‘Development’: A visual story of shifting power

March 23, 2021

     By Maria Faciolince     

Leer esta historia en español.

The work of shifting power is fundamentally the work of changing our gaze. People act on how they see, and to change how we see, is to radically change how we act. By not exploring other forms of expressing, looking and creating, we’re limiting ourselves. 

The development space is fixated on the written word. We are inundated by a constant flow of reports, research papers, figures, strategic frameworks: ‘the literature’. Behind every new buzzword and piece of jargon is a faith that to change words is to change the world. 

Yet we keep coming back to the same sobering realization: concepts are not enough. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need to re-word a lot, challenge outlived vocabulary, and support the journey of reclaiming representation. But the enormous challenge of shifting stuffy power dynamics and dominant narratives asks us to go beyond changing how we talk, to changing how we see the world and how we act

“In the midst of such uncertainty and overlapping crises, we need artists like never before to help us reflect, creatively reimagine and bring to life a vision for radically better futures.”

During these two years of the Power Shifts project, the urgency of rethinking how we communicate has come up many many times. I have been frustrated by development communications that only speak in one way, to one particular audience and in one language (you can guess which one). There’s been clear ruptures with this narrow approach coming from young organizations and movement spaces, but the more old school organizations are struggling to keep up. Committing to ‘decolonizing’ our ideas begins with making knowledge accessible, plural, collaborative. It means constantly opening up to diverse formats as well.

So, here’s a question I’ve returned to: how can we de-center textual knowledge to help us deeply listen to, and communicate, stories of change, structural injustice, and transformative practice?

I don’t have precise answers, but I wanted to approach this challenge from a place of play and creative collaboration. In particular, I wanted to reach out to visual artists to find new ways of building bridges across formats. In the midst of such uncertainty and overlapping crises, we need artists like never before to help us reflect, creatively reimagine, and bring to life a vision for radically better futures.

The result of this collaboration is our very own Virtual Gallery for Shifting Power, an initiative with two artists that aimed to capture the lessons and teachings cultivated over the two years of the Power Shifts project.

For this first exhibit, called “‘Development’: a visual story of shifting power”, I collaborated with Colombian collage artist Hansel Obando. Together, we wanted to tell the story of ‘development’, from its origin to its current challenge, from its contradictions to its possible horizons. Our guiding principles were the twin notions of decolonization and intersectionality: moving away from the unequal power structures that reinforce legacies of colonialism, and advancing explicitly anti-racist and feminist agendas.

Following these principles, through our collaboration we challenged each other to leave behind tired language and imagery. Collage, the medium that Hansel works with, can be seen as a metaphor for the practice of re-making and re-assembling our world. It allows us to clearly grasp what stories are – assemblages of fragments – and what storytelling is: a work of careful piecing together.

We invite you to take a look at the visual story below. It’s a small step, but hopefully it can inspire more bridge-building and critical thinking. These images are published under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. So please go ahead and download, print and share them everywhere! Show them to your colleagues, plan a session to go through them together as a way to structure a conversation about ‘shifting power’, or dig deeper into a selection of images. (Just remember to please credit/tag Hansel Obando and María Faciolince when using them.)

Illustrations: Hansel Obando
Curation/writing: María Faciolince

“Development”: a single-lens dream that calls for universal progress. A linear gaze that looks forward, but narrows our visions. An industry built on the bold promise of ‘doing good’, that casts an uncertain shadow.
A one-size-fits-all notion of prosperity based on modernity and trickle-down growth. A system built on colonial foundations that recreate power and poverty.
The horizon lines of development are the proxies of progress: metrics, classifications, growth rates. What distinguishes ‘developed’ from ‘under-developed’, the West vs. the Rest.
But rankings are not realities, and development is not justice. For those reasons, compounded by overlapping crises, this model has long been contested by a multitude of groups and communities.
The strength of bottom-up demands and a weakening of aid dependency have taken the sector to a turning point. Today, it is called to cut the ties of colonial legacies, address problems at their root and open up the horizons of prosperity.
This shift requires flipping the foundations: universality gives way to plurality, power is named rather than silenced, care and repair regain the place held by abstract economic values.
It’s not starting from scratch - it’s building upon practices and ideas that have flourished in the cracks of crises. Redefining development means challenging how we know, how we work, how we relate, how we divide resources, and how we think.
This process starts by questioning expertise and whose knowledge counts. We are asked to decentralize the authority of certain voices and formats, and open the doors to diverse ways of knowing. Who is defining what progress looks like?
Redefining development means shaking up our working cultures to build collective power rather than hierarchical structures, commit to anti-racism and feminist leadership, and center care in our organizations.
Shifting power requires visibilizing and valuing the care work of relationship-building. A more relational vision of development values equitable partnerships between accomplices, rather than transactions between ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors’, and builds safe spaces to collaborate with trust.
Power shifts are inconceivable without a redistribution of resources. Allowing funds to flow more flexibly in communities, with transparency and accountability, asks us to abandon the strictures of top-down agendas and disconnected bureaucracies.
Overall, opening up our horizons for development means thinking in systems: coming to terms with the non-linear complexity of social change, smashing siloes to work at the intersections, and trusting more in emergence than in the illusion of control.
What emerges when outlived paradigms fall? What opens up when collective care, justice, and intersectional leadership draw new horizon lines? The path to development can give way to a pluriverse where diverse futures thrive.