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Power and change – how do they fit in development work?

November 28, 2011
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This is a summary of a briefing paper I bashed out for last week’s discussion on ‘how change happens’ with Oxfam’s big cheeses (with thanks to Jo Rowlands and Thalia Kidder for their help). It’s work in progress, so all comments and suggestions very welcome.

In the last few years, ‘how change happens’ (HCH)  has gone viral as a development fuzzword. In meetings and documents, people earnestly enquire ‘what’s your theory of change?’ and you’re in trouble if you don’t have an answer. So, apart from being able to answer your tormentors, why should we be thinking about HCH?

• Making explicit our assumptions and default preferences about HCH, and comparing them with other possible models of change helps unity is strength cartoonus to challenge, discuss and improve our analysis of the shifting spaces and possibilities for programming and advocacy.
• Recognizing our preferred theory of change and understanding those of others (often very different from our own) is essential in building understanding and trust between staff and with allies and partners.
• Funders increasingly want evidence that any proposal has a thought-through change strategy, along with ways to test and improve it

First, some caveats:

• There is no one ‘Theory of Change’. Nor is it a one-off ‘do the HCH, write the document and tick the box’ exercise. It is a permanent way of thinking, seeking to introduce new ideas, more rigorous analysis and faster feedback loops in recognizing and expanding the range of tools we use to bring about change.
• Often, the problem confronting poor people (and Oxfam) is ‘How Change Doesn’t Happen’. HCH is equally relevant to analysing stasis as progress.
• Not all change is good. HCH and power analysis can be just as helpful in ‘trying to stop bad stuff’, as in promoting positive change.

Power Analysis
Power is subtle and pervasive force field connecting individuals, communities and nations, in a constant process of negotiation, contestation and change. It takes different forms: visible, invisible (norms and values) and hidden (behind the scenes). It operates in different spaces – decisions made between different fractions of the elite, or where poor people are invited to participate by those in power, or where in contrast, they demand and create their own space (more here).

Power lies at the heart of change or its denial. Oxfam’s work is based on the understanding that unequal power relations are one of the main underlying drivers of injustice, poverty and suffering. One of Oxfam’s aims is to transform power relations, so that poor men and women have greater influence over the policies, structures and social norms that affect their lives.

However, unequal power relations manifest themselves in many different ways: from unfair trade regulations that disproportionately benefit rich countries, to the social norms that cause young girls to suffer malnutrition because they are only allowed to eat after their brothers have had their fill. One way to disentangle this complex web is through power analysis.

A power analysis identifies and explores the multiple power dimensions and actors that affect a given situation, so as to better understand the different factors that interact to alleviate (or reinforce) poverty.

Some key questions to ask

1. WHO? Actors, Organisations, Institutions
Who are the main actors involved (poor communities, decision makers, private sector companies)? Beyond these leading players, what other individuals or institutions (media, religious institutions, intellectuals, traditional leaders, celebrities) are relevant and influential, either as potential allies of change, or as blockers, or as ‘shifters’ – potentially important players who can be convinced to support the change.

2. WHERE? Levels, Spaces
In what kinds of “spaces” are those seeking (and blocking) change operating? Is it formal/closed, invited, created/claimed from below? Do the relevant changes and decisions take place at household, community, local government, national government, regional or global levels?

3. WHAT? Sectors, Issues, Power
Which aspects of poverty and marginalisation are being addressed? What change is Oxfam and its partners trying to affect? Which kinds of power relations are relevant? (e.g. visible, hidden, invisible/internalised). What are the gender dimensions of these power relations?

4. HOW? Strategies, Methods, Models
Power analysis helps us arrive at some hypotheses about how the desired change is likely to occur, and what initial change strategies Oxfam could adopt to help. There is a potentially endless range of models of change, and strategies to apply. Some of the key parameters that need to be discussed include:

Alliances: What combination of likely and unlikely allies will maximise the chances of success? A traditional partnership with a local CSO or NGO? Building broad NGO coalitions? Forging relationships with sympathetic individuals or ministries within government? A joint approach with private sector companies?
Approach: What is most likely to influence the target individuals and institutions whose support is necessary to bring about change:  is the barrier to change created by laws and policies, or social norms, attitudes and beliefs? Is the issue one of providing rigorous research evidence for the benefits of the change we seek? Would a successful example (e.g. a pilot project or evidence from a neighbouring country) persuade? Or is this more likely to be about contestation than cooperation – political mobilisation, numbers of people in the streets etc?
Events: Is change most likely to occur around a specific event, whether foreseeable (e.g. an election campaign) or unforeseeable (eg the death of a leader, a natural disaster, economic crisis or conflict)? How do we prepare for and respond rapidly to the opportunities to promote change created by such ‘shocks’?
Complexity: Is the change we seek relatively simple (government abolishes user fees), or complex and messy (How to help people feel less disempowered and excluded from decision-making)? The former lend themselves to traditional approaches such as demonstration pilots and public campaigning. The latter are less predictable and will require more improvisation and experimentation, e.g. supporting a range of experiments to identify successful models, competitions and prizes for good ideas etc (see this example from Tanzania).

Understanding where we are coming from: the importance of frames
Discussions are almost never entirely neutral, objective and rational. Instead, the people in the room bring to the discussion their underlying and enduring ways of seeing the world and its motors of change. Part psychology, part intellectual formation, the deep frames underlying our thinking are often unacknowledged (and sometimes explain why we feel like we are ‘talking past each other’). Recognizing and learning to accommodate them is useful; trying to ‘convert’ those with different paradigms to our own probably isn’t. Some common frames:

• Conflict v cooperation: Does change come about through struggle or through discussion and mutually-agreed reforms?
• Optimist v pessimist: Do we see progress everywhere, and seek to accelerate its path, or is development really a losing struggle against power and injustice, where defeat is highly likely?
• Bottom up v top down: Is lasting and legitimate change primarily driven by the accumulation of power at grassroots/individual levels, through organization and challenging negative norms and beliefs? Or can it be achieved more simply by reforms at the levels of laws, policies, institutions, companies and elites, or simply by identifying and supporting ‘enlightened leaders’
• Market-based development: improving poor people’s incomes and assets, for example through enhanced power in markets.
• Modernization v tradition: is the aim of development to include poor people in the benefits of modernity (money economy, technology, mobility) or to defend other cultures and traditions and build an alternative?

power analysis cycleConclusion
Running an HCH analysis is not a one-off exercise, a magic crystal ball that enables you to plan unerringly for the next 10 years. Instead it is a feedback loop for constantly checking and improving our models of change (see diagram). Running a programme or campaign in an uncertain world is more like sailing a boat along a coast, with bad visibility and poor navigation tools (Thanks to John Ambler for this analogy). Storms blow up, and require adjustment. The boat springs a leak and needs repair. Crew members leave and new ones arrive. At regular intervals you need to stop, take stock, and adjust course. HCH analysis is the compass that provides those course checks and corrections.