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Engagement with communities: power at the heart of the matter

by Sunit Bagree, Independent Consultant
11 March 2009

In Issue 39 of Humanitarian Exchange (June 2008), Julian Srodecki of World Vision contributed an article entitled ‘Improving efficiency and effectiveness through increased accountability to communities: A case study of World Vision’s tsunami response in Sri Lanka’. The article outlines how the creation of a Humanitarian Accountability Team (HAT) in Sri Lanka led to various benefits, including increased financial efficiency, better teamwork among World Vision staff and improved coordination with other NGOs. On the fundamental issue of engagement with communities, however, Srodecki is far from convincing.

Srodecki explains that HAT was meant to ‘… engage with communities to provide information, listen to their concerns… and give people a greater voice in [World Vision’s] LTRT’s [Lanka Tsunami Response Team] programming’. But whose voices are being heard? What is the quality of information that is generated and how is information being communicated? Power relations between and within a variety of actors at different levels (see Figure 1) have a strong influence on these questions, which are not adequately considered.

Four types of power

  • Power over: the power of the strong over the weak. This power is often hidden – for example what elites manage to keep off the table of political debate.
  • Power to: meaning the capability to decide actions and carry them out.
  • Power with: collective power, through organisation, solidarity and joint action.
  • Power within: personal self-confidence, often linked to culture, religion or other aspects of collective identity, which influence what thoughts and actions appear legitimate or acceptable.
  • Source: Duncan Green (2008) From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World, Oxfam International.

    The fact is that people are vulnerable to disasters and endure human rights violations due to a lack of power. No amount of repetition of words like ‘accountability’ (or ‘partnership’, another favourite) will change this basic truism. Yet using these words without thinking through (or caring about) the consequences may act as a smokescreen and thus divert attention from the need to tackle asymmetrical power relations head-on in order to stand a chance of ‘walking the walk’ and not just ‘talking the talk’.

    While Srodecki does briefly consider power relations among World Vision staff in the context of receiving and dealing with complaints, his recommendation of an expatriate team leader is strongly questionable. More importantly, it is extremely unclear whether unequal power relations among community members or between them and World Vision have been engaged with in any significant way by HAT. In other words, what is the nature – not merely the content – of the complaints that are being received by World Vision staff?

    It is one thing to say to those with relatively less power: “You can criticize me and my organisation” and an entirely different thing to repeatedly say to them: “My organisation and I not only welcome criticism, but actually need criticism, in order to improve at an optimal rate.” It appears that humanitarian and development organisations are fairly good at communicating the first sentiment, but not so strong at communicating the second. Moreover, unless these approaches are combined with raising awareness and understanding of human rights and power, then there will likely be much confusion.

    Even the limited ‘bearing witness’ type of advocacy so well employed by NGOs as Médecins Sans Frontières will suffer due to the problems highlighted above. But more wide-ranging and comprehensive advocacy strategies that rights-based organizations claim to (but rarely do) employ will be severely compromised. The politics of injustice should be what most profoundly binds vulnerable groups to rights-based organisations and vice-versa. Yet unless the very real power imbalances that exist between these (potential) allies are recognized and addressed, moving beyond humanitarianism and successfully claiming human rights together in a truly equitable and accountable manner will only take place in the realms of liberal delusion.

    Understanding and acting on power asymmetries in an open and honest fashion is essential if vulnerable people – and any progressive actors who wish to stand with them – are to challenge the structural factors underpinning and perpetuating human insecurity. The difficulties in making progress in this arena do not make it any less critical, and certainly do not excuse how widely these issues are only superficially engaged with. Srodecki says that ‘… a participatory evaluation with communities found that they valued World Vision’s new approach…’. Yet questions regarding whose concerns were listened to and how they were empowered to speak out casts this statement in a questionable light. Moreover, the emphasis given by Srodecki on prompt and effective follow-up – so important and often a major weakness of international NGOs – becomes somewhat academic until and unless these issues are properly dealt with.

    Dealing with power relations will enable international NGOs, their partners and communities to overcome the false ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ dichotomy. A dynamic relationship between different levels, one that roots everything in vulnerable people’s experiences but appreciates natural comparative advantage when it comes to advocacy, is necessary. Superficial attempts to improve downward accountability are becoming increasingly employed by NGOs as a means of fending off the criticisms of both those who are traditionally sceptical of them, and those who better understand how NGOs have been and continue to be manipulated to serve power.

    World Vision’s establishment of a HAT in Sri Lanka does appear to be a step in the right direction to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery. But it is not nearly enough. Not if the aim is to achieve genuine mutual accountability with people in need. And not if, in the longer term, mutual accountability must be achieved in the context of taking sides with each to address the root causes and dynamics of poverty, armed conflict and environmental destruction.

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