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

December 6, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

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?

December 6, 2016
Duncan Green