Burkhard Gnärig

12 December, 2017

We Need to Come to Terms with the Concept of Power


When civil society organisations (CSOs) speak about power they usually refer to the power of others, and they refer to power in negative terms: power is used to oppress and exploit, power corrupts. However, such a simplistic and prejudiced understanding of power is an obstacle to CSOs’ endeavours to achieve their missions. Our sector needs to change its understanding of power in order to increase its effectiveness.

Embracing POWER as a positive concept

When looking up the definition of power in a dictionary we find that power is simply “the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way”[1]. Power as such is neither positive nor negative. It is necessary in order “to do something”, be it good or bad. This means CSOs need power to achieve the positive aims they are working for. They are part of the eternal power struggle between good and bad, egotism and altruism, short-term gains and long-term sustainability, etc. In this context it is not only necessary for CSOs to strive for maximum power, it is ethically desirable, as long as CSOs use their power consistently and effectively to attain their mission.

Appreciating the POWER we have

In order to use their power effectively, CSOs have to learn to appreciate the power they have. All too often, I hear comments like “we are only a drop in the ocean”, “we have to be honest about our limitations”, “we don’t have any power at all”, etc. While it is desirable to be modest about our achievements, too much understatement also allows us to lower our ambitions. I once participated in the launch of a Save the Children health programme in Ethiopia worth several hundred million dollars. Being able to provide financial support at such a level clearly puts a CSO in a very powerful position. Where and how the organisation spends such a significant sum influences the course of national health policies.

The middle ground between understatement and overestimation of our position is just right: CSOs should undertake a sober analysis of the power they have and use that power as effectively as possible. In one of my earlier posts in September 2015 I wrote: “We need to become more ambitious and more effective in turning our common dreams into real power, and in directing this power much more strategically towards our missions.” I still believe that this is essential.

Reviewing the distribution of power in our own organisations

The fact that our sector has largely avoided looking at its own power, has led to neglecting the question of power distribution within CSOs. Especially international CSOs, which usually raise their income in the Global North and spend it in the Global South, have to take a closer look at the power distribution in their own organisations. I recently heard a CEO of one of the major international CSOs say: “Our largest fundraising country is USA, our largest programme country is India – something must be wrong in our set-up when nearly all the power lies with the fundraisers and so little with the programmes that aim to achieve our mission.”

In a post of September 2017, I looked at the ongoing efforts of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) to reform their governance and found that all too often reform processes focus on changing governance structures or Board compositions, while not addressing the underlying power relations. As long as power in international CSOs is distributed in such a way that decisions about programmes in India – or other countries of the Global South are taken in the USA – or other countries of the Global North – the organisations invite criticism of both the effectiveness and legitimacy of their work.

Reallocating power where it best serves our mission

If we look at where power in international CSOs is located today, we will find that it is not where it would best serve the organisations’ missions. In the organisations I know, power predominantly lies with those who raise funds rather than with those who implement programmes; it lies at the national,  rather than at the local (and global) levels and it still lies in the Global North rather than in the Global South.

Conducting reorganisations, management or governance reforms without looking at the underlying power distribution will neither lead to better effectiveness, nor to more legitimacy. We need to start processes of organisational transformation with a sober analysis of where power lies in our organisation and where it should lie in order to make sure we achieve our mission. Shifting power is always a very difficult undertaking, as those who hold power are rarely prepared to let it go. However, the future of our organisations very much depends on our ability to shift power to where it makes the biggest positive difference.

The International Civil Society Centre will focus its 2018 annual project Empowering Southern Voices in ICSOs on the question how those who are supposed to benefit from CSOs’ work can be fully included in their decision making.

[1] Oxford Living Dictionaries https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/power

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