Writing, and then promoting, How Change Happens has often left me feeling a bit remote from ‘the field’, with a nagging anxiety that
what I am saying no longer has much connection with what people are doing on (or at least closer to) the ground.
So it was great to get online with some of Oxfam’s best and brightest campaigners and advocates around the world and swap notes on power and systems. I got a reassuring amount of resonance with the ideas and arguments in the book, along with some really interesting experiences and new insights.
One overarching point is how much people value mapping tools – they provide entry points into disentangling a complex system, examining the different parts and how they interact, and then using that to come up with better ideas for ways to change the status quo. Oxfam staff are out there using tools like the Power Cube with local communities, and they really help. ‘Although people think a lot about power, mapping gives them new language and new ideas on what to do. They look again at things they previously took for granted.’ In contrast, Oxfamers are not so keen on big analytical documents – ‘pages of pages of nothingness’, was one memorable description.
I discovered that my colleague Richard English has flattened out the Power Cube into a set of 3 columns, which works much better for me – I’ve never found the cube itself very user friendly. We decided to try and apply it to the problem of how to prevent governments from cracking down on civil society organizations. If that goes ahead, I’ll doubtless blog on the results.
When analysing power, one intriguing critique was that the aid business tends to favour structural analyses, and avoid analysing the experiences, motivations and preferences of powerful individuals. In advocacy that means we miss lots of entry points through which to influence decision makers – one recalled a long analysis of South Sudan that failed to mention that the main rebel leader, Riek Machar is a British citizen (and even studied Philosophy at Bradford University). That kind if intel can provide great entry points for influencing.
Another example of the need to take power analysis down to the individual level came from Cambodia, where we used power mapping to identify the individual decision makers and then who influenced them (i.e. who they listened to) as the basis for an influencing and campaign strategy.
Oxfam likes to use power mapping – typically plotting different stakeholders against the level of interest in/support for the issue
under discussion and their degree of influence over relevant decisions. One African colleague saw one of the main benefits as uncovering those institutions that in practice have absolutely no power over decisions (whatever it says in the constitution), which can save a lot of time and waste (‘ultimately, Parliament is just a rubber stamp’).
But despite the enthusiasm for power mapping, I realized as we were talking that it has one serious flaw: it struggles to address ‘invisible power’ (social norms, the attitudes and beliefs that inspire or hold people back), and usually defaults back to the comfort zone of formal power, perhaps extending to ‘hidden power’ – Old Boys’ Networks and the like. When many change processes (eg on gender rights) rely to a large extent on tackling social norms and ‘power within’, that seems like a serious oversight.
But in some countries, all this talk of power is itself a risk – technical, apolitical language can provide a kind of camouflage, when overtly political language attracts unwanted attention from the authorities. Not sure I’ve helped much there by writing a whole book on power and change. Too late now.
The people on the call were part of Oxfam’s Campaigns and Advocacy Leadership Programme (CALP). The CALP brings together Oxfam staff and partners involved in country programmes and the influencing done at local, national, regional and global levels. We have some exciting plans to make that more widely available, perhaps through a partnership with Open University. Watch this space.