On power

When we think about systems change we can often think of a complex system in isolation from all others, and yet that’s an artificial simplification of the kind we are trying to overcome through the application of systems thinking in the first place. We can’t think about reinventing the humanitarian system without asking first some important questions. What does this system exist to achieve? What is its legacy, its trajectory towards today? Often, systems exist in deficit to something else, and in this case it could be argued that the humanitarian system exists to mitigate the worst impacts of the extractive industrial growth complex which tends to leave marginalised global communities at the mercy of crises and disasters not of their making. The legacy of colonialism, genocide and resource extraction runs deep, compounded by the asymmetrical effects of climate crisis disproportionately impacting those least responsible for its causes. 

So on the one hand it could be argued that the humanitarian sector is a set of systems designed by those in the ‘West’ to ameliorate the worst impacts of their own countries actions over decades and centuries. It follows that a shift from reactive to preventative would mean true systems change obviates the need for the system in the first place. Can we reach a point where we don’t need continuous Western investment in countries facing disasters and crises? When the legacy of their actions no longer affects communities in these countries? When countries are at the same time responding to their own challenges in ways that avoid dependency on donors and foreign governments? Can such a world ever exist?

If this is a long-term ambition, what of the short-term? A number of questions require consideration: 

  • who is already acting and advocating for systems change? 
  • where is there energy in the system? 
  • what events are happening that might open up the possibility of change? 
  • where are the innovations and new practices?
  • where can we see power imbalances shifting?
  • how do incentives play out? 

And so on. 

Entrenched patterns of behaviour follow the beliefs and structures that shape them. As Deming taught, 95% of performance is conditioned by the system in which we work. The systems we design are therefore a product of the rationality that we use to create them. If we think people are fundamentally lazy and need external motivation to work and do a good job, we’ll create a punitive and conditional welfare system with a harsh sanctions regime to leave people with little choice but to work. If we believe that we know better than local communities how our funding should be spent, and that these communities should be grateful for our knowledge and resource, we’ll create an aid system that retains power in the west, alienates the very communities we are trying to help, perpetuates colonial attitudes and places the emphasis on the recipient communities to report back to us that they have, indeed, complied with our funding requirements. 

Who wants to devolve power to the communities who need it and live by the principle of subsidiarity in practice and not just theory? For to do so is to give up their power. At the same time, the other side of the coin is how local communities can be liberated to respond to their own challenges. To hold that power. They know best what is needed. It’s context-specific – and no-one understands their own context like those who live in it. 

Yet such change is so difficult when, in the UK at least, the thinking that creates these systems characterised by hierarchy and power imbalances exist everywhere. Trust doesn’t exist between national government and local communities in the UK. My previous work in community development proved that. All the reporting was back up the hierarchy to central government departments. The accountability was definitely not to local communities; they were supposed to be the grateful recipient of the funding and services. My team’s work was in effect as broker in the middle of this relationship. Sounds familiar. 

The beliefs and philosophies that underly one set of ideas don’t miraculously change as we shift from UK to a global context. Perhaps, if the thinking and beliefs that create these systems starts to change, multiple systems will start to change, and not just those through which the humanitarian sector operates. 

Of course, it’s not just hierarchical systems of power that hold the current system in a status quo that so many want to change. We are entrenched at an individual level, too. Those in the sector are drawn to the work, just as others are drawn to teaching or social care. And once in, our linear career structures incentivise deepening specialist knowledge and experience that you can only really easily leverage within the development and humanitarian sector. And so the incentives trap you in a career path that is not only difficult to extricate yourself from, but also one you are actively incentivised not to change. For to change the system is to risk the obsolescence of your role within it. Then there’s the power within the collective, of those organisations that comprise the humanitarian sector and wield extraordinary power within it. Can we conceive of a world where they are not needed?  

And so it’s in everyone’s interest to not rock the boat, to keep things as they are. Despite the voices from countries and communities suffering crises and disasters crying out for different. How do we collectively advocate for change, challenge convention and start to shift these entrenched systems towards something perhaps more favourable for those they are intended to serve?

So many questions to explore. So many challenges to address. So much learning to be derived from the work. So much change so radically needed. 

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