Power and privilege- taking a look at ourselves

Reposting today’s HPA blog from Martin about readdressing power balances internally, and in the wider development sector.

Two years ago we worked with others on a report that argued the development sector, through its focus on aid, was obscuring the facts about how poverty is created. It was also reinforcing dubious power imbalances between people and nations that ultimately undermine the ends we seek as a sector.


An infographic from the Honest Accounts report highlighting the uneven flow of funds in and out of Africa. This is just one manifestation of unequal power relations worldwide.

It’s no secret that these power imbalances are replicated across the Northern INGO sector itself. Sometimes this is reflected in our relationships with Southern partners, sometimes in lack of employee diversity, sometimes in appalling representations of the South in charity communications – and no doubt sometimes in others things too.

One of the key reasons I’m proud to work for Health Poverty Action is our awareness of power.  All our work is focussed on challenging the power imbalances that undermine health, whether that is working with communities who are denied their right to health due to ethnicity, or campaigning to address the global structural causes of poverty.

We see power as central to all our work. Yet, like most Northern INGOS, when it comes to addressing power and privilege in our own organisational structure, we have got serious work to do. Are we communicating accurately about the causes of poverty? Are we advocating effectively alongside others? And are we helping to dismantle some of the barriers to employment in the sector and encouraging diversity in our staff?


It’s about time we found out. As Teju Cole says “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

So, we are embarking on some active self-reflection. This will cover the way we communicate, staff diversity and how we advocate alongside Southern partners.  First up – our communications. Are we effectively telling the story about people and how poverty is made, or are we inadvertently reinforcing some of the power imbalances we seek to destroy?

We’ve decided to blog about different aspects of this work as we go along, in the hope that this will expose ourselves to critical feedback, help us to get a range of external perspectives, and learn from others.

We’d really welcome your honest feedback and ideas for blogs, or areas of discussion. Just post them below, Tweet us @HealthPoverty or Facebook message us. Or you can send us an email to media@healthpovertyaction.org

Wish us luck.

Martin Drewry


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How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere

Excellent piece from Karen Attiah in the Washington Post, for those who didn’t see it this week. Good in so many directions at once – for instance:

The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony.

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Frankie Boyle does development, colonialism, racism

Boyle commentsNothing left to say after such a brilliant piece, except read it in full on the Guardian website here. One highlight:

Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.

In a further nod to satire, Comic Relief this year focused on Malawi and Uganda. I didn’t see any acknowledgement that Britain had been the colonial power in those countries. “Thanks for the gold, lads, thanks for the diamonds. We had a whip-round and got you a fishing rod.”

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Drugs, Poverty and Development – Policy Solutions?

Panel Discussion
“Drugs, Poverty & Development – Policy Solutions?”
26 February 2015 | 17:30 to 18:30| IPU ROOM

The British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union (BGIPU) and Health Poverty Action (HPA) invite you to a discussion on drugs policy as a driver of poverty and its impact on human rights and international development. HPA will be launching a report that highlights these issues.
The discussion will be followed by a drinks reception.

Chair:Lord Rea, Former Deputy Opposition Spokesperson for Health and International Development

Baroness Meacher, Chair of the Drug Policy Reform All-Party Parliamentary Group
Catherine Martin, Policy Advisor, Health Poverty Action
Sir Keith Morris, Former Ambassador to Colombia
Jeremy Corbyn MP, Vice-Chair of the Human Rights All-Party Parliamentary Group
Dr Julia Buxton, School of Public Policy at Central European University in Budapest

RSVP: ostlers@parliament.uk or 02072193011

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Embrace the complex and temper the ego!

Two reports that really stood out for me last year were Honest Accounts? (by a group of African and UK NGOs) and The State of Finance for Developing Countries, 2014 (by Eurodad). Both reports represent highly impressive attempts to calculate and compare the resources flowing in and out of Africa (the former report) and ‘developing’ countries (the latter one). What are their headline findings? Africa faces a net annual loss of $58.2 billion. And ‘developing’ countries have lost more than double the financial resources that they have received as new inflows since the financial crisis.

While different elements of these reports may be debated, it is clear that they contribute to efforts to put aid into proper context. Unfortunately, most Northern civil society organisations (CSOs) working on global poverty seem to measure their government’s concern for poor people according to the size of its aid budget. Such a mindset is tricky to change. In part, this is because many of these groups financially benefit from aid, or at least aspire to obtain official funding (my previous blog engages with this issue). Beyond this self-interest, I think they possess a general aversion to complex stories (even when talking about aid, the vast majority of CSOs focus on its quantity rather than the more intricate yet important issue of its quality).

Another complex story is that of internal politics in countries of the Global South (which in most cases, it is worth noting, has been shaped by colonialism). In my view, the nature of domestic political systems, and in particular the ways in which formal and informal institutions function, is central to the existence of widespread absolute poverty in these countries. Many have made this argument, particularly in regard to Africa, but perhaps none as powerfully as Matthew Lockwood in his landmark book The State They’re In.

I think that this view is one that many working on global poverty issues in the UK (and in the Global North more generally) find difficult to accept. In part this is due to it being a complex story, but also because such an understanding means recognising that we’re not the main actors in this struggle. While actors based in the Global North can do many useful things to help, it is their counterparts in the Global South that have the most prominent role to play in overcoming poverty.

If this reality is accepted, however, then Northern civil society can properly prioritise its areas of focus. Two key areas emerge from the preceding analysis: supporting local efforts for just and effective governance, and addressing the truly important issues that Northern governments have power over. Whatever else CSOs may work on, these two key areas should be considered cross-cutting priorities.

Any activities to help improve governance must be realistic. Avoiding the imposition of ‘best practices’ that do not fit particular contexts and are not considered relevant by local actors (both those implementing reforms and those supposed to be benefiting from them) is crucial. Similarly, as an IDS study argues, facilitating the efforts of our allies and partners to influence the interests and incentives of powerful domestic actors may be important before more ambitious reforms are attempted. In everything that we do, we must listen to the poor, particularly the most vulnerable amongst them, and build their capacities and encourage them to be critical.

Aid can obviously be one source of resources to enable this work. However, if aid is to achieve even its limited potential, major changes are necessary. The aid effectiveness agenda is only a starting point. Uncomfortable yet important threats such as aid potentially contributing to a new debt crisis, as well as it being a vehicle for (undemocratic and often damaging) economic policy conditionality, must be confronted. Going further still, the entire aid system needs to be made relevant to the 21st century (‘Aid 2.0’), and ways of working need to embrace experimentation, learning and adaptation.

At the same time, Northern actors are very restricted in the extent to which they can positively shape governance in the Global South. Northern CSOs have far more ability to influence those issues over which their own governments wield genuine power. If they truly care about overcoming global poverty, CSOs in the Global North should prioritise working on such issues based on their importance. The research by the group of African and UK NGOs and Eurodad points to the way forwards: far more resources need to be dedicated to campaigning on issues such as illicit financial flows compared to aid (to this I’d add issues such as trade where potential gains/losses are enormous compared to aid).

Achieving agreement at the UN on a strong and legitimate post-2015 development agenda is undoubtedly crucial. But even winning that battle won’t dampen the necessity of confronting and transforming dominant narratives around poverty and development. If we in Northern civil society are to rise to this challenge, I believe that, in addition to ending our obsession with receiving aid funding, it is essential to embrace complexity and address our inflated sense of self-importance.

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Band Aid for Detroit

From our friends at the Council of Canadians, here’s a reworking of the Band Aid single to highlight the assault on the human right to water as a result of the mass cut-offs in Detroit. “Here’s to them underneath that burning greed…”

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NGOs: do they really help?

NI 478-01-coverThe main section of this month’s New Internationalist opens up the existential issue of whether NGOs (and in particular international development NGOs) are now doing more harm than good around the world. The theme is an increasingly common one in blogs, magazines and academic journals from all sides – which surely makes it all the more important that it is taken seriously.

The keynote article presents a measured balance sheet of the contributions made and the damage done by INGOs, while my piece on the return of the worst forms of fundraising imagery will be familiar to those already following the debate on these pages over the past year. For those who have subscriptions to the hard copy magazine, there are critical pieces on the corporate collaborations of INGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children, a look at WWF and ‘green imperialism’, an overview of NGOs in India, plus a response from MSF to earlier criticism of their work fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

There is also a handy 10-point checklist of things to consider when you are thinking of supporting an NGO, including number 9: “Can its vision and practice be seen as promoting justice and opposed to the neoliberal worldview?”

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