Keywords: Events in Egypt, Types of Change, Fundamental change, Cosmetic change, Anti-change, powerholders. natural change of evolution, clear implementation alternatives, effective change-agents, dissent, violence, nonviolence, systemic roots of power  
Keys to Effective Transition and Social-Political Transformation

Dudley Weeks

February 3, 2011


As the events in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world unfold, we are witnessing again
a struggle that has always been an integral part of human society.  That struggle involves
conflicting approaches to change. 
One is Fundamental Change, a process leading to the establishment of alternative ideas,
values, leaders, structures, and systems that have little if any resemblance to the status quo. 

The second is what I call Cosmetic Change in which a few reforms are made but the
major structures, systems, and types of leadership remain dominant.

A third approach is Anti-Change, characterized by the refusal of incumbent powerholders
to allow any change to the structures and systems they control. Using any means
available to preserve the status quo is considered acceptable, and maintaining “stability”
is the misleading justification for blocking change.

In a global society filled with conflict, poverty, economic woes, disenfranchised masses,
and the explosion of social media, the Anti-Change approach is rapidly becoming a relic
of the past.  Trying to prevent change not only runs counter to the natural process of
evolution, it simply will not be tolerated by The People any longer.  Tragically, authoritarian
leaders may use violence in a last gasp effort to remain in power, but, ultimately, their days
are numbered.

One of the major challenges facing human society in the 21st Century is how to bring
about Fundamental Change effectively.  Over the years, I have been blessed to take part in
the design and implementation of change efforts around the world.  Based on those
experiences, I suggest there are certain basic principles involved in understanding and
implementing effective and sustainable change.  These principles are especially important
in the transition and transformation  of social-political systems.  Here are a few of those

1. Beware of being seduced into thinking Cosmetic Change is Fundamental Change. 
Cosmetic Change is like putting on slightly different clothes but leaving the body
basically the same.  Leaders and governments who are actually anti-change often use
reforms to create the illusion of change, to quiet dissent, and to give them time to regroup
and figure out how to remain in power.  Cosmetic Change can be as dangerous as no
change at all, for it lulls people into assuming significant change has occurred, when in
reality the same old patterns survive and resurface.

2.  Effective change agents need to describe clearly what they are “for”, not just what
they are “against”.  Pointing out the inadequacies and wrongs of the existing system
must be balanced with a clear presentation of improved alternatives, why they are needed,
and why they are an improvement.

3.  Develop a core of alternative leadership drawn from diverse sectors of a society, and
do it early in the change process.   A change movement greatly enhances its relevance and
its understanding of what is needed if it incorporates the participation of diverse sectors
of society.  Simply recycling leaders because they have had experience in government, or
drawing only from a few sectors, obstructs the infusion of new blood and fresh ideas so
vitally needed in an effective change process.

4.  Make sure the means used to bring about change are consistent with the ethics and
values that will be the foundation of the new system.  The means used to create change
are almost always the means used to maintain the new system once it is established.  For
example, using violence to bring about change implants violence as a justifiable means
to an end.  If the goal of the change effort is the establishment of a society built on
peace and nonviolence, then using violence to get there not only damages the credibility
of the change agents, it also makes it far more likely that violence will be used to protect
the new system against future change efforts.

5.  Authoritarian leaders who are forced to bring about change, then promise to coordinate
reforms into a new system, are usually ineffective.  Their old habits guide them, their prior associations influence them, they make just enough reforms to placate enough citizens, yet
find ways to continue most of their autocratic power.  Furthermore, they rarely have the
trust of The People, a critical ingredient of an effective reformer.

6.  Build a pathway of change, steppingstone by steppingstone, doing the little things
behind the scenes.  Major events can punctuate the process of change and help mobilize,
but they are not enough.  The glue that holds change efforts together is found in the nameless
individuals and groups who toil without being noticed. 

7.  Mobilize, organize, build a process of steps, learn from the steps along the way, and
don’t be afraid to make changes based on those learnings.

8.  Beware of personalizing a corrupt system by focusing only on its corrupt figurehead or
leader.  No system is just one person.  Fixating on one person blinds us to the support
mechanisms and systemic roots that allow that person to remain in power.  Removing a
corrupt single leader may be a positive step, a cause for temporary celebration.  However,
unless the systemic roots and support mechanisms are changed, it is likely a new leader
will emerge who is nurtured by those same corrupt roots.


Dudley Weeks


(Copyright 2011: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}