Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

2005: The Embrace of Unhappiness
Zaid Hassan, 4 Jan 06

sky.jpgWhat have I been up to?

My work over the last year has became more clearly about changing institutions and institutional relationships. The projects that I've been occupied with, at Generon Consulting, on shifting the relationship between aboriginal communities and mainstream society in Canada, about child malnutrition in India and about public healthcare in the United States concern the fundamental nature of institutional change. All these projects involve convening large partnerships of business, civil society and governmental organisations to work together over an extended period of time (years) in order to peacefully address what are essentially very complex devolving situations or "stuck problems."

The relationship between aboriginal communities and mainstream or "settler" society is one that is five hundred years old. The realties of shifting unhealthy patterns that have been in existence for such a long time is more difficult than I could have believed possible, mostly for reasons that I couldn't have previously imagined. To give you some sense of the relative complexities, I went from Canada to work on a project on public healthcare in the US, a fifty year old problem, with a sense of relief. To further illustrate the mind-boggling complexity of the problems we're working on, in India the project we are working on has stated a goal of halving the rate of child malnutrition in ten years. This involves a population of 100 million children, across the country. The first state we're working in, Maharashtra, has a population of over 90 million. The challenges of innovation on this scale are both fascinating and daunting.

The burning questions that I entered 2005 with related to the payoffs of such work and to our theory of change. I entered the year wondering if the price we’re paying for doing this work, in carbon, in money, in time, in energy, in relationships, in people – were actually justified in the medium and long run. Through the year I found it hard to shake a nagging unhappiness at the scale of the projects we were working on (which are in fact far smaller than many megaprojects). Will we actually be able to make changes to these “stuck problems”?

A big part of that work is, of course, that you change institutions through changing people. You don’t however change institutions through simply changing people. This is a critical asymmetry that I think my work and our work at Generon, pivots on. I feel that my work prior to Generon operated on a loose understanding that you can bring together relatively random groups of people who profess an interest in change, you work on individual and group change and somehow the system will change.

A few years ago, at a workshop we facilitated, I met Professor john powell. He works on something called “structural racism” at Ohio State University. The core of his enquiry was to ask the question of how, in an age where less and less people are racist, the gap between coloured, particularly black populations in America, and white people is growing. He had a whole set of indicators to show this is the situation. His answer was that the system, the structure of society itself, for historical reasons, is generating racism.

At some point the implications of this hit me like an axe. The professor was basically making the case, demonstrating empirically, that a change of individual consciousness does not necessarily result in a more just society. When we’re living in systems that are producing injustice due to structural reasons, running programmes that work with individuals – no matter how well facilitated, will not necessarily change or impact a situation. There needs to be a conscious attempt to address issues of structural injustice. In other words, creating systemic change means working with individuals in order for individuals to change both themselves and the structures that generate injustice.

This was a huge insight for me, because it had so many implications for my work. It became clearer to me that we need to be working in order to change these enormous systems that we’re a part of. Leaving them to take care of themselves, or thinking that a single individual with a degree of consciousnesses and awareness, can change them makes less and less sense. If we leave them to take care of themselves then what happens is that they keep generating more and more injustice. As individuals we then spend much of our energy dealing with this injustice. We’re complicit in the problem of structural injustice if we do not consciously work with it or try to
address it.

The framing for my questions about Generon’s work and my role within it have thus taken on a different hue, the entire past year itself takes on a different hue and colour. So, of course, do the coming years. I understand that my work here is trying to figure out how to re-negotiate institutional and structural relationships to ensure that they stop or produce less injustice. I realise that personal transformation and change plays a pivotal part of this work but that there is more to it than I had at first realised. Upon hearing about our work, a close friend of mine, Manish Jain, posed two questions which I feel go straight to the heart of what we’re trying to do. He wanted to know what evidence we had that any of the institutions we’re working with had the capacity to change and he wanted to know what evidence we had that the institutions we’re working with have any legitimacy with the people they (and we?) claim to serve.

Good damn questions.

The de facto answer, of course, is that we absolutely believe that they have a capacity for change. To a lesser extent we believe they have legitimacy. The problem is that I’m not sure what data we have to back up these answers. I personally know that I don’t know if institutions such as UN or national governments have the capacity for dramatic institutional change. The degree to which they can change is unclear. Intellectually I can see that they are incredibly hard to change. They’re monoliths that have cultures which are absolutely not amenable to dramatic change. Yet that’s the challenge we’re facing. I feel that this coming year, the coming years, are about testing the hypothesis that “institutions can change.”

Manish pointed out that the second question "...asks whether there are 'other worlds of power' that people are still connected to, self-organizing and legitimate (philosophically, economically,
ecologically, cultually and politically). Maybe it is worth understanding these and trying to reconnect to them, both to expand our own understandings of "reality" as well as to pose new challenges to the dominant institutions. I have never argued that we should ignore them and live in our own little never-never-lands. this is not the meaning of non-cooperation. I would like to engage with these institutions outside of their own internal logic frameworks. For this we have to find-regenerate legitimate forms of power grounded in the lives and dignity of people. Bringing more people onto the platform of dominant institutions - under the pretext of participation - doesnt seem to me to be a very useful way of doing this. Rather it often leads to a perversion, co-optation or destruction of their perspectives."

In light of these two questions, all of Generon’s work to me is a active experiment, a form of action-learning, around these questions. The thing about this experiment is that there are many, many people in the world who, through their own experiments, have determined what they believe to be a definitive answer – that, no, institutions cannot change. The reason I don’t buy these answers is because I feel that if I engage in an experiment of trying to change institutions and institutional relationships and I find it doesn’t work, then I need to come up with another experiment. I need to come up with an experiment using different tools, different chemicals, different actors under different conditions.

I don’t see how total disengagement from the institutional space will result in the machines for injustice, the modern institution, changing its nature. I simply don’t see how, in an era of structural injustice, working purely with individuals is a good or reasonable experiment. I remain open to hearing a case for such an approach though. Having said that it seems to me that we need to recognise that it isn’t an either/or. Instead we need to figure out how to co-ordinate our approaches and efforts, particularly the institutional and the individual. We need to figure out what each of us is learning from taking these different approaches about the nature of change. We need to become more courageous about making public our failures because that is the only way, the absolute only way, we will learn what is working and what is not.

I want to enter 2006 in a mood of collaboration across experiments. I want to enter the year celebrating our struggles and our failures as the lifeblood of our work. I want to enter the year with a determination to see what there is to see. I want to enter the year soberly, knowing, really knowing that there is a price being paid every day that we experiment. I want to enter the year knowing that the price we pay for the freedom of our experiments is always too high. I want to enter the year with my doubts, with my questions, with my sadness at the ineffectiveness of my work. I want to enter the year with a burning impatience. I want to enter next year thankful for my pain. I want to enter the year knowing that my unhappiness is a part of not just who I am but the time I live in.

Bookmark and Share


"He works on something called 'structural racism' at Ohio State University. The core of his enquiry was to ask the question of how, in an age where less and less people are racist, the gap between coloured, particularly black populations in America, and white people is growing. He had a whole set of indicators to show this is the situation. His answer was that the system, the structure of society itself, for historical reasons, is generating racism."

This is similar to the manchester problem. The city of manchester had no urban planning, but still managed to seperate by class with rich rarely even seeing the lower classes. Engels and Marx went there and used it as a means of justifying communism, man himself created lower classes. You can also see this in Jared Diamond's reports on bans, tribes, chiefdoms, etc. When specialists occur in socieities that's when slavery and hence class isuses start. There's also the racial neighborhoods problem where people prefer to live in areas with people of the same race (although this curiously doesn't seem to effect asian americans as much). It's interesting to see this framed though in terms of America. In Hong Kong similar class/racism issues have come up. Phillipino migrant workers and to some extent Indonesian aren't very well liked. They come to HK on migrant worker visas and freuqnetly stay. Hence the program of bringing migrant workers for jobs that HK-ites don't want has created a lower class that's further bouyed by discrimination against them. I think structural racism in essence is just saying that class issues are a result of the society and the environment in addition to the views of the individual.

"I remain open to hearing a case for such an approach though."

Perhaps working with individuals and making them aware of how systems discriminate against them would work. That way the people in question would have some idea of how to circumvent the situation. Bottom up is usually the way these things go. The other thing is to bring first world services to these people which is already happening through micro-credit and distributed banking like in Brazil and programs such as your's that are trying increase nutrition.

Posted by: andrew on 4 Jan 06

just for future ref
link to Powell's article on how non-profits
can fight structual racism:


Posted by: andrew on 4 Jan 06



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg