A word of caution

Linking analysis to action and politics

How can power analysis go beyond generating learning and understanding to actually stimulate action? And how can that action be politically meaningful rather than simply technical? There are challenges at many levels – for instance, recognizing the sheer scale of the challenge: as one workshop participant put it, when you map out all the forces of power affecting a given issue, there is a risk that an ‘aha’ moment becomes an OMG (oh my god!) moment. Then there are ethical and practical issues about how far different types of organizations can go in tackling the situation that has been revealed. Confronting power can also have repercussions, and there are risks to be considered in starting a process of change and then pulling back when things get tough – too political or controversial for the organization to handle. Choices need to be made about what action is possible in what context and by whom. In some cases they involve repositioning ourselves in relation to other actors, be they governments, social movements or alliances, and setting limits on what any one organisation can do.

At the same time, workshop participants pointed to a number of examples of where analysis of power affected not just what we need to do but how to do things. The Carnegie UK Trust, for instance, is looking at what difference doing power analysis makes to local groups in the UK, and is finding that it may enable groups to change what questions they want to ask in the first place.

Embedding power analysis in organizations

While many of the workshop participants had done really interesting and innovative experiments in power analysis with different types of organization, through workshops or projects, they found it a challenge to get this approach embedded in the ‘fabric’ of the organization – in the ways in which it addressed problems, developed strategies, recruited and rewarded people with the right skills, etc.  At the same time, they found that their work took on more ‘power’, when they could show how doing proper power analysis contributed to change, how it in fact could strengthen the effectiveness of the organization over time.  It was important to create spaces for experimentation and risk taking with these approaches, not to present power analysis as something that was ‘threatening’, and to share good examples of what has worked in what contexts.

Putting ourselves in the picture

Workshop participants talked about the importance of putting ourselves and our organizations in the picture. How we see power depends very much on where we sit – on our own positions and identities.  NGOs, donor agencies, social movements who are trying to understand power ‘out there’ are also part of the power picture themselves but it is very easy to forget or ignore this when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a situation, partly because it can be uncomfortable to have to examine our own power critically. But without doing so the analysis of what is going on will remain incomplete and it will be difficult to challenge power relations in a meaningful way.

Dealing with discomfort

Approaching power in this way can also create discomforts.  Talking about power, particularly our own, is more acceptable in some cultures and settings than others. In many cases power is understood negatively, as control over others, and this makes it sensitive to talk about. For some, putting power issues on the table can be threatening to our own power or received models and ideas about change. Discomfort often leads to resistance in the form of reluctance to look at our own power (personally, organizationally, or on a broader political scale). Getting past this and doing power analysis well means doing some personal reflection, creating safe spaces for sharing and using a variety of methods which allow for anger, laughter and emotion, as well as rational thought. In institutional contexts it can also involve being careful about the language used and thinking about what is the most appropriate lens or starting point for the discussion: often it is more effective to enter power analysis by analysing a problem or a proposed change process rather than explicitly ‘doing power analysis’. Doing this therefore requires not just ‘analytical’ skills and ways of knowing, but skills of facilitation and the ability to handle emotions, conflicts, and discomfort constructively. At the same time, doing so can be a ‘powerful’ way of understanding and demonstrating how power works.

In summary

All in all, though, power analysis can be valuable and carried out at multiple levels – the personal, organizational and societal – and can be used to address multiple purposes, for learning, action, strategizing and assessing.   The changing global context requires new tools and approaches. Many people are in the process of developing and experimenting with them. This website hopes to share some of these approaches, and to stimulate and invite new methods and applications as well.

Related resources

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