Power, Poverty and Inequality: a ‘love-peeve’ new IDS bulletin

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the Institute of Developmentids-cover Studies (IDS) in Brighton, or more accurately, a love-peeve. I love the topics, the commitment to bottom-up approaches, and the intellectual leadership IDS has shown over the years on a whole range of issues dear to my heart. The peeve stems from its preference for abstruse language and reluctance to commit to the ever-elusive ‘so whats?’ Apart from the ubiquitous ‘needs more research’ conclusion of course – funny that.

Those mixed emotions were in full flow as I read the new IDS Bulletin on Power, Poverty and Inequality, which is now Open Access (see, aren’t they great? You paying attention, ODI?) The bulletin takes stock of the discussion on power, ten years after John Gaventa came up with the Power Cube as a handy way of bringing together different kinds of power into a single analytical framework (see diagram below). The focus of the bulletin is on ‘invisible power’:

Invisible power involves the internalised, often unconscious acceptance of dominant norms, institutions, languages and behaviours as natural and normal, often desirable, even if they appear to be against the interests of the actors involved. Acceptance helps to perpetuate an unjust status quo. This aspect of power helps explain how certain matters are, for long periods of time and in many places, not on the agenda for discussion and unchanged, because they are naturalised: unnoticed and satisfactory – the internalized understandings in people’s heads of their place in the world of norms and ‘the natural’.

The overall conclusion is classic IDS: ‘change is accelerated when connected spaces at every political level are considered and economic, political and social cleavages are acted on in concert.’ Okaaayyy.

What that seems to involve is a serious effort to render invisible power visible to those who it is keeping down, when it is ‘brought into the light and becomes available for change’. Making invisible power explicit allows it to be acknowledged, questioned and ‘denaturalised’.

power-cubeAt which point I rub my hands and say ‘great, show me how to do it, let’s see some practical examples and recommendations for activists’. But this is IDS, it’s never that easy, and never quite lands, preferring to do pirouettes in the meta world of academia than get down and dirty with grubby activists. Even the case studies, of which there are several (on access to water, or social exclusion in the Balkans), seem somehow trapped in IDS-world and never quite land. Then we’re back in the comfort zones of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘towards a pedagogy for the powerful’.

Am I being unfair/reductionist? Probably – I read the bulletin on a plane journey and doubtless missed stuff (if so, IDS colleagues please set me straight). And there are some more satisfying bits in the articles from Jethro

Guatemalan indigenous protesters
Guatemalan indigenous protesters

Pettit and my Oxfam colleague Jo Rowlands . Jethro Pettit looks at the reasons why citizens don’t engage, and the role of invisible power in making people accept their subordination as the way things are. He has a nice (albeit very IDS-ish) paragraph on the role of culture:

Creative methods can evoke more felt and experiential knowledge of the past and deeper re-imaginings of possible futures. Movement and theatre can surface and interrogate embodied experience, and engage participants in reinventing their habituated and physiological responses to power. Drawing, painting, photography, film and sculpture all offer powerfully visceral and aesthetic avenues of learning that can both enhance and transcend more conceptual and analytical methods of sense-making. This is not a new proposal, but one that is sadly overlooked. Creative and narrative methods have been widely advocated in transformative approaches to participatory and action research. Social movements have long drawn on forms of popular education and cultural expression using ‘songs, poetry and theatre’ and ‘especially local cultural forms to give voice, pass on history and engender solidarity’. Cultural action of this kind enables more than just symbolic and conceptual expressions of identity and struggle: it invites the possibility of more affective and embodied re-imaginations of power and social order.

power-to-the-peopleThese creative and embodied forms of learning provide different ways of generalising from the particular than those offered by conceptual analysis. They can hold open our lived experience of power to more immediate forms of apprehension, without jumping too quickly into abstract thinking, or allowing symbolic representations to substitute for embodied understanding and knowledge. This approach doesn’t reject the power of the intellect and critical consciousness, but brings them into balance with other ways of knowing.

For her part, Jo offers a guardedly optimistic take on Oxfam’s embrace of power analysis over the last ten years (something for which she has been a tireless advocate). She identifies five obstacles to this effort:

  • Content: ‘The language of power analysis can be quite obscure and/ or unnecessarily academic.’ (who could she be referring to?). ‘It is important to communicate that although power is multifaceted, it is in no way mysterious and can be explored and made sense of. Power is around us everywhere, we all experience it in multiple ways even if we never think about it.’
  • Skills: ‘Some people seem to have the knack of power analysis without even thinking about it much. Such people read the context, connect with diverse sources of information and seem almost intuitively able to keep a finger on a multifaceted pulse in terms of the political context. Such people are not commonly found in development management, though sometimes they are found in policy roles.’ As a result they ‘bring in experts’, which is usually a bad idea, as the organization fails to internalise power analysis.
  • Responsibility and Accountability: ‘In an organisation like Oxfam, power analysis is one of those areas that usually falls across several areas of responsibility and is therefore vulnerable to having no one actually accountable for ensuring it happens.’
  • Application: ‘Power analysis is most usefully iterative and ongoing, used to identify priorities, partnerships and alliances, to guide a range of relationships, to inform linkages between work at different levels. So it needs to be built into planning cycles, adequately resourced and monitored.’
  • Time: Heavy workloads, competing priorities, multiple deadlines and very ambitious programmes mean that it can be hard to carve out space for analysis and reflection. Space for learning, often closely linked with monitoring and evaluation, is increasingly being built into programme plans, and power analysis lends itself easily to these spaces.’

Maybe IDS could consider a follow up bulletin which takes overcoming Jo’s five obstacles as its starting point and sticks resolutely to plain English?

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4 Responses to “Power, Poverty and Inequality: a ‘love-peeve’ new IDS bulletin”
  1. Yes, Duncan, you did read it too fast, or too sleep-deprived, or too selectively.

    I wrote my IDS Bulletin article (http://bulletin.ids.ac.uk/idsbo/article/view/2795) because I am forever doing that thing you describe as ‘rub[bing] my hands and say[ing] ‘great, show me how to do it, let’s see some practical examples and recommendations for activists’. So thank you for this opportunity to draw attention to the practical, applied bent of my article, which you clearly missed in your reading. For once, I feel permitted, nay, obliged, to quote myself:

    “[F]rom the perspective of what resistance scholars call subalterns and power analysts call powerless or marginalized people, these debates [between power scholars and resistance scholars] have shed little light on what to do about the power relations that constrain these actors […]. The literature on empowerment, conversely, is born of a preoccupation with what the relatively powerless and marginalized can do – or sometimes, more controversially, what others can do on their behalf. […] This body of work helps establish appropriate strategies for reconfiguring interests and positions so as to shift power in a given instance and context. […] If power analysis is currently used to some extent in strategizing for empowerment and hardly at all in strategizing for resistance […], is it being used to its full potential?’ (IDS Bulletin 47.5, page 111).

    I end my article by picking up where some of the most pioneering appliers of power analysis to real-life problems leave off: a framework offered by Miller et al of Just Associates (www.justassociates.org/) which illustrates how using theory to illuminate what’s going on in cases of problematic and abusive power can lead activists towards appropriate responses and strategies of building ‘power to’ and ‘power with’ among those in relatively powerless positions. The practical use-value of this framework is obvious. I argue, though, that ‘more could still be done […] to derive practical tactics and strategies from the broader range of power and resistance scholarship discussed above’. So I try: I extend Miller et al’s work by adding ways in which theoretical clarity about power can provide the bases for practical strategies not of empowerment but of resistance.

    I did this because I learnt from the human rights activists and youth organisers with whom I spent weeks in their boiling cauldron of violence and power abuse in urban Buenaventura, Colombia in 2014 – all part of my IDS job – that getting clearer in conceptual terms can make them more effective in practical terms. It can sharpen their survival and resistance strategies. The Colombian activists took to power concepts as readily as kids take to violence in their dangerous neighbourhoods. They, not we, introduced into our conversations terms like ‘the naturalisation of violence’ and ‘ubiquitous power’. An important part of my job at IDS is to help to bridge – in two directions, not one-way – between abstruse academic concepts, and theories and discourses, and the daily brave survival and resistance struggles of people like them.

    That’s the part of my job that keeps me here. It’s not a part that’s at all rewarded or incentivized by standard academic canons of merit and worth. It’s a struggle to do it within the confines of an academic institution – even one like IDS which wears proudly its distinctive status as an applied research institute and a commitment not only to academic excellence but to engaged excellence. But we really do do it, those of us who put this Bulletin together, as well as many other IDS colleagues. And women leaders in the communes of Buenaventura really do use exactly the same term as Michel Foucault to describe how they experience power: get out more, listen well and you’ll hear them. You’ve picked the wrong targets this time.

  2. Duncan Green

    Thanks Rosie, I’ll go back and read your piece properly now, I want to know what ‘It can sharpen their survival and resistance strategies’ meant in practice – what specifically did they do differently? Is that in the article?
    And of course I have never doubted the motivation and commitment of IDS colleagues (that’s the ‘love’ bit), I just think the way they express themselves reduces their potential impact. The intriguing point raised by your and John’s response is whether that is truer among ‘arm’s length activists’, (or whatever you want to call us), than among communities themselves, who have the motivation to engage with the nuance, subtlety and difficulty of Foucault et al.

  3. Jethro Pettit

    Thanks Duncan for this interesting and provocative review of our latest IDS Bulletin [link], though it feels like a cheap shot at academia in this worrying time of anti-intellectualism, over-simplification of complex problems and yearning for prescribed solutions.
    I wonder if there is anyone working in international development today who does not have a ‘love-peeve’ or even ‘love-hate’ relationship with the institutions, networks and language they are immersed in. If so, they should to take a closer look at how power and knowledge work in our industry.
    In the case of the IDS Bulletin, it is fair to say that the language we write in for some audiences is going to be less accessible to others, and yes we need to be mindful of this. At the same time we should not underestimate the intelligence of our readers, nor their ability to theorise and strategise about power, as John Gaventa points out [link].
    The IDS Bulletin is one outlet among many, and does speak to the more academic side of our work. Yet we are also accused in equal measure by academics for being too applied to policy and practice in our writing. The IDS Bulletin is a bridging device positioned somewhere in the middle, so is unlikely to satisfy everyone all of the time.
    In the case of our work on power and empowerment, other IDS outputs are a lot more applied, such as powercube.net [ https://www.powercube.net/ ] and the practitioner guides published by Sida [ http://www.sida.se/contentassets/83f0232c5404440082c9762ba3107d55/power-analysis-a-practical-guide_3704.pdf ] and the Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust [ http://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/power-a-practical-guide-for-facilitating-social-change/ ]. These resources, derived from practical experience, are intended to help funders, staff, activists and community members do their own power analysis and arrive at their own ‘so what’s’.
    Importantly, the work that goes into resources like these is not academic knowledge translated into practice. Rather it is the result of dialogue and iteration between practice and theory, with the latter constantly being modified and improved according to what works or not in particular contexts. As Rosalind Eyben is fond of reminding us, there is nothing so practical as a good theory.
    For example, the Power Cube’s ‘three dimensions of power’ were once refashioned by Oxfam’s Latin American staff and partners in a workshop in Colombia into four dimensions, to capture the ‘occult power’ of organised crime, narcotics cartels, and government and military collusion with these forces. Others have expanded or renamed the Cube’s levels and spaces to reflect their contexts.
    And in West Yorkshire, in the UK, Afro-Caribbean racial justice activists did not need the concept of ‘invisible power’ to define their own experience of ‘mental slavery’ – rather they enriched the theory with their life stories of being naturalised into believing they were inferior to white people.
    The role of the intellectual-activist is not to explain and prescribe, but to accompany and support people in their own analysis and decisions about what to do about power.
    IDS’s academic writing may unfortunately give the impression that we spend all our time writing articles far from the realities they describe. We could probably make our language more a accessible, and offer more links to our practical resources, and refer more to the hands-on work of accompaniment, facilitation and dialogue in which we engage with donors, practitioners, activists and communities around the world – without which we would have little to say with any legitimacy.

  4. max lawson

    They also totally nicked the cover from our 2014 Inequality Campaign Report- Even it Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality. Which is a far better read.


    I agree with you about IDS. I wonder if the right wing, neo-fascist think tanks, pundits and politicians that are busy actually changing our world for the worse tie themselves in similar knots about different dimensions of power before they decide what to do. I think it is unlikely.

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