Tag Archives: Social change

On dreams and those who live them

Richenda Vermeulen, friend of whydev, sent out the call for bloggers to write about dreams and how they enrich, fuel and motivate our lives. But also how they change, how they come true, and how we struggle to reach them. You can see the posts others have written on her blog here. Here’s Allison’s take on what she’s learning about the nature of dreams and those who attain their dreams.

I’m in that shimmering phase of life where your dreams start to find you.

I used to think dreams started from the inside and worked their way out, that they came from your core and grew until they got so big you couldn’t contain them anymore and had to act.

I still think that’s true to a degree, but as I said, I’m now seeing that my dreams are finding me.

My dreams didn’t include working on a project to potentially help thousands of people across the world; now I’m one of three people here at whydev working on a peer coaching initiative for aid workers that may in fact do so. (You can support us as we work towards this dream over at StartSomeGood.) They didn’t include learning how to improve how organisations run until I started my first real job in an organisation; now I have dreams of doing an MBA. (One day, I hope to meet someone that makes me dream about family and domesticity in a way I don’t right now.)

These are just two examples of how two of my dreams found me. Now they influence the conversations I have, the plans I make, the things I read, the people I learn from, the friends I have, the way I perceive the world. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say they influence every aspect of my life.

As my dreams have found me, I’ve been more and more interested in observing those around me who have reached their goals and lived their dreams. As I work towards my personal and professional dreams, I find it helpful to look to those who are living their own dreams.

Here’s what I’ve observed about those who realize their dreams.

  1. Their dreams are feasible for them

This does not mean that they will find it easy to realize their dreams. It just means their dreams are possible for them, that these people have figured out what they’re good at and passionate about and have a dream at the intersection of the two.

This seems obvious, but it’s not to everyone. I think of people who dream of being teachers without recognising their impatient personalities make working with children impossible, or those who dream of success on Broadway without facing that they can’t really dance. These are dreams that aren’t feasible.

The best dreamers know themselves well so that their dreams line up with their passions, skills, experiences, and personality.

  1. They are surrounded by others chasing their dreams…

Chasing your dreams can require single-minded focus, at times to the exclusion of other aspects of your life. I’ve found it to be much easier to lock myself away to work on a project when others around me have understood why I would choose studying/blogging/working on a Saturday night over going to a wine and cheese soirée.

The people who truly understand those kinds of things are the ones also sacrificing things for their dreams. They understand, and they encourage and support you as you pursue your dreams.

  1. … but they’re not afraid to go it alone

I was recently reminded of a quote from composer Jean Sibelius: “Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

Well, I may one day put up a statue to William Easterly, but for the most part Sibelius is correct. The best dreamers understand this, as they inevitably face some robust criticism.

In a post on dreams, this may be the time to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. Thank goodness he didn’t abandon his dream when faced with opposition.

  1. They learn from others smarter than themselves

It requires humility to learn from others when pursuing a dream, and it’s not always easy to open yourself up to suggestions from others for something as personal as a dream. But it’s worth it.

I’m never so excited about my dreams as when I have the chance to discuss them with other like-minded people who are smarter than me. They make me think about achieving my dreams in creative ways I never would have considered, and that’s exciting.

  1. Their dreams are dynamic

There’s a poignant passage in the book “The Alchemist” where a merchant describes his dream to visit Mecca. For years, he’s watched people pass through his shop on their pilgrimage to Mecca, and now he can finally afford to go himself.

Yet he doesn’t. Instead he confesses, “I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”

I can’t imagine anything sadder or more untrue. I’m continuously amazed by the dynamism of those who dream big, how their dreams expand and evolve and lead to new dreams. For these people, the realisation of one dream often leads to another.

This gives me incredible hope. When I’ve achieved a dream, it doesn’t mean I’ve reached the end of dreaming. And if one dream doesn’t come true, another dream will find me.


I feel blessed to be chasing my dreams, and there have been many times that I’ve turned to a friend and said, “We’re living the dream!” Indeed, as I was mid-way through writing this post, a good friend called to excitedly share how she’s getting closer to realising a dream she’s had for a while. Dreams are all around me.

Often I’ve said it facetiously, but here I’ll say it seriously: I’m living the dream, and I’m fortunate to be learning from others who are too.

What have you observed about those who realize their dreams? Are you living your dream in aid and development?

Peer coaching: it’s happening, but we need your help

Back in February, we announced a new initiative of ours – Peer Coaching. In a nutshell, we are partnering with Shana Montesol Johnson of Development Crossroads, to develop a peer coaching matching service. Since asking for expressions over interest, we have had over 300 people from across the globe contact us to say that they want to be part of our pilot program.

Why do we think that peer coaching is so important? We know that there are many people working in the field of aid and development across the globe with minimal support and guidance. We are aware that resources are limited in the humanitarian field. However, we also know that through support networks, and specifically, peer coaching, we can increase the return on investment for these workers and enable them to be more effective in helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

We want to provide a service that matches them up, so that they are able to support and learn from each other via Skype, email or other methods. This service therefore does not require more resources to be added to the sector (in the form of professional mentors, coaches or counselors), but rather, builds on existing resources that are not connected.

We’re doing this because we think that the need is out there. And because of comments from people like this:

“I feel isolated, uncertain and a little forlorn about finding my way into development-related work, and would like to have someone to share my experience with, who is perhaps also experiencing the same thing.” – E, 18-25 year old male, Honduras.

However, in order to get this project up off the ground in a reasonable amount of time, and with good quality, we’re going to need your help.

We reckon we need at least $3000 in seed funding to dedicate a solid amount of time to building the platform, providing the right guidelines for peer coaching, and matching people together in the most effective way. Building the platform will involve spending time on infrastructure – website redesign, functioning and creating a space so that matching can occur. We’ll also need to build the database of peer coaches from the ground up and create the resources to support peer coaches as the program continues.

If we reach our funding target, we think that we could get the peer coaching service up and running within a month.

What will happen if we don’t hit our tipping point and don’t get funding? We’ll still do the program of course as we originally planned, but it might take a bit longer and may not be as comprehensive and professional as we would have liked.

So, this is where we need your help. We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign over on StartSomeGood where people can chip in amounts of money, small or large, to help us get this project going. If you are reading this post, chances are you’re either working, studying or are at least interested in aid and development. Therefore, chances are, you’re the right demographic to understand the difficulties that aid workers can face across the globe.

You might also be wondering about how sustainable your funding is? Good question! Once the platform is built, we think that we can keep the service running by adding in a tiered system of participation, so that it is self-sustainable. But first, we need to get the service started and that’s where the seed funding comes in.

We’d appreciate it if you would consider donating whatever you can to our StartSomeGood campaign here, and spreading the word far and wide about what we’re trying to achieve.


If you have any questions at all about our campaign, please do not hesitate to contact either Brendan or myself. We’d be more than happy to answer any questions.

For the final word on the topic, here is Brendan, speaking from Ghana:

You can donate to our campaign on StartSomeGood here.

Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

Crowdfunding: creating the future our communities need

By Tom Dawkins, co-founder of Startsomegood.com.

A lot of social change, especially when it came to the development sector, used to rely on outside forces coming to the aid of local communities. Sometimes these interventions are well-designed and increase the capacity and resilience of the community. Other times they serve instead to increase dependency and disrupt local approaches to progress.  But what they have in common is the permission required from existing institutions to get started, whether given by governments, corporations or big NGOs, and these institutions often bring their own assumptions, impose their own ideas of what constitutes “best practice” and send their own staff to oversee and instruct.

If you are a local changemaker with an idea to benefit your community, what could you do? To raise outside funds you would need to register as a charity, not only in your home country but in the United States, in order to access platforms like Causes, Razoo or Crowdrise that are restricted to US-registered 501c3 organizations (501c3 refers to the section of the tax code that allows charitable deductions). To apply for 501c3 status costs $800 and can take up to two years for approval, time and money many don’t have. Or you could convince one of these big institutions to back your idea, but now you’re waiting for permission from others to pursue your idea, looking for a “big yes” capable of funding your idea.

If you wish to found a for-profit social enterprise to drive sustainable social change you will find it no easier. Impact-investing venture capital is still extremely nascent, very few angel investors will take risks on social enterprises and foundations have yet to understand how to handle for-profit structures. Once again, you risk being left hoping for a rare big yes to give you the funding you need to launch.

What if, instead of relying on a single big yes you could fuel your project by aggregating lots of little yeses from people who believe in you and your idea, building a movement that will drive a more sustainable form of social impact, regardless of whether your venture is a non-profit, for-profit or unincorporated?

This is the opportunity StartSomeGood.com exists to provide.

Trek to Teach were able to place teachers in Nepal thanks for funds raised through Startsomegood.

StartSomeGood is an example of a fundraising approach usually labeled “crowdfunding”, of which Kickstarter and the Australian-based Pozible are other examples. Crowdfunding brings a game-like dynamic to fundraising, giving you the chance to share your vision and rally support in the form of numerous smaller donations, which are conditional on you reaching your project funding goal by the deadline you selected.

Kickstarter have proven how successful this model can be, supporting thousands of projects over the past two years. But whereas Kickstarter and Pozible are exclusive to creative ventures, StartSomeGood was founded by social entrepreneurs explicitly to support other social entrepreneurs.

Our platform allows change-makers with great ideas to raise the support they need directly from their community. Unlike the traditional fundraising sites we are legal structure-agnostic. In other words, we don’t care if you are for profit, non-profit or just a bunch of friends working on a project, so long as you have an idea to change the world we want to provide you with the tools you need to make it happen.

Since launching in March last year we have supported 38 social ventures to raise up to $101,000 in seed funds to launch. Let me tell you about a few of them:

When Brad Hurvitz of Trek to Teach wanted to raise funds before they had 501(c)3 status, he previously would have had few options. Through StartSomeGood, he raised $2,910 to take action and expand Trek to Teach’s educational offerings to many more students in Nepal with a goal of placing 10 teachers into schools in the Himalayas this year.

Mikey Leung aims to combating poverty and create jobs in Bangladesh through tourism. As a filmmaker and storyteller Mikey is determined to show the positive face of Bangladesh to the world, encouraging more people to learn about and visit the country. Thanks to the $15,000 contributed by 57 supporters, Mikey is publishing “Positive Light”, a crowdsourced photography book, and developing online content to promote the country he loves.

Mikey Leung was able to show the positive side of Bangladesh thanks to funds from supporters.

Ehon Chan is a young Australian changemaker who wanted to do something to reduce the tragic level of youth suicide in his country. He felt that the way to get through to young men most at risk was through a radical new communications strategy, but was unable to convince the main mental health charities to take on his approach. Undeterred Ehon built a team of supporters and raised $2,500 on StartSomeGood to launch the Soften The Fck Up Campaign late last year.

Having spent years receiving speech therapy for stuttering, Jack McDermott looked for ways to support the speech therapy community with technology. He raised $3,246 on StartSomeGood to launch Speech 4 Good, an iPhone app which makes speech therapy accessible and affordable. Jack had this to say about the experience:

“Not only did our StartSomeGood campaign provide us with seed funding for the development of our first product, Speech4Good, but it also united us with an entire cast of like-minded supporters. This resulting community, I would argue, is equally valuable to the future success of our social venture.”

What’s especially inspiring about these young social entrepreneurs is that they didn’t wait for permission, they didn’t rely on a big yes and they didn’t accept the status quo. They rallied their communities behind their vision for change and found that they already had the support they needed.

You can see more success stories in our eBook: What’s Next for 2012: Let’s Start Some Good.

So, what good will you start?


You can check out some great initiatives at StartSomeGood here and follow this author on Twitter here.

Purpose and patience is key for Gen Y in development

In the past few days, I blazed my way through “Work on Purpose” by Lara Galinsky and Echoing Green, devouring the stories and winding pathways of the five social entrepreneurs profiled within.

This book is a reflection of our generation – slightly confused, constantly searching, never settling, seeking meaning. For Generation Y, work has been transformed from a simple means of supporting oneself to an opportunity, a blank space which we can paint with our passions and imbue with our spirits. Work is no longer about plain sustenance, but about creativity, innovation, and possibility. And most of all, our generation seeks a deeper purpose for our work. Helping large corporations make more money is no longer satisfying; being a cog in a robotic machine is deeply unsettling.

But you have heard all this before. The way the Millennial generation views work and meaning and life and purpose is nothing new to you. We have been inundated with blogs and articles examining my generation’s characteristics in painstaking detail.

Yet, many see my generation as entitled–we feel like we are above grunt work and endless spreadsheets and paying our dues. We do not want to settle for something we don’t love. And yes, perhaps this quest for meaning reeks of entitlement. But aren’t we all working towards a world where our children have the freedom to pursue their passion for a living? And isn’t it a good thing– no, a great thing– if this generation springboards from entitlement into a generation of social change leaders? And this, indeed, is what is happening. We are experiencing an unprecedented movement of young people passionate about tackling deeply entrenched social problems. And I would argue that our entitlement is, in part, what has allowed us to do important work. What has freed us up from the need to focus only on salary, allowed us to pursue work for reasons beyond supporting our families.

Work on Purpose echoes this quintessential quest that myself and many of my peers are undergoing. What is inspiring, and different, about this book is its painful honesty. The social justice leaders profiled did not follow a linear path to doing good work. Indeed, the roads they took were often winding, painful, and confusing. Most of them did not find their ideal job doing game-changing work that also harnessed their valuable skills immediately after college:

“Although the words and actions we absorb in our homes profoundly shape our ideas of what is important, when it comes time to start a professional life, we often put those early experiences aside. They can be overshadowed by the desire to earn a good salary, the pressure to follow a particular path, and the need to satisfy competing demands from our families, our peers, and ourselves.

Few people fall immediately into jobs or paths that satisfy all these desires, let alone stem from what they think is meaningful. Most people…wander or take misguided turns.”

Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, did not find her place in the world until 38! She spent time meandering, learning, falling in and out of graduate programs and ill-fitting jobs. She went to medical school, got an MPP, and even enrolled in a history graduate program. None of them seemed to click or truly ignite her passion — she did not want to be a doctor or a policymaker — but she kept seeking. She found the right place once she joined Echoing Green. She got there eventually. And it’s a lesson to all of us that we can find the right fit — we may just have to exercise a bit of  patience and refuse to give up in our quest.

Along the way, we must ask ourselves certain questions:  What moments from your childhood shaped what you think is important? When in your life have you felt out of whack? In those out of whack periods, what was out of balance? What would you do if you were not afraid of failing? When have you felt in the zone, like you were doing exactly what you should be doing? What is your issue or cause to own?

Why do you do what you do?

Ultimately, Lara Galinsky comes up with a powerful formula: heart + head = hustle. The perfect career lies nestled in this combination: passion and love for what you do and your mission (heart) and the utilization of your concrete skills and talents (head). If you find work that allows you to harness your professional skills to your fullest potential while also allowing you to do something you love & feel strongly about, you have stumbled upon something truly magical.

This is the journey of our generation, and future ones. My pathway seems blanketed in fog for now, but at the same time I know where my feet are taking me. I am asking myself the questions that matter, while knowing things will become clearer with time. This book gives me faith that I, and you, will eventually find that magical balance that sets things in motion to change ourselves, and the world.

We just have to have a little patience.


Ed: What motivates us all in the workplace? In a most entertaining 10 minute animation, find out:

Reflection and action

“Learning to live the paradox of action as reflection, and reflection as action”

– Westley et al., Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed.

"We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves." — Dalai Lama XIV

Supposedly carved into the temple of Apollo in Delphi was the phrase ’Know Thyself”. I often wondered if in itself self-knowledge holds the risk of turning into self-obsession. And whereas the risk is there, knowing oneself – understood as cultivating self-awareness – holds immense possibilities of change: within, and outside in the world. No effective change is brought about without a degree of self-reflection and self-awareness. Great leaders and social innovators from Nelson Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Han, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, all have held together the paradox of action and reflection, they all seem to have started their engagement in/with the world as an inside out process. This because we cannot just expect others to change: ‘wanting to change others means accepting a profound change in oneself. Self-reflection and self-revelation are necessary’. To me there seems to be a link between psychological/personal awareness and social/political awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, the founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, emphasises how a reflective practice such as mindfulness has wide effects in the body-politic (see ‘Healing the body politic’ from the his book Coming to Our Senses). So it comes as no surprise that for social innovators ‘there is gold in a reflective practice’, and ‘it is essential to understand that there is a connection between self-knowledge and worldly knowledge’. Self-knowledge as self-awareness requires us to get out of the constant ‘doing mode’, to cultivate who we are. Which, in my opinion, is what makes all the difference when it comes to serving as an aid worker, a volunteer or an NGO manager. Nevertheless what prompts many into aid work is activism, the desire to make a difference, ‘to do’ things that matter. It is somehow a quest for a meaningful life. Here reflection should not be understood as a state of passivity, but as moment of ‘being’, where we nurture those qualities that will inform our ‘doing’. Reflection becomes important because the way we think about the world, and how we understand it frames our actions. So it is of no secondary importance to learn the art of standing still, seeing that the world is not simply acted upon, but rather it interacts with us, with who we are. To paraphrase the work of my friend and colleague Jennifer Lentfer‘it is not what we do, but HOW we do it’ that matters. Engaging in personal enquiry and reflection is therefore part of the action, it becomes an essential component of how we do things and who we are. Learning to standstill helps us to take stock and move forward effectively.

'Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself'. — Leo Tolstoy

The story of the woodcutter from The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (a wonderful, inspiring guide) conveys the message of why learning to pause is crucial:

‘Once upon a time an old woman was walking through the forest near her home when she came across a man chopping down a tree. They exchanged brief greetings but he continued chopping. He was working very hard, determined to complete the job and see results before sundown. She watched him a while and then disappeared. A little later she returned, bearing a stone and a small bucket of water. When he paused in his work to wipe his brow she handed these to him and said, “Sir, I see that you are very busy. But, to put it bluntly, it looks to me like you need to pause a while, take a breath and sharpen your axe.” “Go away, woman, I am too busy I don’t have time for this!”’

When do we sharpen our own axes? Do we take the time to standstill, take a breath, reflect? How many of us are just too busy for that?     For further reading, check out: The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (free download); Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness

This is a reposting of an original post on Mindfulness for NGOs. 

Cognitive dissonance and social change: what can we learn?

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try and reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” (Leo Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance).

In 1957, Leo Festinger introduced Cognitive Dissonance Theory to the world. This theory states that when someone holds two conflicting cognitions, he or she will act to reduce this state of discomfort in one of three ways. Let’s say I was to find out that bike riding is dangerous for my health. I could either (a) change cognitions to make it more compatible to my mindset (eg dismiss this new information), (b) add new cognitions to bridge the gap between existing cognitions (eg look for new information that states that driving a car is more dangerous than riding a bike), or (c) change my behaviour (eg stop riding my bike). With any of the three methods, the stronger the feeling of dissonance (ie discomfort), the more motivated I am to reduce it.

Festinger’s theory has been around for a while now, and not surprisingly has had quite a few criticisms and revisions over the years, but the underlying thread holds true. When we come across a piece of information that shakes our belief system, we actively try to reduce this discomfort.

New research has backed up this theory. In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to convince others of their own opinion on a particular topic. These topics ranged from animal testing, food choices and the merits of Apple products. The researchers then used different tricks to lower the confidence of those doing the convincing, such as making them write with their non-dominant hand (interestingly enough, previous research has shown that people are less confident in what they are writing when using their non-preferred hand). They also used other tricks such as making the subjects think about times when they felt doubtful, or telling them that the person being convinced was opposed to what they were going to say, before they had even started talking. These situations all lead to the subject becoming more doubtful in their beliefs. The researchers discovered that when people were placed in positions of doubt, they were more likely to be stronger and passionate advocates. In other words, when our beliefs are shaken by external factors, we become more adamant and are more likely to put greater effort into persuading others.

Perhaps this explains why people who still don’t believe in climate change are so steadfast in their beliefs. As George Monbiot writes “To dismiss an entire canon of science on the basis of either no evidence or evidence that has already been debunked is to evince an astonishing level of self-belief. It suggests that, by instinct or by birth, you know more about this subject than the thousands of intelligent people who have spent their lives working on it.”

Perhaps it explains how we can live in a world where the hegemonic nation’s conservative party has 47 out of 48 Senate candidates don’t believe in man-made climate change. (As a depressing side note, the one Republican who did believe in climate change, Mike Castle of Delaware, was recently defeated by staunch anti-masturbation campaigner Christine O’Donnell in the GOP’s Senate primary.)

Looking outward, there are many examples of people who are demonstrating the very principles of cognitive dissonance, and using strategy (a) or (b) to reject seemingly common sense information. But what about looking inward?

One of the most common phrases I hear bandied about among people I talk to is “preaching to the converted”. You could relate this concern directly to this site. Who are the people that are likely to read it, or to tell their friends about it? What type of person would be interested in its content? On a wider level, are we simply reinforcing our own views about development and social change, or do we really think we can change anyone’s opinion?

I’m not sure what the answer is to these questions, but I do believe that acknowledging how people react to cognitive dissonance helps us to understand “preaching” about social change.

A friend of mine recently moved into an apartment with a few other people, and she was concerned that they weren’t as energy conservative as she is. She was in a bit of a dilemma. Should she look to live with people who held similar views about saving energy, or should she try and live with people with a more varied mindset, and hope to set a good example so that they might also start turning off lights or taking shorter showers? As she asked my advice, I thought about how social networking sites in the US are now used to find perfect matches for college roommates based on a set of criteria. You can define, down to preferred bedprints, how you want your roommate to turn out.

My advice to her was simple. If she could tolerate living with people who were of a different mindset, and they didn’t infuriate her to the point of insanity, she should go for that option. The reason behind this logic is that I don’t believe that living in a bubble, even if it is a pleasant, reinforcing bubble, is ever a good way to live. We need a diversity of opinions and beliefs around us to keep us mentally healthy. Healthy discussion and critical discourse are good things.

But where does that leave us as far as Festinger’s notion of cognitive dissonance is concerned? If we truly believe in social change and (as cliched as it sounds) making the world a better place, then we need to be aware of how people react to views that conflict with their own belief set. We all know the feeling when someone approaches us on the street to sell us something, whether it is a product or a religion, that we don’t believe in. The louder and more aggressive the person is, the more likely we are to dig our heels in and stand our ground, or retaliate. However, as agents of development, or social change, we want to see people around us living lives that are ethical and that benefit the world as a whole. So, just like my friend with her flatmates, I think we need to take a non-aggressive approach, and hope that people will eventually give in to common sense and see that it is possible to make choices in life ethically.