May 4, 2023

Flipping power dynamics in development: what do we know works?

Locally led development was named by experts as a top area for increased action by Australia in our recent Pulse Check. No longer a nice-to-do, it was identified as a key indicator of development progress, and critical to genuine partnerships in the region.

But with the high demand, there are challenges to achieving this. Just last week USAID Administrator Samantha Power admitted that their bold localisation targets will be hard to reach with current spending. Closer to home, Pulse Check experts were clear-eyed in admitting that this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the development program.

Despite these challenges, there’s a blueprint we can follow from programs that are doing this well. Often, it involves a flipping of power dynamics – so this week we asked experts at the centre of these programs to tell us more, and what lessons we can learn.

Fremden S Yanhambath
Director, Vanuatu Skills Partnership

As a ni-Vanuatu, I have seen so many development projects, managing contractors and consultants establish themselves in my country with the assumption that they have the answers to solve deeply entrenched structural issues. Often presenting as ‘white saviours’, these projects and their agents put in place power dynamics that set themselves up as superior because they have control over donor funding, management positions and technical resources. However, so often, I have watched these same projects fail or, even worse, directly cause harm, as they do not engage with the complexity of the local political economy. This political economy – which is made up of a web of belief systems, political and tribal allegiances, deep-seated corruption and incentives – is where the real drivers of power lie, and most aid projects that I see operate in bubbles disconnected from these realities.

As the Director of the Vanuatu Skills Partnership, a DFAT-funded investment, I have had the privilege of seeing these conventional power dynamics ‘flipped’.

What this means, and why the Partnership has succeeded in influencing structural reform, is that it is the local team who are fully in charge of implementation. We are not restricted by externally devised project plans. We are not directed by foreign managers. We, who live and breathe our own local political economy, are able to use our contextual savvy, our networks, our relationships to build buy-in and momentum for the changes that we want to see in our country. Because it is our country – and development will only come about when we lead it.

Fremden is a nation-builder whose modelling of what humble, servant leadership looks like is driving a wave of reform in Vanuatu. He is the first-ever ni-Vanuatu Team Leader of a DFAT-funded program that has been described a one of Australia’s highest performing investments in the region. At the Lab, we see that Fremden’s insights are gold for a development industry seeking greater effectiveness and relevance.

Mereani Rokotuibau
Executive Director, Balance of Power

Knowing the powerholders and how they work is fundamental to influencing, let alone flipping, power dynamics for development. For Balance of Power, the initiative I co-lead, we are focused on shifting gender power dynamics for inclusive leadership in the Pacific – a very sensitive space.

Here are some things that have worked for us.

Development initiatives must be locally led – with leaders who understand the context and structures, are respected in their communities, and who, based on this, can identify entry points for influence. Flipping power cannot be achieved by an individual but rather collectively – which is essentially how we live and work in our communities. It requires a team of local change-makers, supporting each other to strategically shift the status quo. At the same time, these local leaders need to be open to working with external players who can have useful technical contributions and provide a different perspective.

Fostering strategic relationships with influencers and powerholders that are based on mutual respect and trust is important. This means a relationship where there is genuine commitment to seeing mutual benefits; where risks are also mutually shared; and where there is a clear purpose to collaborate for the greater good and not personal gain.

Flipping power dynamics in the gender space needs courageous leaders who step out of their comfort zones to work with ‘non usual’ partners. It calls for innovation in the framing of conversations and implementation approaches to generate real buy-in from powerholders. This also means working behind the scenes, for the most part.

Finally, flipping the power dynamics takes time – we need to pace ourselves and be ready for the long haul.

Mereani’s quiet demeanour belies the powerful agent of change that she is for gender equality, both in her native country of Fiji and the region more broadly. The Lab loves that Mereani is always seeking to build up others’ leadership, and working tirelessly in sensitive and savvy ways to nudge and influence for real results.

Anna Winoto
Indonesia Country Representative and Strategic Advisor, Abt Associates

To successfully flip the power dynamics in international development, partner governments and local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) must be empowered to lead and drive initiatives from the very beginning.

Traditionally, donors have the upper hand because they bring substantive resources to the host country to help tackle the ‘wicked problems’, often driven by diplomacy objectives and geopolitical interests. However, power relations are changing as middle-income countries (such as Indonesia) build their economies and rely less on donor funds.

Reflecting on locally led programs in Indonesia, such as AIPJ, MAMPU and KOMPAK, some good practices emerge. Time and time again, we see that when partner government and local CSOs drive the design, they define problems and find solutions that are contextually appropriate. When they lead the strategy and decision-making, we gain strong ownership toward the program’s results. When they take part in the monitoring and evaluation, we build learning and adaptive capacity. When we invest in core capabilities of local actors, we are better able to facilitate reforms.

So, as contractors we have a responsibility to continuously reflect and evolve the role we play. We must pivot to become a ‘critical friend’ to partner governments and CSOs, with competencies such as stakeholder engagement, facilitation, political nous, and networks become increasingly important. As evidenced by our Indonesian programs, we know this approach ‘works’.

Only by flipping the power dynamics will we see the long-lasting impact we seek in the countries we operate. And outcomes that are more effective, more equitable, and most importantly, more sustainable.

Anna’s 20+ years of experience leading teams in complex development programs sings in her work at Abt Associates. She’s a champion of locally led development and her rallying cry of ‘I am local and I am good’ from the 2022 Australasian Aid Conference has really resonated across the industry. At the Lab, we love Anna’s poise, consummate professionalism and dedication to positive change in Indonesia.

Read more