How does positive and lasting social change really happen?

By: Andrew Hassett, Director of Global Campaigns; World Vision International

Everybody wants to change the world - but how does positive and lasting social change really happen? Who makes change? How do we know when change is real?

Recently thousands of World Vision staff around the world and the communities we work with have been busy with the Global Week of Action. This year saw some of the most significant events since the Child Health Now campaign began with more than 4.5 million people in 71 countries coming together through 4,100 public events in support of greater action to achieve the child and maternal MDGs. I certainly had a strong sense of positive change being driven forward. I was moved by the energy and innovation right across the world.  From Indonesia, where teenagers helped to inspire 700 people to hold their hands around the Bundaran Hi fountain in a symbolic gesture to the 400 children and religious leaders that spoke out in Afghanistan.

But I also reflected on how events like the GWA are really most meaningful when understood not just in themselves, but as part of a very long process. It's a bit like looking at a painting - you can get up close and see the detail, but to understand the whole thing you have to stand back and look at the big picture.

In the development sector you often hear people talking about "theory of change". This refers to a methodology for planning and evaluating development programs, building in community participation, to work out whether desired outcomes have actually happened. This is really important, but the kind of change I'm thinking about is something much less technical and specific. Development actors can contribute to it, but it can't be contained and codified within a technical framework.

I think that deep social change that's positive and lasting always involves a change in people's individual and shared ideas - truly, it means cultural change.

Quite often when I hear the term "cultural change" being used today, it's in the context of business - where a company is trying to refine its organisation and strategy to become more competitive. Companies and organisations often talk about cultural change as a process where a group of people become more and more closely aligned around an agreed set of ideas and ways of behaving, in the interests of achieving agreed common goals.

But a company, complicated as it might be, is not quite like a society. At the social level things are much less simple.

To begin with, you don't start with the kind of simple purpose, common goals and value consensus that exists in a company. Difference and disagreement are normal and natural, and need to be respected, understood and worked through. You can't dictate an agenda or try to get cut-through by executive decisions. Nor can you choose who's in and who's out. You don't have an HR department to act as gatekeeper.

In societies, cultural change is slow and complicated. There are setbacks as well as advances, and there aren't easy benchmarks or milestones to measure progress. Above all it is a long game, and for civil society optimism has to be tempered with realism about what can be achieved, and how quickly. Above all we need to always remember that we can be catalysts and motivators and can bring important resources to bear - but the power to make change ultimately lies not with us, but with the communities where we work.

But there is a really important role for civil society organisations, from the local to the global. By creating space and opportunity for people to participate, we help people seize the opportunity to make their own change.

But we are just the facilitators. Those whose lives are changing are the ones making the change. And what is changing is not just circumstances but consciousness. Better health and better opportunity in life for children is a dramatic change, and at the very heart of what we are hoping to see accomplished.

But with that change comes a transformation in people's ideas and expectations. They are not powerless - their potential to make their own futures is becoming ever clearer. They are not helpless - they have the power to help themselves, and they are resilient against setbacks. They are not alone - when they participate in life-changing actions they become part of something much bigger and stronger.

And as children and young people grow up in transformed circumstances, the culture changes. This is when we know change is real - when a new generation rises up to adulthood and to responsibility with changed expectations about what kind of life they can lead, and what kind of world they can make.

We believe in this change, long term and liberating, because we are fundamentally optimistic about people and what they can achieve. We see a common human aspiration to live in communities where all can share in the opportunity to lead healthy and satisfying lives. We have faith that this aspiration knows no boundaries but is universal. We believe the truth of the statement famously quoted by Martin Luther King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

The Global Week of Action has been a powerful statement that millions share in this hope.