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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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Power Lies at the Heart of Change

Power Lies at the Heart of Change

(p.28) 2 Power Lies at the Heart of Change
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyses the forms of power at play in efforts to achieve change. Empowerment, the driving force behind Amartya Sen’s definition of development, is one of the most ubiquitous buzzwords in the lexicon of development activists. Many, however, shy away from the word from which the term derives: power. Thus the chapter discusses three forms of power: ‘visible’, ‘hidden’, and ‘invisible’; and how these play out in dynamics of change. In addition, the chapter looks at another power analysis scheme—the ‘four powers’ model, which suggests a more comprehensive approach to promoting change than simply addressing visible power and decrying hidden and invisible power. Finally, the chapter looks into the reasons as to why change does not happen, by examining three underlying components for resistance: institutions, ideas, and interests.

Keywords:   power analysis, empowerment, visible power, hidden power, invisible power, four powers model, resistance to change

As a rather lost and miserable post-college backpacker, I once found myself in a small village on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Peru, at the home of a charismatic activist with the memorable name of Tito Castro. Tito was a lapsed Christian Brother who had decided to devote himself to raising awareness among Peru’s indigenous people. He had arrived in the village with a library of books on politics, economics, sociology, and indigenous rights, and when I met him he was lending out books and running discussion groups for local leaders.

Tito took me to meet the villagers and introduced me to Peru’s history of apartheid-like racial discrimination. He patiently explained how, by organizing, indigenous people can win greater control over their lives. By the time I went on my way, I was filled with an exhilarating sense of a big and heroic struggle for justice. My slow process of learning suddenly hit a critical juncture, and soon I was back home working to defend human rights in Chile and Central America. Tito later became mayor of the nearest city, Puno, and eventually a sociology professor at Lima’s Catholic University.

What Tito showed me—and I experienced—was empowerment in real time, when light bulbs go on in the heads of people who had previously felt helpless or shackled by their lot, and they begin to take action to change it. Such small, personal events often lie at the heart of the tides of social and political change that are the subject of this book.

Empowerment, the driving force behind Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the progressive expansion of the freedoms to do (p.29) and to be,1 is one of the most ubiquitous buzzwords in the lexicon of development activists. Many, however, shy away from the word from which the term derives: power. Power, which allows one person or institution to command the resources, actions, or innermost thoughts of another, was central to Tito’s understanding of Peruvian society and it should be so for all activists.

The most evident and most discussed form of power is what we might call ‘visible power’2: the world of politics and authority, policed by laws, violence, and money. It gets bad press, conjuring up images of force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, repression, and abuse. But visible power is also necessary to do good, whether to implement enlightened public policies or to prevent acts of violence by the strong against the weak.

Activists seeking social and political change usually focus their efforts on those who wield visible power—presidents, prime ministers, and chief executive officers (CEOs)—since they hold apparent authority over the matter at hand. Yet the hierarchy of visible power is usually underpinned by subtle interactions among a more diverse set of players. ‘Hidden power’ describes what goes on behind the scenes: the lobbyists, the corporate chequebooks, the old boys network. Hidden power also comprises the shared view of what those in power consider sensible or reasonable in public debate. Any environmentalist who has sat across the table from government officials or mainstream economists and dared to question the advisability of unlimited economic growth in a resource-constrained world will have met the blank faces that confront anyone breaching those boundaries.

In 2002 Karl Rove, aide to President George W. Bush and an archetypal behind-the-scenes operator, memorably captured the role of hidden power. In an interview with Ron Suskind, Rove pointed out (p.30) that the journalist was ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, made up of people who believe that solutions emerge from the ‘judicious study of discernible reality.’ But ‘that’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’3 Hidden power is why amassing research and evidence is rarely sufficient to change government policy. Discussion of the facts usually takes place parallel to a shadowy world of competing narratives that have little basis or interest in evidence.

Hidden power can spring from sources other than Karl Rove’s dark arts. On visits to India, I have been struck by the clout of senior activists and public intellectuals who embody Gandhian traditions of personal sacrifice and humility. In Latin America, leaders are often said to possess ‘mística’ (mystique)—an intangible quality of moral authority.

As important as ‘hidden power’, and certainly more insidious, is ‘invisible power’, which causes the relatively powerless to internalize and accept their condition. A Guatemalan Mayan woman summed up the nature of invisible power: ‘Why do we not speak now? We did when we were children. We have internalised repression. They gave us the words: “stupid”; “you can’t”; “you don’t know”, “poor thing - you are a woman”.’4 In the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault, ‘There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, which each individual will end up interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer.’5

Invisible power often determines the capacity of change movements to influence visible and hidden power. It shapes the belief systems about what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, leading some groups to (p.31) exclude themselves, as when women blame themselves for their abuse, or poor people for their poverty. ‘Empowerment’, through the sort of awareness-raising Tito Castro promoted to build self-esteem and local leadership, seeks to alter invisible power. Because the targets of such efforts are the inner lives of individuals, cultural initiatives and mass media can be important tools, as has been the case in the rapid progress in respect for women’s rights in recent decades. Chapter 3 discusses how such shifts are reflected in the evolution of ‘norms’—ideas of what is natural, acceptable, or right—an area that I feel receives far too little attention in development circles.

No such thing as a power vacuum

Rich ecosystems of power exist in the most unpropitious of circumstances. The Democratic Republic of Congo is often seen as a failed state, with the population, particularly in the east, suffering from anarchic violence. But to call that a ‘power vacuum’ is a highly misleading caricature. Power is everywhere, and it is multifaceted.

During a visit to DRC in 2014, I met one village official, Kabuya Muhemeri, in his ‘office’: tin roof, floor of volcanic rubble, no glass in the windows, bare plank walls covered with heavily logoed NGO and UN posters on sexual violence, torture, HIV, and land rights, plus a hand-drawn map of the area. On his desk, the classic tools of the functionary: a rubber stamp, a mobile phone, and a pile of files and notebooks.

He had been in the post since 2008. He laughed when asked if the state gives him training: ‘We rely on the NGOs for that. They help us with what the law says—don’t torture, don’t lock people up for unpaid debts. There are lots of rights and laws I didn’t know.’ In his world, state officials and customary authorities are all part of public administration. ‘The chefferie (traditional authority) collects the taxes. I report to the mwami (traditional leader) as well as to the ministry.’6

(p.32) Later, I talked to a traditional leader, on the veranda of his rather smart house at the top of a steep mud path. The chief spoke softly, radiating authority and cradling his two mobile telephones. ‘I’ve been chief for twenty years, my father was chief before me. The state authorities are in charge of roads and bridges, tax is collected from shops, restaurants, and markets by the chef de cheferie [his superior in the traditional hierarchy]. I encourage the population to pay.’

Several other poles of power vie with civil and traditional authorities: armed groups, the army, the police, humanitarian agencies, faith organizations, civil society organizations, even sports clubs. Activists, whether local or from outside, need to understand the nature and distribution of the power wielded by these varied bodies (especially the ones that are unfamiliar) to determine who they need to work with (and how) to help bring about change.7 We’ll examine the interactions among such poles of power in more detail in Chapter 4.

Power and change

Contemplating the gamut of visible, hidden, and invisible power that supports the status quo can be dispiriting, inducing feelings of helplessness before the Leviathan.8 Fresh back from my life-changing moment in Tito’s house, I spent many long mornings standing outside the US embassy in London, protesting against Washington’s policies in Latin America. Our motley scatter of placards and banners contrasted painfully with the vast and highly visible power encapsulated in the great blank face of the building, topped by a huge gilded eagle glowering down at us. I didn’t feel very powerful.

Fortunately, other ways of thinking about power highlight the opportunities and possibilities for change. My colleague Jo Rowlands, (p.33) based on her work on women’s empowerment in Honduras,9 identified a different scheme that encapsulates this more optimistic approach:

  • Power within: personal self-confidence and a sense of rights and entitlement.

  • Power with: collective power, through organization, solidarity and joint action.

  • Power to: meaning effective choice, the capability to decide actions and carry them out.

  • Power over: the power of hierarchy and domination, as described above.

This ‘four powers’ model suggests a more comprehensive approach to promoting change than simply addressing visible power and decrying hidden and invisible power. Unless people first develop a sense of self-confidence and a belief in their own rights (power within), efforts to help them organize (power with) and demand a say (power to) may not bear fruit. As Tito showed in his Peruvian idyll, personal empowerment can be the first step on the path to social transformation.

Over the last few years, Jo has been a politely persistent mentor and critic, prodding me to think harder about power and participation in change processes, especially in terms of women’s rights, where ‘power within’ has proved to be a remarkably important and useful concept. In South Asia, We Can is an extraordinary campaign on violence against women launched in late 2004. At last count it had signed up some four million women and men to be ‘change makers’—advocates for an end to violence in their homes and communities. We Can does not target policies, laws, or the authorities (visible power). Instead, it addresses invisible power, using dialogue and example to change attitudes and beliefs at the level of individuals and communities. And it’s viral. Each change maker talks to friends and neighbours, (p.34) and tries to persuade them to change and become change makers as well. To the organizers’ surprise, half of the nearly four million change makers who signed on over the course of seven years were men.10

For Selvaranjani Mukkaiah, a We Can activist in Badulla, Sri Lanka, acquiring ‘power within’ is life-changing: ‘To me change is the killing of fear. Someone may know how to sing but will not sing. Someone or something needs to kindle the fire in you and kill the fear that stops you from changing. I have killed the fear of talking and that is a change for me.’11

‘Power within’ often morphs rapidly into ‘power with’ and ‘power to’. In Nepal, women taking part in Community Discussion Classes (CDCs) moved swiftly from learning to action. Fed up with their drunken husbands’ violence, CDC women in Sorahawa, Bardiya District, decided to impose a 500 Rupee fine (rising for further offences) on any man who beat his wife or other female household members after he had been warned not to do so. ‘Now, our husbands fear they may lose face on account of community-level insults and also cough up the fine. They go off quietly to sleep.’12

However, I have some qualms about ‘power within’. The concept seems to skate rapidly over the deeper waters that determine individual attitudes and beliefs. Thinking about power within is only the first step on what should be a much longer conversation about the role of psychology, empathy, and relationships in bringing about change. Many effective activists are instinctively empathetic and emotionally literate (one academic analysis of the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign was (p.35) memorably titled ‘Bono Made Jesse Helms Cry’13). But many are not. I have seen too many examples of the finger wagging of angry lobbyists who seem unaware of what is going on in the heads of the people they are talking to and unable to grasp that their hectoring tone alienates the very people they are trying to influence. In his 2007 paper, ‘How Change Happens’, which got me started on the road to this book, Roman Krznaric concluded that ‘Development strategies display an overwhelming focus on individual actors, organised social groups, and institutions, with little acknowledgement that societies and institutions are composed of human relationships. There is much greater scope for development organisations to pursue strategies that encourage mutual understanding, empathy, and trust.’14 (Since then Roman has become something of an empathy guru, writing books15 and even opening an ‘empathy museum’.)16

On the other hand, many non-government organizations (NGOs), faith organizations, and others traditionally leery of ‘politics’ over-invest in individual empowerment, and fail to support the next step from individual to collective empowerment (‘power with’) or take on those who oppress the disempowered through their hidden and visible power. Their wariness is understandable: collective action tends to be rather more unruly than the orderly workshops that are NGOs’ staple. In fact, before imposing the fine for domestic violence, several of the Nepalese women’s groups I mentioned earlier decided (p.36) that the best way to curb their husbands’ alcoholism was to burn down the stores selling them drink.17

The territories of ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ are more familiar for most activists, since their interaction forms the basis of politics and the economy. In some ways the distinction is a false one—one person’s ‘power to’ can be experienced by another as ‘power over’. Activists instinctively hostile to ‘power over’ should recall that, like ‘visible power’, it is essential to do good. The ‘power over’ of police, courts, and in extremis armed forces guarantees security, an aspect of wellbeing particularly prized by anyone who has lived where it is absent. The issue is whether ‘power over’ is subject to checks and balances to ensure it is not wielded in an arbitrary and unjust fashion.

Given power’s central role in determining both stasis and change, I find its absence from the development lexicon remarkable. The aid landscape is littered with terms that avoid the uncomfortable truth that seldom is power distributed fairly. Apparently neutral words like ‘consultation’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘dialogue’, and ‘inclusivity’ paper over the underlying power dynamics between conflicting interests, which can determine people’s capacity even to participate, never mind influence outcomes. The landmark Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness agreed by government aid donors and recipients in 2005 uses the words partner and partnership ninety-six times, but power not once.18

Even though aid donors increasingly accept the futility of pursuing purely technical solutions that ignore political realities, they are still not willing to talk about power. Instead, there seems an inbuilt tendency (I’m not sure whether conscious or unconscious) to reduce every question to economics, as if material incentives alone explained human behaviour. That kind of ‘political economy analysis’ misses what is distinctively political about politics: a broader understanding of power, agency, ideas, (p.37) leadership, the subtleties of building and sustaining coalitions both inside formal politics and beyond, and the role of shocks and accident.19

Is power a zero sum game?

I wonder if the reluctance to address power explicitly in the aid world comes from viewing power as a zero sum game. In some circumstances giving power to some people does mean taking it away from others. Often the role of activists is precisely to support that process, for example, by supporting coalitions that can redistribute power from the haves to the have-nots. Resistance from the haves is one reason why change can be violent and difficult on issues such as who owns land, or how the state levies tax and allocates spending.

Good change strategies pursue something more subtle than outright confrontation (which often plays into the hands of the powerful). Reframing the understanding of self-interest, using divide and rule tactics to split up opposition blocs, or promoting long-term shifts in ideas and norms can help get round the zero sum problem. Moreover, many changes benefit both the have-nots and the haves. Men in the We Can programme reported marked improvements in their own quality of life from respecting women’s rights in the home; unsurprisingly, the sex improved too, according to some.

To add to the complexity, processes and institutions that initially favour one group are sometimes subverted over time and taken over by another: access to justice by poor communities can turn the law from a bulwark of the status quo to a driver of change; capture of democratic processes by the rich can achieve the exact opposite. Empowerment is not so much a single event as a process taking place in a complex system replete with multiple feedback loops, rather than linear chains of cause and effect. (p.38)

Using power analysis

Many aid organizations have come to the realization that their cherished projects on the ground are at best producing islands of success in a sea of failure as a result of bad government policies. The futility of promoting ‘livelihoods projects’ that help poor communities benefit from markets, when those same markets are being battered by government debt crises and spending cutbacks, has provoked understandable frustration, and over the past twenty years efforts to change public policy through advocacy and campaigns have mushroomed.

For these activists, power is a central concern and both the visible-hidden-invisible scheme and the ‘four powers’ approach can help identify what we do or do not know about a system, prompting an exploration of pertinent questions, be it Why are small farmers poor? or Why doesn’t the government spend more on local schools?

By formulating tentative answers to such questions, activists initiate what at Oxfam we call a ‘power analysis’. In essence, a power analysis tells us who holds what power related to the matter, and what might influence them to change.

Activists informed by a power analysis can select a more appropriate strategy: Will it be lobbying in the corridors of power, protesting in the street, or providing low profile, long-term support for grassroots organizations or public education? Still more questions will sharpen the strategy: Who does the minister or CEO actually listen to? Is he or she persuaded by a successful demonstration on the ground, research, stories, media coverage, or the opinion of peers? Discussing power in its various forms is helpful in challenging assumptions about citizen apathy: Why don’t they protest more?

Power analysis can help activists identify a wider range of potential allies. All too often, we tend to default to working with ‘people like us’, when alliances with unusual suspects (corporations, faith leaders, academics) can be more effective. Finally, power analysis can help us consider upcoming events that may open the door to change: Is an election in the offing? What influence would a drought or (p.39) hurricane have on people’s attitudes? What happens when the Old Man dies?

To move from a general exploration of power to specific plans for influencing its redistribution on any given issue, we need to identify the key players and map where they stand on the matter at hand: Who are the main actors involved (poor communities, decision makers, private sector companies)? What other individuals or institutions (media, religious institutions, intellectuals, traditional leaders) are relevant and influential? Which are potential allies? Which are blockers? And which are ‘shifters’, potentially important players who can be convinced to support the change?20

A key player, of course, is the activists themselves, and power analysis must include them. Discussion of where they are most likely to exert influence (at the household, local, national, or global level) should help identify promising entry points, tactics, and alliances. Every activist group has strengths and weakness. For example, an international NGO like Oxfam can link up consumers in rich countries to put pressure on companies to improve their impact in poor ones, but it can also be seen as a tool of Western foreign policy.

When activists draw up a list of stakeholders, we often initially describe a sparsely populated landscape (‘the state’, ‘people’s organizations’). Closer scrutiny normally uncovers a much more complex ecosystem, as I discovered in 2014 when I asked a group of Tajik activists and aid workers to list the stakeholders on water and sanitation in a typical village. First it was only state authorities and villagers’ water associations. Then one added, ‘Who you turn to depends on the issue: for policy you go to the village head; for health problems to the doctor; if you have bad dreams, you go to the mullah.’

The group ended up plotting the influence and level of interest of appointed and elected village officials, the school principal, mullah, doctor, respected village elders, women’s groups, community (p.40) organizations, state employees, ‘educated people’, and ‘relatives (and lovers!) of powerful people’. All were seen as potential allies in improving the lamentable provision of water and sanitation.21

The conversation in Tajikistan brought home to me the importance of mapping all the players who could be part of any given change process, as well as the ease with which we default back to a polarized and often self-defeating ‘them and us’ mental map.

Once the actors are identified, we need to discuss:


What combination of likely and unlikely allies will maximize the chances of success? A traditional partnership between activist organizations, relationships with sympathetic individuals in government ministries, or a joint approach with private-sector companies?


What is most likely to influence the target individuals and institutions whose support is needed to bring about change? Does the barrier to change lie in laws and policies, or in social norms, attitudes, and beliefs? Or is the issue rooted in conflicting interests and thus requires political mobilization to demonstrate clout?


Is change most likely to occur around a specific event, (e.g. an election campaign, the death of a leader, a natural disaster or an economic crisis)? How do we prepare for and respond rapidly to the opportunities (as well as threats) created by such ‘shocks’?

Such a power analysis reflects a strategic mindset which prizes results, as opposed to what I might call a ‘principled’ mindset that prizes ‘speaking truth to power’. I use cartoons a lot on my blog, and one of my favourites shows two medieval peasants walking past a castle wall, on which a severed head sits on a spike. One peasant is saying to the other ‘he spoke truth to power’. Open and individual opposition (p.41) may be admirable, even heroic, but it is seldom effective without a more subtle understanding of the distribution of power and the potential for change. Similarly, by exhorting politicians simply to show ‘political will’ and do something that will lose them votes or power, we abdicate our responsibility to find a way to enable them to support the change we seek.22

Of course, some of the most effective activists don’t spend hours doing power analyses. They have a feel for what works, built up from long experience and natural aptitude. ‘Power analysis’ is simply a way of codifying what such gurus do instinctively, making it explicit and thus easier to learn and share.

Why change doesn’t happen

Although this book is about ‘how change happens’, often the important question is ‘Why doesn’t change happen?’ Systems, whether in thought, politics, or the economy, can be remarkably resistant to change, like the mature forests discussed in Chapter 1. I like to get at the root of the ‘i-word’ (inertia) through three other ‘i-words’: institutions, ideas, and interests. A combination of these often underlies the resistance to change, even when evidence makes a compelling case.


Sometimes the obstacle to change lies in the institutions through which decisions are made or implemented. Even when no-one in particular benefits materially from defending the status quo, management systems and corporate culture can be powerful obstacles to change. Although I love Oxfam dearly, I also wrestle with its institutional blockages, including multi-layered processes of sign-off and a tendency to make decisions in ever-expanding loops of emails (p.42) where it is never clear who has the final say. I guess I need to work on my internal power analysis.


Often inertia is rooted in the conceptions and prejudices held by decision makers, even when their own material interest is not at risk. In Malawi, researchers found that ideas about ‘the poor’—the ‘deserving’ vs. the ‘undeserving’ poor—had a significant impact on individuals’ readiness to support cash transfers to people living in poverty. The elites interviewed—which included civil society, religious leaders, and academics as well as politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector leaders—all believed that redistributive policies make the poor lazy (or lazier). The overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of cash transfers made no difference; neither did the fact that the elites stand to lose little from such reforms (and could even gain electorally, in the case of politicians).23

I witnessed the obstructive power of ideas during my brief spell working in DFID’s International Trade Department. We received a visit from a senior official at the Treasury, worried that we were going off message. Radiating the suave self-assurance of a Whitehall mandarin, he informed us that, while he was happy to discuss UK trade policy, we should first agree that there were certain ‘universal truths’, namely that trade liberalization leads to more trade; more trade leads to less poverty. Both claims were highly debatable, but no-one was going to change the mandarin’s habit of regurgitating what he had learned at university some decades back. I recalled Keynes’ wonderful line: ‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’24 Not much room for evidence-based policy making there.

(p.43) It is always possible, of course, that madmen in authority can be persuaded to change their minds, but it is uphill work: a steady drip-drip of contrary evidence, public criticism, pressure from their peers, and exposure to failures and crises all help. In the end, I fear that really deep-rooted ideas only change with generational turnover.


The writer Upton Sinclair once remarked ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’25 Powerful players who stand to lose money or status from reform can be very adept at blocking it. Especially when a small number of players stand to lose a lot, whereas a large number of players stand to gain a little, the blockers are likely to be much better organized than the proponents. Billions of people could benefit from a reduction in carbon emissions that reduces the threat of climate change, but they will have to overcome opposition from a handful of fossil fuel companies first.

Interests are not always malign—after all, a great deal of progressive social change comes from poor people fighting for their own interests. Nor are interests always material. Masood Mulk, who runs the Sarhad Rural Support Programme in Pakistan, told me a wonderful story that harks back to the importance of psychology and personal relations:

I remember a valley where all the poor united to build the road, which they believed would change their lives totally. Unfortunately the road had to pass through the land of a person who had once been powerful in the valley, and he was totally unwilling to allow it. Frustrated, the villagers asked me to come to the valley and go to his house to resolve the problem. It was a remote place so we flew in a helicopter. For hours I tried to persuade him to be generous and give his permission but he would not budge. He did not like the way the communities behaved now that they were powerful. In the end he said he would relent, but only if we would fly around his house three times in the helicopter. I realised that it was all about egos. The villagers were unwilling to go to him because (p.44) their pride did not allow it, and he was not willing to concede to them unless he could reemphasise his importance.26

In recent years, the glacial pace of progress on climate change illustrates all three i’s to a depressing extent: vested interests lobby to frustrate attempts to reduce carbon emissions and support spurious ‘science’ to throw mud at the evidence that underpins the call for action; an unshakable belief in the value of economic growth limits any attempts to imagine a ‘beyond-growth’ approach to the economy; and global institutions governed by national politicians with short time horizons are poorly suited to solving the greatest collective action problem in history. In December 2015 that may have changed with the Paris Agreement on climate change—a case study on pages 171–175 explores how that change took place.


Walk into any household, village, boardroom, or government office, and you will enter a subtle and pervasive force field of power that links and influences everyone present. Friends and enemies, parents and children, bosses and employees, rulers and ruled. No matter the political system, power is always present. As the joke from the Soviet era put it: Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it’s the other way around.

Studying and understanding that force field is an essential part of trying to influence change. Though largely invisible to the newcomer, power sets parameters on how social and political relationships evolve. Who are likely allies or enemies of change? Who are the uppers and lowers in this relationship? Who listens or defers to whom? How have they treated each other in the past?

Starting with power should induce a welcome sense of optimism about the possibilities for change. Many of the great success stories in (p.45) human progress—universal suffrage, access to knowledge, freedom from sickness, oppression and hunger, are at their root, a story of the progressive redistribution of power.

Thinking in terms of power brings the true drama of development to life. In contrast to the drab portrayal of poor people as passive ‘victims’ (of disasters, of poverty, of famine) or as ‘beneficiaries’ (of aid, of social services), ‘empowerment’ places poor people’s own actions centre stage. In the words of Bangladeshi academic Naila Kabeer, ‘From a state of powerlessness that manifests itself in a feeling of “I cannot”; activism contains an element of collective self-confidence that results in a feeling of “We can”.’27

Readers who are starting to feel addled by the number of frameworks I have thrown at them may wish to consider a crude but extremely useful way to keep power in mind when going about your daily business, devised by Robert Chambers, one of the most interesting and original thinkers in development. In any relationship, ask yourself who are the ‘uppers’ and who the ‘lowers’28 and how that affects their behaviours. Chambers’ schema also captures an awkward fact: What do a congenital wife beater, a devout Christian or Muslim, and a lifelong trade union or NGO activist have in common? They can all be the same person; the same individuals can be uppers in one context and lowers in another.

Now that we have explored the constituent elements of power and systems thinking, some readers may wish to review the power and systems approach I set out in summary form at the start of the book. For those who choose to soldier on, there is a full explanation in the final chapter. (p.46)

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

R. Chambers, Revolutions in Development Inquiry (London: Earthscan, 2008).

M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–77 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

S. Lukes, Power: A Radical View (2nd edition) (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

G. Mulgan, Good and Bad Power (London: Allen Lane, 2006).

A. Rao, R. Stuart, and D. Kelleher, Gender at Work: Organizational Change for Equality (West Harford: Kumarian Press, 1999).

J. Rowlands, Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras (Oxford: Oxfam UK and Ireland, 1997).

Further Surfing

Understanding Power for Social Change: The Power Cube http://www.powercube.net/.


(1) Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(2) See Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller, A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation (Oklahoma City: World Neighbors, 2002). See also Powercube—Understanding Power for Social Change, http://www.powercube.net/.

(3) Ron Suskind, ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’, The New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/faith-certainty-and-the-presidency-of-george-w-bush.html.

(4) Quoted in Jenny Pearce, From ‘Empowerment’ to ‘Transforming Power’: Can a Power Analysis Improve Development Policy, Practice and Impact? (Madrid: FRIDE, 2006), http://fride.org/uploads/Empowerment_Jenny.Pearce_EN.pdf.

(5) Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–77 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 155.

(6) Author interview, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, June 2014.

(7) Duncan Green, ‘Where Does Power Lie in a Fragile State Like Eastern Congo? What Does it Mean for Aid Organizations?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 13 June 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/who-has-power-in-a-fragile-state-like-eastern-congo-what-does-it-mean-for-aid-organizations/.

(8) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

(9) Jo Rowlands, Questioning Empowerment: Working with Women in Honduras (Oxford: Oxfam UK and Ireland, 1997).

(10) Duncan Green, The ‘We Can’ Campaign in South Asia, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-we-can-campaign-in-south-asia-338472.

(11) Quoted in ‘Change Making: How we adopt new attitudes, beliefs and practices.’ Insights from the We Can Campaign, 2011, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/~/media/Files/policy_and_practice/gender_justice/we_can/change_making.ashx.

(12) Duncan Green, The Raising Her Voice Nepal Programme, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-raising-her-voice-nepal-programme-338476.

(13) Joshua Busby, ‘Bono Made Jesse Helms Cry: Jubilee 2000, Debt Relief, and Moral Action in International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly 51, (2007): pp. 247–75, https://www.rgkcenter.org/sites/default/files/file/research/ISQU_451.pdf.

(14) Roman Krznaric, ‘How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary perspectives for human development’, Oxfam Research Report (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 2007), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/how-change-happens-interdisciplinary-perspectives-for-human-development-112539.

(15) Roman Krznaric, Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It (London: Penguin Random House, 2014).

(16) The Empathy Museum, http://www.empathymuseum.com/.

(17) Duncan Green, The Raising Her Voice Nepal Programme, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-raising-her-voice-nepal-programme-338476.

(18) Robert Chambers, Provocations for Development (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2012), p. 108.

(19) David Hudson and Adrian Leftwich, From Political Economy to Political Analysis (Birmingham: Developmental Leadership Program, 2014), http://www.dlprog.org/publications/from-political-economy-to-political-analysis.php.

(20) Celine Charveriat, ‘Power Analysis Checklist and Methodology’ (unpublished paper, Oxfam International, 2005).

(21) Duncan Green, ‘What Makes a Perfect Short Field Trip (and a Top Village Power Analysis)?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 7 February 2014, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-makes-a-perfect-short-field-trip-and-a-top-village-power-analysis/.

(22) Duncan Green, ‘Why Demanding “Political Will” is Lazy and Unproductive’, From Poverty to Power blog, 5 November 2009, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/why-demanding-political-will-is-lazy-and-unproductive/.

(23) Heather Marquette, personal email communications, 2015.

(24) John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1936), pp. 383–4.

(25) Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

(26) Masood UL Mulk, personal email communications, January 2016.

(27) Dighe & Jain (1989) ‘Women’s Development Programme: Some Insights into Participatory Evaluation’, Prashasnika vol. 18 nos. 1–4, pp. 77–98, quoted in Naila Kabeer (1994) Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, London: Verso, p. 262.

(28) Duncan Green, ‘Robert Chambers on the Fifth Power (the Power to Empower)’, From Poverty to Power blog, 29 November 2012, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/robert-chambers-on-the-fifth-power-the-power-to-empower/.