How to exercise power in development practices

Development and power are inherently connected; development is about bringing a positive change and  aims to decrease inequality, both of which are strongly connected to constellations of power. But what is power, actually? Power is seen by some as ‘the ability to make or resist change’ or ‘to get what we want’[1] and is exercised in different forms in development projects, programs and initiatives. But how is power exercised in development practices? We can distinguish between four different types of power[2].

Power over: Capacity to get other to act and think in line with one’s interests

You are able to get another to do something that s/he otherwise would not do. It often associated with force and coercion and considered in a negative light; power results in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. In development projects, this can take various forms. This type of power is common in donor – recipient relations. Control over resources allows the donor to influence the content and implementation of a program, even when the recipient has different ideas on a subject. Control over decision making, agenda setting and preference setting are possible ways in which power over another actor is exercised.

Power to: Capacity to act and change the world

Every person has a unique potential to form their lives and the world around them. People can use their knowledge, skills and resources to make a change. ‘Power to’ is an agency focused approach looking at the capacities of people and how to improve them. As the picture shows, a focus on the capacities of disabled people can enable him/her in various ways.

Power within: Capacity to question status quo and envision possibilities for change

Besides capacities, people should be conscious that they have agency. They should be aware of their ability to act and their ability touse their knowledge, skills and resources to make a change. Change and development only starts when critical consciousness is raised. It is based on a liberation ideology[3] and focuses on empowerment. It is the capacity to have hope and ability to re-imagine the world and raise aspirations for change. It focuses on individual or collective sense of self-worth, value and dignity[4].

Power with: Capacity to achieve things that individually cannot be achieved

‘Power with’ recognizes the power of the collective. It is based on the belief that only together you can prosper. It focuses on building bridges across different interests, experiences and knowledge to bring together resources to make a change. It looks for the common ground, because it acknowledges the synergy that emerges in cooperation with others and in partnerships and alliances. It is often used for advocacy and lobby purposes. While an individual cannot solve large issue, such as climate change, all humans together can solve it if they come together and coordinate their actions.

What does this mean for development and which one to promote?

If development aims to ‘empower’ people, it might seem logical to pick a more ‘productive’ exercise of power and reject a ‘power over’ exercise. ‘Power to’ aims to give people the ability to act, while ‘power within’ refers to a certain mindset. These empowering and cooperative exercises of power give those we want to help the means and mindset to bring a positive change. However, these development approaches also can shift responsibility for development to the most vulnerable people. It can remove any form of culpability from wider structural processes. Therefore, the other productive power - ‘power with’ – is important. Through cooperation and aligning interests an enabling environment emerges. However, ‘power over’ - in the form of carrots and sticks - can also be necessary and valuable for development. Sometimes stakeholders benefit from the status quo and need to be convinced through force or persuasion. Therefore, different exercises of power are preferable in varying situations. To paraphrase the famous quote: “power tells us who gets what, how, where and when”[5], to choose the how of power exercise in development, we should focus on the who tries to get what and when. We should always be mindful of power relations in international development practices, and whenever possible assist those who are in a weak position to shape their future according to their needs and wishes.

[1] Nye, J. S. 2013. “Hard, Soft, and Smart Power.” In The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, edited by A. F. Cooper, J. Heine, and R. C. Thakur, 559–574. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] There are various other forms of exercise of power that emerge from literature. For the purpose of this blog, I have chosen these four.

[3] See Paolo Freire for the liberation ideology

[5] Nye, J. S. 2013. “Hard, Soft, and Smart Power.” In The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, edited by A. F. Cooper, J. Heine, and R. C. Thakur, 559–574. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Picture by aesthetics of crisis