Three insights from an exchange between the UK and Afghanistan

In October 2019, Lizzy Robinson, the Senior Program Manager and the Afghanistan portfolio lead at MAGENTA, and Josiane from SIX in the UK, shared their experiences of working in social change organisations. The conversation was documented here in two parts. The first article emphasises the role of behavioural science and social innovation to instigate meaningful social change. The second article uses a case study from Magenta’s development work in Afghanistan to emphasise the importance of behaviours and social norms when seeking to influence social change and offers organisations a way to address tensions when systems inhibit progress towards positive social reform. 

This conversation resurfaced several themes and conversations that have been running within the SIX network for many years. Three are highlighted below: 

Where does social innovation show up in the development sector?

In the conversation with Lizzie, we talked about how we are both tackling similar problems, just from different angles…  Magenta comes from development, SIX from the social innovation sector. When we reflected on why social innovation doesn’t show up in the development sector a lot, I was reminded that this is a question SIX has looked at previously. 

In 2016, SIX was commissioned by Bond UK to look at how UK based INGOs were engaging in social innovation. Together with Oxfam, SIX  published a short guide entitled ‘‘An introduction to social innovation for NGOs’, which drew insights from an analysis of over 200 case studies; interviews with over 30 innovation practitioners; and a workshop with 16 NGOs and two donor agencies.

NGOs could benefit from social innovation approaches in finding more connected, disruptive ways to approach old problems. We identified 9 types of innovation that INGOs were practising already, and listed a series of enablers that would contribute to building social innovation capacity in INGOs. To stay relevant and effective in a rapidly changing world, we believe NGOs will continue to need to invest in social innovation and the two communities should be better connected and integrated.

Where do people make change happen?

Another theme that came up in my conversation with Lizzy was how to make change happen most effectively…

This is a discussion that we love at SIX. It was framed particularly well by Roberto Magabeira Unger, the Brazilian philosopher, professor and politician, at the first Social Frontiers Research Conference in London. Unger gave an impassioned speech about ‘The Task of the Social Innovation Movement’ in a world which remains “restless under the dictatorship of no alternatives”. Change can be piecemeal but it is also, importantly, cumulative. Unger emphasised, therefore, the basis of change as fundamentally about hope rooted in action.

For anyone interested in how to make change – and wondering where efforts are best placed – Unger’s video is worth a watch. Social innovation as a movement serves to resist and subvert the failures of our existing establishments, to create an enabling environment for meaningful change to become embedded at all levels, and to operate in the realm of the “adjacent possible” so as to forge a path ahead that redistributes the future more equally for all.

How can we tackle the problem at both ends?

Lizzie and I discussed how many of our choices are influenced by the people around us and the information that is available to us. If social innovation is to be an effective movement, it is one which requires multiple actors with a variety of perspectives to work together and communicate effectively. We must create close relationships as well as the chance to make unlikely and new connections.

Our Unusual Suspects Festival is one way that we gather and highlight multiple voices on the fringes of social innovation, in a commitment to making the movement less elite. Alongside the festival, we built a storytelling platform that gives a home to some of those themes and connections which take place on the ground.

As we mentioned in part two of the article, “the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of change is definitely a crucial part of the picture, as is the importance of trust and taking time to understand contexts before diving into them.”

If you’d like to stay in touch or add your comments to the conversation, you can email