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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.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for an interesting discussion about power relations in relation to theories of change.

    But why do people want power in the first place? This is an important and possibly more fundamental question that has occupied many philosophers over the centuries, and indeed some psychologists in the last century, in their attempts to explain human behaviour.

    Alfred Adler was possibly the first psychologist to argue that the need for power is a fundamental, univeral, basic human motive, which is even more important than the sex drive. It is a driving force that underlies many aspects of our behaviour. It originates in infancy and childhood, as we try to master our environment and assert ourselves.

    Veroff, McClelland, Winter and other psychologists have studied this motive in depth. They have found that it may be expressed in different ways by various people, depending on one’s life circumstances.

    McClelland has pointed out that this fundamental motive may be expressed in either personalised or else socialised ways. Personalised power expression essentailly means dominating others for personal gain, while socialised power may be expressed through helping others for social gain.

    What I believe we are seeing today amongst leaders, not only of countries, but also international corporations, is this motive finding expression through a high level of domination and self- gratification, i.e. personalised power.

    Uncontrolled expression of personalised power motivation may result in feelings of humiliation and powerlessness among those rendered powerless by these strivings. It may cause extreme consequences, including terrorism, threats of war and actual conflicts.

    To summarise, the “need for power” is fundamental in humans, influencing not only their thoughts, perceptions of the environment and emotions, but also their relationships with others, and their behaviour.

    We really need to take motive and its expression into account when trying to understand assymetrical power relations and theories of change.

  2. The Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
    ‘God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.’

    You say: “One of Oxfam’s aims is to transform power relations” – can you give a couple of practical examples of how Oxfam has done this?

  3. There is much that could be said about the lead thought-piece. First, whilst it is important to recognise that people have different models of change as you say, it is critical to realise that the very difference in these models causes all the problems: Trickle down? Trickle up? Blue-print approach or recognition of chaos theory and a consequent inability to control all variables? Whatever model – how to measure and attribute change?

    Second, it is worth being a little clearer that change processes tend to create winners and losers. If you are working in a community and are anxious to minimise the number of ‘losers’ then you have to think to think very carefully about how to do this, and the justification for so doing.

    I work on gender analysis in value chains and agriculture more broadly and I feel that the concepts of agency/ meaningful choice/ functionings and capabilities are very important to help us unpack power relations and how to empower. Most recently I have been studying household approaches of various kinds in Uganda and Zambia which deal directly with tackling unequal gender relations in decision-making. When successful, they lead to incredible synergies that empower everyone in the household, resulting in improved decision-making regarding expenditure, a deepened understanding of the farm as a system and how to maximise the contribution of every family member to the functioning of this system, and more concretely – improved food security and nutrition as well for all. This is an example not of ‘power over’ but ‘power with’.

  4. Reads well Cathy, but it seems like a very micro approach. How can we affordably and quickly scale up to millions of farmers who then become empowered, without awakening the jealously of local caciques?

    E.g. I’ve heard stories about farmers being unwilling to improve their land too any great extent because it will then become more attractive to land-grabbers.

    To me true sustainable development is at heart a revolutionary process and therefore always likely to invoke a backlash from power brokers loyal to urban elites.

    Hence a gradualist approach is best? The problem is that we are running out of time…

  5. It is important to appreciate that power is exercised at all levels. Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize Economics/ HDI etc) pointed out many years ago that households should not be considered a black box. In his paper ‘Cooperative Conflicts’ he explores HH relations, arguing that family members may cooperate to bring resources into the HH but engage in conflict over their division. Because gender norms tend to privilege men, men often receive more than their ‘fair share’,and that this has major repercussions on the willingness of HH members to contribute to the overall good of the HH.

    It is important to appreciate that in many African societies, men and women do not engage in collective decision-making/ work but rather are responsible for particular fields of endeavour. This can mean, when decision-making is vested in the HH head, that resources are not deployed to best advantage/ ineffective expenditure decisions are made etc. I read a report recently by Nigerian scientists which explored farm level decision-making. They cited one study which showed that although women do around 80 per cent of all farm work, they are responsible for decision-making in around 1 per cent of all cases. This includes weeding – no women took the decision as to when to weed even though this is a ‘female task’. Other areas inc use of fertiliser etc, taking of credit showed similar results. It should be abundantly clear that it would be better if those performing the work could take decisions about how to do it.

    It is a complex area but I would say that, based on 20 years of working on this area, that serious and indeed critical inefficiencies in agricultural production and productivity can be directly linked to gender inequalities in decision-making, access to resources and so on.

    The widespread failure of decades of investment in small-scale farming can be partly attributed to a failure to recognise and work with gender inequalities at household (and community level). This may seem a micro-approach and it is true that it takes time, but the sustainability of the changes created at HH level can be incredible. My, and other studies, in Zambia on the agricultural support programme (ASP) funded by SIDA showed that long-lasting transformations in agricultural practice had been achieved across the country due to the ASP. In one area we visited EVERY HOUSEHOLD who had been part of the ASP had SUBSTANTIAL food reserves in the hungry season, whereas NO household that had not taken part had food reserves. Further, in another province ALL agricultural officers, NGOs, credit agencies etc we met in the course of a different study of their own initiative said that farmers who had been through the ASP were those that were continuing to do very well, whereas those that had not were still struggling. Other work I conducted recently in Uganda on another variation of the HH approach (regarding the coffee chain) showed similar findings. We have been trying for years to ‘quickly scale up’ but we fail because we think we don’t have time for the building blocks of the revolution.

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