Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, the essence of development work ough to be to mobilize rights holders against the current powers of control so as to find and create a fairer balance.

To keep things punctual and for easy comprehension, some of the key background issues are here presented as a series of ‘iron laws’ that apply to the issues at hand.

• Power can be, and often is, socially malign; it is often hidden; it is linked to conflicts of interest…and political counter-power is the means by which these conflicts are to be resolved.
• Power is to be understood here as the submission of some to the will of others. When power leads to the advancement of a minority group’s own interests, it becomes linked to exploitation and thus to the violation of human rights.
• For instance, from a position of power, some solutions offered to the many development challenges just offer monetary or other incentives and rewards; others aim at intentionally changing beliefs through persuasion, education and social marketing while yet other exert a coercive form of power that pursues submission by directly, more openly and more blatantly, violating people’s rights. Addressing power in any of its/these forms is in the realm of the politics of counter-power.
• As a matter of fact –and due to the overwhelming power of the dominant class– class analysis has regrettably been replaced by more superficial categories of analysis –analyses that are less threatening to the prevailing social order. (Actually, the negation of class conflict results from assuming that the interests of the powerful are also those of everybody).
• The above enables those who have economic, political, or cultural power to present themselves socially as champions of development causes while they are in fact champions of things. ‘Things’ often boil down to technocratic interventions that ignore the social determination of development outcomes.
• Increasing technocratic interventions alone will neither change minds nor unfair power relations. In fact, attempts by development practitioners to implement such interventions, well meaning as they may be, carry consequences. Giving preference to certain problems and proposing their preferred solutions can and does prevent people to dig-in further into matters that will eventually lead them to see that offering counter-power to power is the only way ahead.
• One needs to be clear:
o Existing structures and institutions embody relationships of power; they are the manifestation and materialization of power. Furthermore, social and political organizations are designed specifically to distribute power in a given way. (Note that organizational charts represent relationships of power!)
o People too often lower their gaze and submit to the overwhelming power of those who govern us, and
o The ever-greater abdication of responsibility by states to private actors is not –repeat, is not– a neutral quest for greater efficiency and innovation, and
• If one is looking at the emancipation of people from the subduing effects of power, such emancipation actually must take place with people overcoming past and present restrictions as the only waty to successfully claim their rights currently being violated. In a way, to emancipate means to invert the poles. For this to happen, there is no need for more money; people just have to impose the needed fairer rules –something that can only happen through building and exerting counter-power …to eventually invert the poles.

Opposing counter-power to power

People’s participation in social networks is the critical source of power. Actually, these networks are to be seen, first and foremost, as the most viable vehicle to build people’s power. (Always keep in mind that ‘divided-we-beg, united-we-demand’…).

Whining about the North or the Rich being too powerful, long ago ceased to stir any pangs of conscience. The only chance to become a player, and not a ball, in the game of eradicating human rights violations is to try and build up countervailing clout. But this clout cannot stay only at the level of protesting (e.g., at the WTO or the WB/IMF meetings). A newly acquired clout will only take us to higher levels if it makes viable, constructive (new) propositions (It is not only about denouncing, but as much or more it is about anouncing).

Therefore, becoming agents of social change is a key objective of the process-of-building-and-exerting-counter-power. This requires rejecting the use of the said process in any way that reconciles communities participating in just tinkering with the prevailing, top-down-controlled social order!

Three additional iron laws are called for then, at this point:

• Building counter-power is about power (excuse the redundancy) and thus is a political issue that recognizes development work as the needed avenue to challenge the established power relations. Therefore, power conflicts have to be dealt with resolutely and have to be resolved in a manner that paves the way for human rights principles and standards to prevail.
• The platform or stage for building and exerting counter-power is much broader than local communities; it encompasses the larger social and political context so that action at state level is also needed. This means one has to broaden the horizon of the empowerment discourse. (The local struggle is thus inseparable from the national and the global struggle). [But, beware, the state can, and often does, hijack the empowerment approach under phony pretences], and
• Ultimately, it is the class struggle that is intimately related to building and exerting counter-power. Therefore, class analyses need to be performed together with ‘the under-powered group’ so as to help them transform themselves into genuine agents of social change, i.e., into claim holders actively demanding their rights.

A couple of caveats whose time has come

The Anglicism ‘empower’ in reality stands for a top-down ‘authorization of representation’ (as in giving a power of attorney). From this perspective, claiming that the people are empowered, in reality too often means that someone has given the people a very limited authorization to participate –a concept diametrically opposed to the legitimate and sovereign power that resides in the people without anybody granting it to them. Therefore, ‘empowering’ people can well ultimately trigger repressive actions by the current holders of power.

Take for example the World Bank’s definition of empowerment: it totally ignores considering power relations in the process of true social change. (Conversely, the definition by Immanuel Wallerstein does see empowerment as a process to change the social and political environment so as to improve equity, i.e., the empowerment of some will entail the dis-empowerment of others –usually the current holders of power).

Building/exerting counter-power and the human rights-based approach: the link

-Human rights work is not just about fighting against individual human rights violators and existing institutionalized inequalities. It unavoidably requires struggling over power issues and defying whole systems of thought.
-It is duty bearers who manage and control the authority over the resources that flow from the established and given organization and distribution of power in a given society.

Another set of iron laws is pertinent here to distil the main issues involved.

• What the human rights framework brings to development work is that it ensures that social justice is made a constant counterbalance to unchallenged utilitarianism. It also ensures that checks on power relations are made routinely as well, and that these checks are the main way to protect the vulnerable and marginalized by opening avenues that confer their respective communities the power to get actively and de-facto involved in setting and monitoring the policies and programmes that affect their wellbeing and dignity.
• Nevertheless, as relates to the underlying power issue, many have questioned ‘Why rights, why rights now?’ ‘Is human rights work the most effective way to tackle power imbalances?’ The unequivocal response here is: If and when the language of human rights becomes denuded of a focus on power relations, it is turned into an ineffective, worthless technical exercise of compliance with existing prescribed norms; human rights then become palliative rather than the cornerstone to address and defuse human rights violations.
• In the confrontation of networks against established hierarchies, human rights activists are called to use the art of politics to get involved in setting up these social networks and helping them mobilize to effectively place their claims.
• Human rights are not just about empowering individual duty bearers [remember that duty bearers in the periphery are often themselves oppressed oppressors], but also primarily claim holders. By extension, the human rights framework is a crucial basis for the contestation of power, at local, national and international level. And where power is contested, this contestation actually reflects the existing relative balance of forces (or power) of the different actors. Therefore, empowering claim holders we must.
• Human rights work calls for the uncovering of the structural determinants of people’s-condition-of-oppression so as to help them reverse these conditions; this means increasing their bargaining power to achieve their ultimate emancipation. (This is the only sensible way out since it is the existing social system and class relationships, embodying key human relations of power, that constrain people’s actions).
• Public sector interventions do impinge on a vast array of human rights issues. Quite predictably, these interventions reflect the distribution of power in our societies. Therefore, changes have systematically benefited some groups to the detriment of the wellbeing and the rights of others. As a matter of fact, these interventions have benefited some classes at the expense of other classes; some ethnic groups at the expense of other; one gender at the expense of the other; and some nations at the expense of other nations.

Ultimately, human rights are about the regulation of power –they are to be used as a shield from tyranny. Therefore, look at the human rights framework as the tool that can effectively subvert the current forms of hegemonic power that so pervasively colonizes the development paradigm –our consciousness included. The power of hegemony lies in the acceptance of the ‘way things are’. Speaking truth to power requires that the human rights community and its activists challenge this hegemony.

Human rights activists are thus called to identify the political distortions being used by the (minority) power holders and to uncover how these distortions (often disguised in a whole new jargon or ‘newspeak’) result in oppressive and exploitative power relations.

This brings the whole discussion to its bare bones normative connotation.

When do service delivery, capacity building, advocacy and social mobilization really build counter-power?

Building counter-power is to be a continuous process; it is to provide people with choices and the ability to choose; it is to expand the ‘political-manoeuvring-space’ in and of a community and its claim holders.

In the delivery of services, building counter-power means, or is, or are actions that tend towards:
• Making sure the provision of services is gender-sensitive and culture-sensitive.
• Using existing local human resources.
• De-facto incorporating community representatives in the decision-making process about the services to be or already being delivered. Voice is not enough; influence is what must be pursued.
• Basing the training of staff importantly on the human rights framework; making training competence-based and in-service, and aiming it at behavioural change, as well as always following training up with regular support supervision.
• Making sure beneficiaries cease to be passive recipients of services and demand responsibility for themselves; for this, they need to get trained in human rights and to take an active role in both the decision-making process and in the delivery mechanisms (including management issues).

In capacity building, building counter-power means, or is, or are actions that tend towards:
• Through the use of the human rights framework, enabling individuals/communities to continuously upgrade their ability to analyse and understand their situation, i.e., people themselves need to collect, interpret and use relevant information for action.
• Also sharing with them the conceptual framework of the causes of their problems that categorizes these causes by causal level, i.e., immediate, underlying and basic/structural causes. (For instance, UNICEF, 1990)
• Exposing people to relevant information, especially about the UN human rights covenants that guarantee their rights, about international human rights law and about the real causes behind their problems. (Includes warning people about the ‘misinformation’ they are exposed-to so as to expunge and replace it).
• Raising people’s social and political consciousness so that their claims are legitimized.
• Changing people’s perception of their potential to forge a new reality where the application of human rights becomes the way to change their lives.
• Increasing people’s awareness of what in the prevailing social system is ‘unfair’ to them.
• Building growing networks and constituencies for the spread of people’s rights-based strategies.
• Emphasizing the provision of practical skills that lead to community ownership of the interventions undertaken.
• Giving high priority to overall literacy and to human rights literacy, especially for women and girls.
• Boosting women’s negotiation capabilities and influence and thus their self-confidence.
• Raising consciousness about the natural environment (i.e., ‘the rights of nature or Earth Rights’).
• Emphasizing the training of local leaders; teaching them to carry out human rights impact assessments and social and political mappings that point to the current power structure and how key resources are controlled. Going over with them how to carry out decision audits (about who currently makes what decisions). [For example, they need to find out who decides what training is given to community animators/‘validators’ that are supposed to act as local strategic allies in the process of claim holders empowerment].
• Giving people a better income capacity by creating new employment opportunities and democratizing access to credit, as well as setting up income generation activities for women.
• Providing people with access to available support systems including the capacity to seek redress when denouncing human rights violations to appropriate and relevant existing bodies.
• Building the ‘mental preparedness’ for social mobilization, i.e., preparing people to press-on with needed claiming, needed advocacy and effective lobbying.

In advocacy, building counter-power means, or is, or are actions that tend towards:
• Using the appropriate persuading methods when dealing with duty-bearers at different levels.
• Increasing people’s de-facto claims to demand access to quality services.
• Emphasizing work on measures to eradicate poverty. (what we are really talking about here is ‘disparity reduction measures’, i.e., going all-out to demand more economic justice and making every effort to decrease the skewedness in the distribution of income and wealth.
• Advancing actions that decrease the workload of women and give them options for birth spacing.
• Promoting the shifting of the explicit control of resources more to women.
• Promoting a more local control of resources.
• Addressing minority equity and equality issues, including those of migrants, refugees, internally displaces and LGBT groups.
• Demanding active people’s participation with voice and influence in informed decision-making.
• Raising the people’s consciousness about what their human rights are and translating them into specific claims.

In social mobilization, building counter-power means, or is, or are actions that tend towards:
• Going from people’s felt needs to concrete demands and from these to making specific claims so they can actively struggle for their rights (i.e., mobilizing their social counter-power).
• Mobilizing people’s own resources as needed.
• Organizing people to effectively use and progressively control external resources.
• Networking with others to achieve a critical mass of concerned people (locally and externally) and, in the process, building coalitions.
• Collectively identifying the problems at hand, placing them in the conceptual framework of causality, and searching for the best solutions for implementation at the three (immediate, underlying and basic) levels. [Acting at one level or at one main cause only may be considered necessary, but is NOT sufficient].
• Giving people power over decisions thus progressively increasing their self-esteem and self-confidence.
• Increasing local democracy, with people (especially women) participating more actively and vocally in local government.
• Decentralizing decision-making, including shifting control of finances to the local district or similar level, i.e., a genuine devolution of power.

This is but a non-exhaustive list of the challenges development practitioners face when, sometimes lightly, speak about building the counter-power hidden potential of the people and groups they work with. It can be used as a preliminary checklist that certainly needs adaptation…

Let it be said to conclude: It is not the North-South wealth divide per-se, it is not globalization per-se, it is not any scarcity of resources that are at the base of the perpetuation of disparities that underlie human rights violations –it is the power-differentials-between-and-among-classes in both the countries of the North and the South (and the influence this exerts over the decisions the state makes). The question this raises is: Do the main bearers of obligations regard or take note of this truism? The view is that the problem with development agencies or with government institutions is that they too often get hyped-up by ‘promising innovative policies’ (often imported) without giving the underlying power politics, of where the same policies are to be implemented, due consideration. This, of course, may very well be deliberate since those at the top have a large number of interests to protect. But, not infrequently, these duty bearers do recognize the underlying need to redistribute resources more fairly –the problem though is that, as long as they can, they remain silent on whose resources to distribute and how to do it, i.e., through what mechanisms. So, in the end, all remains as mere lip service. As said, empowering claim holders we must.
2870 words

Through much of this essay I distilled arguments found in several issues of D+C the German development journal, the book ‘The Hidden Connections’, by Fritjof Capra, the book ‘Heading South, Looking North’ by Ariel Dorfman and the book ‘Refugiado del Iraq Milenario’ by Claudio Sepulveda, as well as from writings by Franz Nuscheler, Vicente Navarro, Pol de Vos, Alicia Yamin, Tim Requarth, and Boaventura de Souza Santos.

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