REFLECTIONS: From our founder Dr Kate McAlpine

Learning from using the Complexity Navigator

I recently participated in a fascinating training with Perspectivity; learning how to better navigate complexity in service to transformation. These are my reflections on what Citizens 4 Change will need to intentionally manage if we are to build a groundswell of child protectors across East Africa.

A complex situation is characterised by the involvement of multiple parties, ideas and interests.

The case of Citizens 4 Change

The challenge lies in how to end violence against children in East Africa.
Citizens 4 Change addresses the prevalence & normalisation of violence against children in East Africa. We address it because of the lifelong cost to individual children who are victims of violence. And because the societal costs are so high that East Africa cannot develop inclusively if this behaviour is not challenged.

Addressing violence is a global priority; captured in the Sustainable Development Goals (№16.2); is a regional priority of the East African community; and is a national priority in that each East African country has a national plan of action.

The issue of violence against children is complex in two ways. The first is the issue itself where almost every actor has been personally touched by violence; the legacy of which many still carry with them. The second area of complexity is in the nature of the stakeholders; most of whom claim a commitment to ending violence; but whom struggle to cooperate and to seriously action the pledges they make towards preventing & responding to violence against children.

Everyone in society has a stake in resolving the problem of violence. But we need to better understand their ambitions & urgency for change. We need to better engage the following stakeholders if the system in which violence occurs is to transform. 

  • Children are the primary stakeholders. They are typically framed as being passive victims of violence rather than agents of change.
  • Children’s families and the surrounding communities. Our research indicates that people tell themselves that they’re trying to do the right thing for children, even if their behaviour may actually be harmful.
  • Public servants & frontline professionals. The formal child protection system; the social workers, the police, the teachers, the medical personnel, the justice personnel; feel stretched and under resourced.
  • Central governments are ostensibly committed to addressing violence against children, but are not throwing resources at the issue.
  • A wide range of civic and faith-based actors, who to a greater or lesser extent agree that there is a problem. But, who do not necessarily have the energy, skills or know-how to really mobilise at scale around the issue.
  • People who either perpetrate abuse on children, or who say “it’s none of my business” when they see a child suffer. These are the key stakeholders who are usually ignored in interventions.

Citizens 4 Change’s ultimate intention is to protect children from harm.
We do this by telling a new story; and in doing so create a new reality. In this story, we reveal the groundswell of citizens who do the right thing by children, and the myriad civic actions that they take. We learn from the wisdom of protectors, and in doing so reveal the wisdom and energy of community driven child protection.

As an experiment, we need to learn how best to structure ourselves, how to connect across the system, & how to involve all elements so that we can generate a sustained urgency for change.

We need to let go of a desire to behave as an NGO. A lot of what has gone before has not transformed children’s experience of violence & we need to let go of the ways of understanding and addressing the problem that we have collectively held on to for many years. We need to become comfortable with the uncertainty of being an experiment.

We need to bring our development partners into the experiment.

We are an experiment in navigating the complexity of violence. But because we offer development partners access to a tech platform that enables them to survey citizens & to track their social impact there is a risk that they only engage with us on a tactical level.

We need to be able to involve and bring our partners along as part of the systemic effort to combat violence; and this involves learning how to better orient, manage expectations, handhold and offer them value.

The Complexity Navigator — 6 Building blocks that need our attention.

1/ Embrace our place as the backbone.

Change does not happen of itself and our priority is that children are protected from harm. We have developed a tech and research infrastructure that enables us to identify, map & understand the motivations & behaviours of vital connections within the system. We have the capacity to know & communicate with frontline professionals, with young people, with citizen protectors & potentially with people who harm children. We are building an evidence base of their beliefs and behaviours that is valuable for public planners and policy makers. This is an asset.

This infrastructure, combined with our passion & skills positions Citizens 4 Change to be an effective backbone; providing energy, structure, & communication technology.

2/ Connect with the vital connections.

Our primary goal is to protect children from harm. Children live in an ecosystem. We target citizen protectors but they are not the only people in children’s lives and when they do intervene in a child’s life they too are surrounded by others.

We need to map our complex system more thoroughly so that we know the individuals on the ground who are potential allies, those who are duty bearers, and those who put children at risk of harm.

3/ Use our SMS tech to understand connections’ ambitions.

Typically people agree that ending violence against children is a good thing. But, in practice the interests of stakeholders varies; and the incentives that work to mobilise new forms of action also vary.

We need to use our social return on investment forecast as an opportunity to better map the stakeholder groups and then to use the Complexity Navigator as a dialogic tool with representatives from each group to better understand how they frame the challenge of violence and their interest in resolving it.

4/ Use our communications to create a shared urgency for change.

Once we have better clarity about the interests of different stakeholder groups it will also become possible to co-create with them appropriate objectives for the reinforcing actions that they should take, and then to use our SMS technology to communicate messages in a way that really does create a shared urgency for change.

For example, if we have evidence that central government responds to the economic argument that there is a high return from investing in child protection we can make that argument to them. If citizen protectors are motivated by meeting others or we can facilitate communications that support that interest.

We need to map the groups of vital connections; actively seek out individuals from within those groups; understand better what would generate urgency for change for them; and communicate to that end; so that they become mobilised to resolve the issue of violence against children.

We will start by partnering with the Child Helpline to turn their database of frontline staff into open source data visualisation of the location and contact details of all duty-bearers; who we will also invite to join Citizens 4 Change.

5/ Create clarity about the myriad ways in which everyone can be involved.

The potential of our SMS platform lies its ability to tailor messages, surveys and calls to action to multiple groups, contexts and languages. The tech can foster involvement for all.

For this to happen we need to first survey individuals from all stakeholder groups to find out what actions they are already taking to address violence; and to learn how we could amplify those actions. We can then design our SMS messaging, our Community Connect meetings and our data analytics to respond to these needs; and in doing so properly serve as a force for amplification.

6/ Ensure that we maintain our ability to learn & adapt.

Our role is to learn from the multiple actions that are being taken to protect children.

To do this we need to strengthen our monitoring workflows to better learn about the process of change. The elements in the Complexity Navigator are helpful way to frame a conversation about change. The dialogic process that we have just gone through would be worthwhile to replicate with the wider Citizens 4 Change community every quarter & then to document as part of our operational reviews.

Insights about the tool & process

The elements also speak to current priorities and if used repeatedly they would support conversations that explore how priorities in complex systems change over time. This is a helpful addition to process monitoring.

The power of the elements also lies in giving language to personal or organisational blocks and in doing so frees them up so that new forms of action can emerge.

Contact Perspectivity for more information about the Complexity Navigator.

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  • WE BELIEVE that if every adult is empowered to protect children then we can collectively build safe and inclusive societies for everyone in Africa.

  • WE IDENTIFY Citizens 4 Change who protect children via household surveys, com-munity meet-ups and our civil society partners, finding out about their mind-sets and actions via interviews, surveys and polls.

  • WE USE CIVIC TECH to map Citizens 4 Change and visualise their impact.

  • WE EQUIP Citizens 4 Change with new knowledge, tools and relationships, via access to online courses and community conversations.

  • WE MOBILISE Citizens 4 Change to take more action to protect children, spread the word about the C4C community, create demand for their local leaders to invest in children’s services, and participate in community planning and budgeting processes.


Citizens 4 Change (C4C) is a community of East African citizens who do the right thing by children and young people. Our mission is to widen the circle of care so that every child has a trusted, supportive adult in their lives, and is protected from harm.

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