3 Feb

Power can sometimes be a difficult concept for us (humanitarian aid workers) to wrap our heads around in the context of some of the local communities where we work. The fact that things often look “impoverished” or like a disaster zone can mess with our minds. We assume that people are more powerless, in general, than they are in fact. When dealing with individuals, we often make unconscious (and ethnocentric) snap judgements about who has power and how powerful they are. We get distracted by their clothes, which may be ragged or out-of-fashion by our home country standards, or by their surroundings which we are often ill-prepared to read. In short, we often look at the wrong things – at least at first – in our assessment of who is powerful at the community level.

Moreover, it is very easy to fall into the trap of incorrectly and perhaps unconsciously assuming that because the material conditions are simple, therefore the political structure in that locale is also simple; or that if the immediate context appears chaotic, that the power relations in that place are correspondingly unclear.

Understanding who has power in a community is vital to doing good aid. And yet we very frequently get it wrong. We miss the cues. Local power often hides in plain sight in the eyes of outsiders.

* * * * *

So, today I was climbing through the maze of tarpaulin shelters that is camp “Acra Nord” with a couple of colleagues, making a routine follow-up visit on a few things. It was hot and dusty. Our blood sugar was dropping and we were ready to leave. And as we began to do so, some skinny teenager with a UNICEF notepad began following us, demanding that we make a stop to visit with the camp “boss.” We’d already gone through the usual formalities with the camp liaison that we go through when visiting the camps in and around Port-au-Prince, and so to our thinking visiting with the “boss” was not necessary, strictly speaking. We basically blew the kid off, and began walking back down the hill towards where our car was waiting.

About half way down, the teenager reappeared with the “boss” and one of the “boss’” minions. They demanded that we stop and talk with them, and after a brief exchange we did. The “boss” was an unimposing figure. But he surely wanted to talk to us about our plans for the future of “his” camp. He was very stern and very animated, waving his hands in the air, speaking out stridently. Clearly the “boss” had some strong opinions.

And it was at about that time that one of my colleagues – an American woman – and I couldn’t help but notice that the “boss’” zipper was all the way open.

And somehow in the heat of the day, absorbing a stern talking to in Kreole, feeling mildly impatient… my colleague and I made eye contact… and had to stifle giggles. The teenager and the minion saw what we were trying not to laugh about. Then, the teenager… casually reached over…

and zipped up the “boss’” zipper.

The “boss” didn’t miss a beat. He kept right on lecturing for another five minutes. My colleague and I barely kept it together until we were safely in the car.

* * *

I’ve been a few places and seen some weird things. But today was the first time I’ve ever seen a guy zip up another guy’s pants. In public, no less.

And as I think about it, not just anybody gets their pants zipped up for them. Note to self: That has got to be an  indicator of some serious local power.

5 Responses to “Power”

  1. molly 4 February, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    haha hilarious story. i’m pretty sure i wouldn’t have been able to lock down the giggles…but i feel there’s an important distinction to be made between identifying local leaders and mapping local power structures, the former being only the first, relatively unchallenging, step towards the latter. um, i wouldn’t normally blog-pimp myself like this, except i just wrote a longer reaction here: http://nepalimolly.blogspot.com/2011/02/spotting-local-power-in-aid.html

  2. angelica 4 February, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    why is it I can never think of “aid” themes for my blog, but every time I read yours I want to write a whole post in your comment section?

    my response post could be summed up in “YES!” we (the aid community) so often miss who really holds the power, often we “choose” a partner that is convenient and complacent, but not necessarily the one that will be able to secure the people are on board.

    Another side of the story is that we often have the power to affect the power structure, and that is both a dangerous and good thing. When I worked in Somalia the office had inadvertedly only hired people belonging to one clan… you can imagine the impact on our impartiality. On the other hand, I’ve seen many times the aid industry imposing positions of power (relative to aid work at least) for women in the community, and that can have a positive and real impact in the local power structure.

    for the most part, I think it’s essential to have locals on board soon that can guide you through what are often very subtle mazes, while being aware that they may have their own biases. great post

  3. G.Gaston 10 February, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    While this story is certainly comical, I appreciate the larger point made about recognizing the community power structure when working in/with developing countries. I will only generalize when I say westerners believe that anything that is not like our democracy is odd, wrong and should be changed. We know nothing beyond being on top of the Hegemon , and working to keep “power” in the world system. Much of this power is clearly stated by the Declaration of Independence, treaties and various laws. But unlike “western” countries, some of the developing countries may/do have many unwritten declarations, treaties and laws as well. This fact has been greatly looked over by many aid workers and institutions in the past, and as awareness of it grows I believe it will lead to more beneficial aid for the countries in need.


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