Fixing the power imbalances of aid and development: A paradox

June 6, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Thanks to Exfamer Bert Maerten for sending over this interesting reflection by Soli Middleby (16 page paper from Partnership Brokers Association). Some excerpts:

‘Leaving aside the complex and important debates around the actual effectiveness of development3 there should be little doubt that the industry operates on a significant, complex, and historic power imbalance.

The development industry’s own practitioners and policy makers have called for the ‘decolonisation’ of aid, ‘thinking and working politically’, ‘doing development differently’, and ‘localisation’ as ways to redress power imbalances, even developing ‘guidelines’ and ‘courses’ to assist with the yielding and wielding of power within development.

In spite of these critiques and efforts, many advocates, practitioners, and scholars argue that we are seeing little real change.

[I used] a simple framework that allowed me to explore power imbalances as they exist in four interrelated types: institutional, material, structural and ideational (or discursive).

Institutional power imbalances are those which are present in the formal and informal rules, procedures and norms that govern development, sometimes referred to as the ‘rules of the game.’

Material power imbalances are those which are clear in the ‘direct control of one actor over the conditions of existence and/or the actions of another.’

Structural Power imbalances are reflected in positions of subordination or domination. In development, these positions include the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, the ‘donor’ and the ‘recipient’, the ‘expert’ and the ‘beneficiary,’ the ‘white’ and ‘brown’.

Ideational power imbalance is ‘more generalised and diffuse,’ it relates to imbalance in our ‘systems of knowledge,’ those which makes possible or limits our very action and imagination.

This often-unconscious process was revealed clearly by Professor Epeli Hau’ofa in his essay ‘Our Sea of Islands’ where he reflects on his own complicity in reproducing the notions of smallness and dependency which have been so pervasive and hegemonic to the Pacific region. In this essay, he asks himself ‘what kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region, people you claim as your own, who have come to university with high hopes for the future, and you tell them that our countries are hopeless? Is this not what neo-colonialism is all about? To make people believe they have no choice but to depend?’

Partnership Brokering Strategies to Address Power Imbalance

So how do partnership brokers seek to mediate these various imbalances?

Effective strategies to mediate institutional power imbalances include supporting partners to co-create mechanisms within the partnership which focus on, for example, process, relationality, and shared inclusive decision making. Holding explicit discussions around the principles of diversity, mutuality and openness can allow for partners and donors to acknowledge western biases, competitiveness and hidden agendas and co-create ways to mitigate their impacts.

I have found stakeholders operating within partnerships are often well experienced with donor behaviour and keen to develop strategies to mediate clear material power imbalances. The most common strategies are to take the programmable donor funds off the table to begin with and at the same time ensure that all resources, not just financial, are considered and valued when assessing what each partner brings to the partnership.

Partnership brokers often find themselves seeking to mediate the complex and painful structural power imbalances of ‘us’ and ‘them’, including acting as ‘intermediaries between the partners and the donor agencies.’ Some of the strategies brokers use include building shared understanding of the diverse views, attributes, and contributions of all involved, ensuring governance and decision-making structures have appropriate representation and, where possible, that the roles and responsibilities of each partner are clearly defined. While storytelling around structural power imbalances can make both sides uncomfortable, making the lived experience of structural power real can build empathy and understanding in order to build equity and trust.

One important way partnership brokers seek to disrupt the pervasive and hegemonic ideational power imbalance is to challenge and interrogate the meaning of development words like ‘partnership’,  ‘locals’, ‘specialist’, ‘expatriate’, ‘adviser,’ all maintain imbalances and words that have transformative power, such as ‘equity’, ‘privilege’, ‘power’, ‘complexity’, ‘inclusivity’, which can be used to disrupt or bring new meaning.

We keep playing by these rules because we benefit from them.

Are we getting anywhere? [short answer, not yet]

Institutional power imbalance remains clear. Written work and outputs continue to be prioritised over relationships and discussion and when timeframes or business processes are not met donors often point to the person or the partnership as being inadequate rather than reflecting on other reasons why.

The significant material power imbalance remains largely unaffected, and donors continue, or perhaps increasingly, exert direct control over their development resources.

[Sometimes] those holding the dominant positions within the structural power imbalances are willing to yield a little in development, but I have observed far more instances of it being wielded poorly to the detriment of effective partnering. This has been most obvious in those inexperienced program managers who operate from a position of intellectual superiority by virtue of position over knowledge, experience and relationships. I have also observed and had conversations with many highly capable non-western development practitioners who doubt their own skills and abilities in the face of these western development experts. Every single day, somewhere within development, these dominant and subordinate positions continue to compete for power and control.

Finally, ideational power imbalances in development appear to remain as strong as ever. Transformative concepts and words, such as ‘decolonisation,’ ‘localisation,’ and ‘partnership’ are quickly re-framed within development. While these words could embody real transformation and disruption, they lose their own power through their excessive and often superficial use by development actors.

What role do we play?

Partnership brokers and other development actors face a clear paradox as we in fact play a very clear role in maintaining these power imbalances ourselves.

While we seek to disrupt institutional power imbalances, we simultaneously reinforce them by operating according to their rules. The rules of the game won’t shift if we all keep playing by them. As one broker reflected recently on her own efforts to mentor colleagues to better engage in these development spaces, ‘by guiding them through what they needed to do to meet (donor) cultural norms’ she was ‘actually reinforcing inequality, western cultural norms and the status quo’.

We keep playing by these rules because we benefit from them.

We benefit from the material power imbalance. In theory, a broker works for the partnership, but in practice we, as with most development experts, are funded by the donor. This material power imbalance suits us as it is unlikely the recipients of aid would either agree or be able to afford the salaries of the development elite, let alone the other financial incentives that come with them.

We benefit from the structural power imbalance. In the role of expert, we hold power, wealth and status and therefore consciously, or unconsciously, maintain structural positions. We easily advocate for ‘localisation’ of brokers and development experts, instead of advocating for local agency over development itself which would challenge rather than legitimise the structural positions of the development expert.

Becoming aware of the persistent ideational and discursive power imbalances present brokers and development practitioners with a final paradox you could call ‘Epeli moments’. These are the moments when you realise your complicity in limiting the collective imagination on what is possible, when you find yourself reproducing negative tropes and stereotypes, when you use problematic binary language that continues to divide us and when you use transformation words in a way that undermines their transformational meaning.

How do we hold this paradox?

Working on partnership forged around development presents partnership brokers, and indeed all development practitioners who wish to disrupt power imbalance, with this clear paradox: our very efforts to mediate power imbalances also reproduce them to our benefit.

[Here are] three ways I have held this paradox:

The first has been to have faith that even small, gentle efforts to disrupt power imbalance are always of value. These efforts, whether they come in an individual partnership, a project, even a conversation, are part of a much bigger effort around power and each time we apply a little more pressure over time these small-scale patterns will lead to large scale changes. As we work towards transforming power imbalance at a small scale, we build community, we build authentic relationships, we build connections, we build alternative realities.

Second, pay more attention to doubts and be more open to ‘Epeli moments’. Systems of hierarchy and domination often persist without conscious recognition. To resist this, we can make our doubts more conscious.

Finally, I hold this paradox by seeking out generative work outside of development. There is an abundant reality of projects and programs and partnerships forged outside of development, and they open up a whole world to us. We have a different viewpoint through which to reimagine development together, reframing it away from the deficit lens it operates on and restructuring the rules of the game to create a different set of incentives toward mutuality and interdependence. This is where the opportunities for genuine partnerships thrive.


I have moved from a certain belief that efforts to disrupt and challenge the imbalances are always of value, to one more conscious of the persistent multi-layered ways in which I have both directly and indirectly, maintained an imbalance towards the perspectives, interests, values, and norms of the West to one that seeks out generative work outside of the western development industry. I believe partnership brokers are well placed to ‘voyage the audacious ocean together’ and reimagine development by ‘supporting and strengthening partnerships through innovative and skilled management of collaborative processes’ to ‘create a more inclusive and sustainable world.’ There is a generative story unfolding, in which more power is shared and our efforts, big and small, need to be consciously part of that story.’

If you’re interested in digging deeper into the practice of partnership brokering, check out the PBA website, which has dozens of case studies, toolkits and reflection pieces.

June 6, 2023
Duncan Green


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