Why power, why now?

‘Globalization has introduced a new space and framework for acting: politics is no longer subject  to the same boundaries as before, and is no longer tied solely to state actors and institutions, the result being that additional players, new roles, new resources, unfamiliar rules and new contradictions and conflicts appear on the scene. In the old game, each playing piece made one move only. This is no longer true of the new nameless game for power and domination.’

Ulrich Beck, Power in a Global Age (2005: 3-4)

Art work by Raul LeonWhy do power analysis?  Why is this important for those concerned with development and social change? Why is it even more important today?

At one level, the answers to this may seem obvious: increasingly many agencies and actors for social change – be they donor agencies, NGOs, even academic organizations such as the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) where we work – are recognizing the importance of addressing power relations, and how they affect the broader issues of poverty, exclusion, economic inequality and social injustice. If we want to address power, we need better tools to understand what it is.

But while understanding power is critical to acting upon a multitude of issues that we face – be they in our communities, societies, politics, workplaces, organizations and associations or families – as Beck’s quote illustrates above, the nature of power itself is also changing. We  need new and better ways to analyse it.

At least three important trends affect how power relations are experienced in today’s world.

  • First, changing patterns of globalization have also changed the territorial or spatial relations of power, meaning that power increasingly must be understood not only at the local, the national, or the global level, but also in their inter-relationship.
  • Second, while many of the earlier debates on power focused on who participated in decision-making arenas of government, either at the local level or vis-à-vis the nation state, increasingly discussions of public authority have moved from government to governance. Governance is characterised by multiple intersecting actors, arenas and networks. Its decision-making arenas or spaces, in which power may be found, have become increasingly more varied and porous.
  • Third, in recent years, largely because of rapidly changing ideas about knowledge and rapid changes in forms of communication, whose knowledge is seen as legitimate also affects how issues are constructed and how power is experienced.  Growing awareness of the importance of gender relations have also challenged us to link our understanding of public and private forms of power in new ways.

In a workshop in June 2009 at IDS on ‘power analysis in practice’ we posed the questions of ‘why power? why now?’ to a group of about 25 NGO and donor staff, local activists, researchers and facilitators. They gave a number of explanations for why they found power analysis to be important in their own practice:

For many, power was the missing link needed to explain why so many proposed ‘solutions’ for development go wrong in their application.  In many cases, economic growth occurs, but fails to reach those living in poverty. Ideas for governance reform exist, but fail to deliver in practice. As one person said, ‘power helps to explain the gap between theory and practice’. If that is the case, than understanding power is necessary for any real change to occur.

For those who have worked in the area of strengthening peoples’ participation in decisions that affects their lives, attention to power is particularly acute. Spaces for participation are created from above, yet they do not lead to real change.  New institutional forms of democracy are promoted, but are absorbed and reshaped by the contexts of power in which they sit.  ‘ To talk about participation’, one participant said, ‘you have to talk about power. Participation isn’t powerful enough in itself’ to bring about desired change.

Another reason many thought that it was important to focus on power relates to its centrality to our theories of change, and how change happens. There was a concern that current approaches to development often focus on a linear way of delivering change, and puts huge emphasis on quick wins, failing again to understand the complexity of social relations. Attention to power relations, and whether our work is really addressing and challenging underlying issues of power, helps to challenge the linear and simplistic view. Workshop participants expressed their concern with the growing tendencies to reduce aid and social change to ‘quick fixes’, or to relatively superficial or shallow technical solutions which fail to address underlying causes of poverty and inequality. Understanding how power relations affect and shape any particular issue can help to deepen our understanding of the problem and help to shape deeper, more robust solutions.  It requires bringing politics and the political back into development and social change processes, not just technical solutions.

Closely linked with this were concerns that this approach is strengthened by a growing focus on ‘results’.  As change workers we are not of course against ‘results’ – that is what we work for. The question is how they are measured. Taking the time to measure change in all its complexity is difficult for many organizations to take on board.  At the same time, we recognized that changes in power can be measured – especially through involving the perceptions of people themselves.

In such contexts of increased globalization, changing understandings of authority and governance on the one hand, and increasing focus on more technical and apolitical forms of change on the other, what can power analysis help to do?

For workshop participants, there were many reasons why doing power analysis was important.

  • it can provide an opportunity to rethink deeply rooted assumptions in the world, as well as to challenge models, frameworks and procedures
  • it can help identify appropriate strategies and entry points for change – as one participant said, ‘strategising often fails as people are not asking the right questions. The powercube helps us to ask the right questions’
  • it can help develop  more robust ways of monitoring results and assessing what we mean by success
  • it can help uncover the reasons for gaps between theory and practice, between policy and implementation, proposed solution and actual outcome

At the same time, for these very reasons, doing power analysis can be a challenging process. It can lead to discomfort or even hostility because of the way it brings to light assumptions and realities that normally lie hidden. Hence we feel it is important to share some words of caution about the realities of doing power analysis and ideas about handling these, many of them highlighted by the stories of participants at the workshop.

References for further reading

Beck, Ulrich (2005) Power in the Global Age, Cambridge, Polity Press.

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