but efforts to invest in these are minimal. Without a doubt, an open and creative approach to systems change demands a willingness and ability to see things differently, adapt our practice, flexibly respond to challenges and opportunities in an emerging new system. According to the World Economic Forum, it’s these traits that are embedded in ‘cognitive flexibility’ and have determined some of the greatest successes of our species. And so, to be serious about driving systems change, we have to be serious about valuing cognitive flexibility.
  • Systems change efforts must be multi-dimensional and multi-perspective. It’s not enough to singularly advocate, campaign, innovate, convene, collaborate, or challenge. All of these efforts are needed by different kinds of actors working in complementary ways, acting at different levels from the local to the global. Our worldview needs to be broad, focusing on to micro level and out to the macro level, and able to move between different perspectives with ease.

Find out more about the Crisis Response & Resilience Lab run by Complexity University in partnership with Start Network and GFCF.

Join us at the Start Network Assembly to continue the conversation about changing the humanitarian system




Catalysing a new era of humanitarian action, with proactive financing, innovation and localisation to transform the system.

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An international network of NGOs, catalysing a new era of humanitarian action, with proactive financing, innovation & localisation to transform the system.

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