Micro-level analysis of power and its relevance for practice

Walter Flores


In development work, we frequently analyse power at the macro level: power relations between government institutions and citizens, between economic and political elites and marginalised populations and between transnational corporations and southern countries. This analysis of power is important, but, depending on where one is positioned, it can seem very dense and complex.

Many intermediary organisations (those made up of professionals paid to work in the development field) implement their actions at the local or subnational level. Often, the frameworks and tools used to analyse power at the ‘macro’ level of national and international structures are transferred or adapted to do power analysis at the ‘micro’ (local or subnational) level. However, the situation is so different between the macro and the micro level that adapting methods and tools from one level to use at another may come with major limitations. This chapter will describe the approach we followed in my organisation, the challenges we faced and the learning we acquired along the way.

The Center for the Study of Equity and Governance in Health Systems (CEGSS) is a civic association of professionals founded in 2006, in Guatemala. Its purpose is to contribute to reducing social exclusion and inequality in health care, which mainly affects the rural indigenous population. The interdisciplinary team conducts participatory research, capacity building for grassroots groups and advocacy around public policies and services. Promoting citizen participation is fundamental to CEGSS’s approach. For this, we provide training, basic equipment and technical assistance to a network of volunteer community-based defenders of the right to health who have been chosen by their own communities. These community defenders are organised in a grassroots network named the Network of Community Defenders of the Right to Health {Red de Defensores y Defensoras Comunitarios por el Derecho a la Salud, REDC-SALUD).

In its efforts to study and analyse social exclusion and marginalisation, CEGSS developed tools to analyse power and power relations among, within and between community-based organisations and government authorities in rural indigenous municipalities of Guatemala (Flores and Gómez Sánchez 2010). From those first studies and tools, we then gradually moved to develop more participatory tools (card games, categorising of actors, scoring or ranking them according to their influence by placing beans against their names), which were usefill in revealing asymmetrical power relations. However, the explaining and using of the tools to generate the information was a relatively long process. We were wondering how to make the process shorter when one of our field assistants, an indigenous person who lived in a rural municipality, suggested that asking people questions directly about what we wanted to know (i.e. who and why one has influence) would be easier, and that with the help of local translators people would trust us and talk openly.

We decided to follow our field assistant’s advice and conducted several individual and group interviews. To our surprise, interviewees readily understood what power and influence was about, and immediately named who had power in the community and what resources they had that gave them that level of influence. They would also identify less powerful actors and the most powerless in the community. One interviewee who participated in municipal development meetings said openly that he was not elected by his community but appointed by the local mayor, and that his job was attending community meetings and informing the authorities about what went on at them. He further explained that he did not see his role as any different from the roles that other community people play for nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) or churches: they all collect information and pass it on to external organisations.

From that experience, we realised that it was wrong to assume that people in rural indigenous municipalities need frameworks and tools to understand what power is and to elicit information about it. My team and I became aware that although we meant well with our participatory tools, they might in fact be causing a disempowering effect on the community participants by undervaluing their extensive experiential knowledge about power and disempowerment.

As a result of our reflection, we ditched the tools we had been using and started generative conversations with community members and government officials. From those rich conversations, we elaborated interview guides to further explore: a) specific examples of power and influence; b) what were the most relevant power resources in the locality; and c) what ideas interviewees had about how to change power relations to benefit those who were among the most excluded. From these generative conversations, we, together with communities, have developed theory and concepts that have informed our strategies and actions aimed at shifting power

1 Generative conversation is method used variously in qualitative research, organisational development and adult education. Participants are encouraged to converse freely and without judgement in order to arrive at common and deeper understandings. Also known as generative dialogue, the method has diverse origins and influences, but has mainly been inspired by the physicist David Bohm (1996).

in health care service delivery for rural indigenous populations (Flores 2018, Flores and Hernandez 2018, Hernandez et al. 2019).

This experience of using open generative conversations was also fed into all of our activities, including within our own organisation and among our own staff. In the next sections I will briefly explain what these micro levels of power are and how we apply such analysis to our work. I will conclude with some final reflections on why analysing and acting on micro levels of power is of relevance to improve our practice.

What is a micro level analysis of power?

In the literature, there are different academic research studies looking at power at the micro level. Several of these studies make reference to Foucault’s theories, particularly the concepts he developed of a ‘micro power’ and ‘micro physics of power’ in his work Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (1977/1995). For instance, Silva and Arantes (2017) use Foucault’s theory to study micro-level power relations among a family medicine team in the state of Sào Paulo, Brazil. Other authors use political economy frameworks to analyse macro and micro levels of power. Kwami et al. (2011), in their essay about macro and micro analysis of gender, power and information and communication technology, state that while a macro-level analysis unveils power dynamics shaped by political and economic structures and processes, a microlevel approach analyses the dynamics that affect access, use and appropriation of technology and services in tenus of gender, class and geographical location. The authors state that micro-level analysis is important to understand the nature of inequities.

Within CEGSS, an analysis of power at the micro level is understood as the exercise of enquiring into relationships, resources and influence among the individuals and organisations we engage with: for instance, the power resources and influence within the grassroots organisations we support; among and within the staff of our own organisation; and between ourselves and other organisations we collaborate with. The purpose of carrying out such analysis is to identify power-related challenges affecting our organisational mission and objectives, thus enabling us to strategise actions to navigate those challenges. These exercises are highly participatory, conversational and reflective. Below I discuss three examples of how micro-level analysis of power helped us identify issues and barriers affecting our work, and the strategies we implemented to either circumnavigate or resolve them.

Gender barriers to participation

As part of our approach to working with grassroots organisations, we provide subsidies for food and transport to all participants in capacity-building workshops. As an organisation, we have to produce evidence that transport and food costs are barriers to participation so that our donor will agree to such subsidies (Flores and Gómez-Sánchez 2010). Obviously, we were proud of convincing donors and providing this type of support to community leaders. However, after several months of training, we noted that many female participants who were actively participating in their municipalities were not attending the regional training workshops. After enquiring with other participants, we found that they had small children who would have had to come with them to the regional workshops. For some people, attending a regional workshop meant travelling for more than a day and staying overnight. The subsidy we were proudly providing was for one individual, so female leaders with young children were precluded from attending because the subsidy would not cover the additional food and transport for their children.

We thought of creating a differentiated subsidy for women who travel with children. This created a power struggle within our organisation. For administrators, standardised procedures are the best thing, and they do not like exceptions to rules. External auditors did not like exceptions either. The easiest approach would have been to avoid exceptions so as to maintain harmony within our personnel. But we decided that this barrier affecting female leaders was not acceptable, and so pushed for the exception, which created the conditions to convince our administrative staff and auditors. Six years after this decision, 40 per cent of all community defenders who are part of REDC-SALUD are female leaders. We cannot say this is a direct result of the support through differentiated subsidies. However, we do know that we removed a barrier that was restricting women’s leadership.

From the above experience, we also assessed whether our own staff were experiencing gender barriers. By discussing it with our staff, we identified that, due to safety concerns, female field staff sometimes preferred travelling to the field in pairs rather than on their own. Also, parents of very young children needed a more flexible schedule to be able to care for their children. As result, our organisation allows team members to accompany each other during field travel when requested, and parents can request and arrange a highly flexible work schedule.

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