Step 1: Acknowledging the effects of power imbalances in development

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

Power imbalances and asymmetries are a structural reality of the international development system. They always have been. These imbalances have received greater attention from Northern actors over the past decade or so (for instance through this Wilton Park conference), but there is still little acknowledgement of their centrality to ongoing debates about aid effectiveness.  Even the Sustainable Development Goals don’t explicitly talk about power imbalances and equity. In fact, the word ‘power’ does not feature at all in Goal 17 and the word ‘equitable’ is only mentioned in relation to trading relationships, rather than partnerships as a whole.

The latest reminder of this lack of attention came in the form of a much-debated Op-Ed in the Guardian by “fifteen leading economists, including three Nobel winners” on why the aid system is broken. Of all the legitimate critiques I’ve read so far (including of the assumption that only economists have something important to say about development), none have made much of the fact that there is not one single Southern institution out of the 15 selected. And yet the authors say: “People of the south deserve better.” Yes, indeed they do. Next time, let’s try speaking with Southern actors and not for them.

If we are to genuinely #shiftthepower in development, we must start with recognising the problem. There are those who argue as long as the work is getting done, and results are achieved, does it really matter who steers the ship?  Of course it does. In fact, it’s one of the things that matters most. Removing Southern agency is not only the wrong thing to do, but it’s also the least sustainable way to achieve development outcomes in the long-term.

Throughout my career, I have encountered a great deal of scepticism in predominantly Northern circles that talking about power imbalances is important or even that relevant. We praise and prioritise the technical work done by Northerners while often ignoring the existing expertise and experience of Southerners. This is summed up beautifully in the following tweets:

This is not about deifying the Global South or demonising the Global North. But I believe conversations about power and equity matter just as much as ‘what works’ from a technical perspective. So: let’s do better and start more honest conversations in the Global North about the effects of power imbalances on development outcomes.


©2018 by Alex Martins.