February 21, 2020
Power. Noun. The ability to control people or things.
Working with young people daily is a privilege. This unique positioning of being trusted with stories of struggle, anguish and harm can take its toll on one’s wellbeing. However, it can be a healing for one that still lives the same struggles and anguish. Sometimes it can be an escape from one’s own story, in service for another’s empowerment. In reality, many of us cannot escape because we do not have control. We are told of our power and the potential it has. More often, having to prove it before we can truly harness it in a more meaningful way in our work and lives. We have to navigate our struggles whilst strengthening our skills (read capacity building) and safeguarding our dignity (read looking for income). This is the premise of being successful and achieving one’s dreams: hard work, sacrifice and making it, whether in corporate, development, government or civil society. In an ecosystem of merit, organisational cultural fit, political expediency and strategic alignment to dominant visions for society; the ability to articulate power and what it looks like can be narrowed down to money.
Many who inherently have the means of power argue for this individualism in addressing the world’s challenges. Inherent beneficiaries of capitalism stress how the responsibility of the individual is often viewed under the assumption that collective action will result in impact. This is true in an ideal environment that is enabling, just, equal and equitable: four things that aren’t so in many countries, homes and workplaces. The positioning of me having the same power as that of a Bank CEO or Chair Emeritus Professor is highly misplaced. Even if I were to call myself a CEO or have a doctorate we cannot go by the assumption that our voices are equal and opinions bear the same weight. I see how being equal emanates from human rights standards recognizing universality and equality for all people and how democracy is built on the ability of everyone being able to vote. However, the right to health is not so universal or equal. Similarly, not everyone either registers, runs for or ends up voting. This is because we do not live in an ideal world. Speaking of power within an individual and a collective is no longer ideal if the ability to control others or things does not rest within that individual or collective. What controls our un-ideal world is usually money and that is the problem with power. Thus, we see it manifest in strategic plans that control the future of a community or cause. All whilst controlling who gets the money, to what extent and how it should be used.
Power. Noun. Political control of a country or an area.
Many activists challenge this kind of power despite operating under the first definition of power. Working within the constraints of over-regulation, censorship and having to be apolitical. Apolitical in holding their decorum before human rights abusers in formal advocacy spaces. Apolitical in managing relations despite delayed tranche payments and consistent triggers of injustices they survived whenever patriarchy rears its ugly head when someone seeks help. Apolitical for fear of being viewed as un-objective, emotional or too angry to have a voice in decision making. We are often reminded of how our work should not be political, especially when signing financing agreements. Yet it is politics that resulted in this global gag rule. It is politics that influences how government budgets are allocated and what taxes are charged to whom and what. Similarly reflecting the role in which individuals and the collectives they represent, perpetuate inequality and injustice of others. Whether economic, social or legal; there are systemic impediments to how power can be harnessed and impactful. Many nations that have had leadership transitions emanating from mass actions have been left reeling from the economic implications of sanctions, illicit financial flows and destroyed infrastructure, with populations still paying the price of injustice far beyond the mass action and leadership transition. This is because the systems and structures perpetually remain in place.
The culture of denying groups their rights or promoting hate speech online will remain if the fundamentals of how we gather, narrate our history or produce knowledge remain the same. If the focus remains on power as a person and not the institutions or collective ideology, processes and tools of work, even when they are replaced, then we are not doing the work that is required to create change. If the solution is still anchored on power, then it would only mean one either has to give it up or have it taken away from them.
In the same way migrants and workers have to navigate this complexity, if they were to claim their power and exercise it for their own cause; what would this look like? What framework or collective being would they formulate in an equitable and equal way? What would justify one getting more than the other when starting at the same structural level of existing? In what context or environment would be ideal to thrive in spite of the trauma and harm experienced? These are the questions I ask myself when trying to figure out what and how an ideal world that leaves no one behind can be.
Power as Proximity.
This concept summed up my presentation and experience at the 2019 Accountable Now annual workshop. It can be viewed simply as geographic proximity to where decisions are made. Whether being resident or a citizen, immediately placing an advantage of eligibility for board membership, a role or funding. Whether regional or international impact reach; the closest to the decisions inherently benefit from being closer to the money. Whether it would be sharing a social circle or coffee shop with a decision maker; the proximity can play a role in advancing one’s cause. Many INGOs moved international head offices to the Global South yet, large portions of their funding remained in the Global North. Thus, the control of which development models and definitions of success in impact are used remain within the Global North as do the behaviors and beliefs that dictate the politics of who and what is included in the harnessing and strengthening of a community’s power. Having a Global South local co-facilitator/consultant or advisory committee acknowledges that there are shortcomings of representation and agency in decision making. The ability to recognize this and act on it, is a power on its own. It is so inherent to many of us that we do not see how having a Global South component to an intervention or decision-making structure/process is only partly helping us to shift the power.
Proximities of race, gender, education, language and ‘fit’ continue to be anchored in the ways of work despite provisions in mitigating bias or preference. I think of them as the air: inescapable and invisible. Just as I do not have control over the debt I secured for my education, or just as someone is unable to exercise their rights because of poverty, oppressors/perpetuators cannot separate themselves from inherent aspects of privilege or power: that what they learned/know is best or that they are better placed to curate knowledge and review what success looks like for society. Yes, we can all work towards managing what we cannot control but it does not change the culture of who’s words matter more than the other. Or who’s existence is safer from violence than others. This is largely due to these proximities having been built over centuries, beyond and within individuals and collectives. Yet when we strive to change these in organizations, academia or government; we expect solutions to manifest in the short or medium term. We cannot reverse generational injustices that play out in who we prefer to date or fund. These are norms that reflect the politics of colonialism and capitalism. They deny acknowledging that power cannot be shared if we are not at the same level of institutional backing, resources and benefit in history. Equality does not matter if these proximities are not central to curricula, control and change. Whether in reparations, intersectionality or equitable redress: the proximities perpetuated by norms need to be balanced out – more ideally eliminated.
Continuing conversations around this can certainly create ideas on how to better address the world’s challenges in economies, governance and society. More importantly, they can lead to better ways of consciously working towards transforming how, when and to whom money is deployed and inclusive/affirmative politics can be promoted in decision making.