Where power is built, and the invisible tools that shape it

Harnessing relationship as the root of all systems change (part 3)

Sophia Robele
19 min readJan 31, 2023
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

This is part of a series looking at the question of what it would mean for multilateral or public institutions to treat human connection as a core driver of development. This post goes deeper into a couple possible avenues to better harness the power of relationship to catalyze systems transformation.

My previous post ended up being entirely devoted to the first of five proposed entry points: 1) Identify where relationship happens and when and how it matters for a development process. While this wasn’t the intention, this series — and the disproportionate space given to this first of five points — isn’t just about explaining what we might do (i.e., sharing some tools or prescriptive approaches) to achieve more impact in development via the power of relationships, but is also an illustration of a piece of the how: most notably, in the time we take to sit with questions about where we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing, the way we are doing it, before deciding where we want to go and what tools are at our disposal to help us get there.

A lot of the global challenges we face start here: in the place where subjective beliefs and assumptions transmute into hegemonic, presumably neutral truths about the world, or how change happens, or human nature. Often, the reason we don’t linger with the questions is because we continue to lean into logics and proofs about what forms of ‘impact’ matter, or what the purpose of development is, or how we ‘measure’ progress, that have originated from systems that were not in fact designed to benefit all. Systems that specifically rely on us not slowing down, not asking the uncomfortable questions that lead us to look back at our own assumptions or the dynamics that fuel the systems we are part of, to maintain a skewed balance of power or wealth.

Most of us in development are not doing this intentionally: we have not consciously decided to buy into a logic that perpetuates harm and inequity or that destroys the planet. But that is also the point. We have not consciously decided it. We allow these systems of harm to live on not because we see the sources of the harm or the ways our decisions and ways of operating enable it, but precisely because we have not [collectively] taken the necessary time to see it. What we systematically turn away from becomes ‘neutral’ or ‘invisible’ to our ecosystem (i.e., these qualities are not givens but a facet of where and how we are looking).

These ‘invisible’ parts of a system — e.g., the quality of relationships within it, the ways interpersonal relationships influence norms and behavior, the way social context shapes beliefs and attitudes — are among the sites where drivers of harm are given the greatest leeway to replicate and grow, because they are the easiest to rationalize as irrelevant to the ‘hard’ stuff of development under our predominantly market-driven [and patriarchal, racialized, imperialistic] logics. And when development models — not necessarily explicitly, but in the ways we set up flows of resources or design programmes — enshrine capitalistic notions of value as rooted in material progress; efficiency as more significant than quality; people as producers and consumers; and short-term outputs as more ‘real’ than long-term processes of deconstruction-to-make-way-for-regeneration, it follows that there would be little place for human relationships to be ascribed much significance in all this.

As Audre Lorde has said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s” house. What I’m proposing in part is that we not only evaluate where we can replace tools of oppression with tools constructed from a deliberate lens of justice and love, but equally, to ask ourselves what the tools are that we don’t even see as tools [for development] in the first place. That is, who decided what counts as a ‘tool’, and by extension, a legitimate and serious compass for our thinking and actions? This includes the ways we define and apply tools to assess risk, to understand and co-create knowledge, to organize stakeholders and determine how to distribute resources, among others.

While Western, white supremacist, market-driven, capitalistic worldviews would have us think a tool is only a tool if it comes in the form of, say, a written procedure, a step-by-step process, a well-visualized framework, or a Powerpoint — and, most importantly, allows for immediate visibly measurable, predictable outcomes from its use — I think part of adopting any relationally-driven (or “people-centered”) approach to development requires that we shed some of these rigid notions of a tool that often preclude us from taking in/making space for all the ancient wisdom, historical examples, and present seeds of possibility to flourish into processes of change that enable us to build towards anything different from what we have now.

With this frame in mind, here are some further entry points to think about where/how we might leverage relationships, and all the social technologies we use to shape them, as tools in their own right to re-imagine and re-construct development in ways that yield transformation for all:

2.) Repurpose or expand what we already employ to combat extreme absences of connection.

While the power of relationships to seed and grow change is often under-appreciated in development processes, better leveraging them to achieve existing transformation agendas is not something we have to learn from scratch. Beyond the wealth of different community-based, Indigenous, Black feminist, faith-based and other groups’ wisdom on how to advance relationship-centered development that has long ensued in the margins of government or international organization-led development, there is in fact some impetus and body of knowledge on shifting and intervening at the level of relationships that already exists within mainstream development processes themselves. It’s just that the ways this wisdom has been applied has tended to be limited in scope.

Currently, the domains of development or objectives within which we most center relationships — or at least where I personally have most noticed it explicitly positioned as a focus of programming or policy formulation — tend to lean solely or primarily towards the mitigation of, or reaction to, something negative, as opposed to also proactively laying the foundation for generative change.

The idea of building ‘social cohesion,’ for instance, is often framed as something meant to act as a bulwark against the worst dimensions of human behaviour. It is less seen as a mechanism to create the foundation for the kind of co-creation that is required for all participatory development, but more often as a type of intervention for combatting a phenomena like violent extremism, counteracting political polarization, or mitigating some other ‘extreme absence’ of connection (i.e., contexts where lack of meaningful human connection has already compounded into something that we now see as a ‘crisis’ warranting attention and money to rectify). For example, such interventions hold objectives like “addressing distrust” and “managing difference and diversity,” as opposed to something like capitalizing on building unity in diversity [e.g. to enable creative solutions to complex problems]. Homing in on this matter of framing may seem small, but narratives are everything — not least of which the narratives about human nature or the value of connection that we advance through these frames for our projects, which guide where and to what extent a certain facet of human capability is fostered in the context of a peacebuilding or development intervention.

Another constraining frame lies in the tendency to focus on relationships primarily at the level of the individual, such as the health or economic benefits that accrue for individuals by strengthening the quality of their relationships. For instance, relationships are increasingly a focus in mental health interventions and policies geared at addressing the epidemic of loneliness that has reached new heights. Likewise, they have a role in many youth empowerment interventions, where social networks are seen as a way to help build the agency and potential of youth to either support grassroots change in their communities or empower them to realize their [economic] potential in societies. These are each valid and critical areas of focus, but the issue is when the focus remains on healthy relationships as an individual-level output or outcome, as opposed to an indispensable input for systems change that applies to every domain and level of development, from climate action to digital transformation.

For this more macro-leaning attention to relationships, there is of course widespread valuation of some concepts such as ‘social capital’ that see connection as something important to good governance and development at large. But often it seems this concept is deployed namely at the level of measuring or explaining the effects of what already is — i.e., an existing or emergent phenomena — more than applying that knowledge to shape new development pathways. For instance, in the early days of the pandemic, there was an abundance of research that looked at the links between local communities with strong social capital, and the ability of those communities to cope with the socio-economic impacts of the crises that unfolded. Where it seems less investment and attention goes, however, is to the role of meaningful social networks, like those observed during the pandemic, to not only help people withstand immediate shocks or poverty or have greater access to education, jobs, etc. within current systems, but to actually help communities reconceive of the purpose and methods of development from the ground up, or to shift the balance of power and resources for driving change. It’s also worth examining whether the idea underpinning the social capital concept that “relationships matter” is granted more legitimacy in development when framed through a largely economic frame (i.e., when we talk about the individual or societal economic benefits of relationship as their primary value to a development agenda).

These are all over-simplifications, and no doubt leave out plenty of examples that don’t fall under these characterizations, but this is just to speak to some general trends when it comes to the ways relationship tends to feature in large-scale development efforts, as places where there may be scope to build or expand on what is already known and practiced. Which is all to say: a great starting place to better leverage relationships as ‘hard’ inputs for development is to look for the tools, approaches, and concepts already being applied to this end, and see how and where else they might be beneficial.

Whether it’s in the context of mental health, democratic processes, prevention of violent extremism, etc., we already deploy a number of social technologies for relationship building in mainstream development interventions, many of which have something to do with facilitating dialogue, or building up the social and sometimes physical infrastructure for more people to connect, or opening up new spaces for collective ideation and surfacing common values across difference. We can start by looking for what these specific technologies at our disposal already are and whether they may serve a broader purpose in being applied to a different development context or level of intervention. E.g., Maybe a certain type of dialogue is not only useful for peacebuilding in a specific geographic area, but also would support more innovative thinking and cooperation in a high-level multi-stakeholder initiative to address the issue of plastic waste. Or maybe more playful, creative trust-building exercises are used for youth empowerment, but could actually be adapted to help cultivate trust among adults in a farmers association, or in local government.

Additionally, we can consider whether there is scope to expand not only by scaling an approach, but by expanding the frame that is used in existing initiatives that entails some relationship-building dimension. For example, if a conflict prevention-type intervention has a strong focus on mitigating tensions among certain communities — seeing difference primarily as something to be managed — an alternative frame might start with the assumption that people intrinsically value connection amidst difference. Maybe this reframe changes the nature of the intervention, for instance, to focus less on how to incentivize behaviors that prevent people’s inclination to clash with those holding contradictory beliefs, and more about eliminating some of the structural barriers or cultural narratives that have prevented them from realizing their common humanity, acknowledging their similarities, or feeling physically or emotionally safe to be vulnerable.

More broadly, what is needed is a paradigm shift from treating relationship [solely or primarily] as a reactive solution to a siloed issue or set of issues affecting individuals, to leveraging it as one of the most proactive means, and indispensable basis from which, to address the interconnected, existential, unpredictable risks and tipping points that increasingly characterize our development futures. It is also the only basis from which we access the social creativity and radical collaboration necessary to construct the broken parts of our world anew.

Finally, while I’ve focused this point on the starting place of looking ‘in house’ when it comes to how we can gradually expand the centrality of relationships in the ways we construe and enact development — namely because it is easier to convince others of the value of something when it is already being applied and legitimized by the powers that be, even if so far only in isolated, limited-scale ways — it maybe goes without saying that ultimately if we are to look for places where relationship-driven development is already being effectively deployed, then much of this will eventually need to come from outside the mainstream bureaucracies and meeting rooms that largely shape development today. Whether it is in the protocols that a certain Indigenous population uses to organize a community consultation on a local issue, the way a religious community has structured its administrative order to facilitate distributed leadership based in mutual support, or the way an NGO or network has designed its grantmaking to allow for closer bonds and learning between funders and grantees, the examples — and transferrable, multi-purpose lessons — are everywhere. That is, if we are willing to look for and legitimize them as relevant, applicable tools for development at large.

3.) Instead of seeking to empower “communities,” consider community itself as the source of power.

This point should probably be an entire thesis in itself, but I wanted to raise it here mainly as a provocation for now, knowing that the mechanisms for really leaning into the implications of this require a lot more action learning and deliberate attention than is currently the case. Having grown up with the privilege of experiencing the meaning of the word ‘community’ as a specific, deliberate, rigorous, and rich form of action, or even responsibility, I’ve often found there to be something almost disturbing about the ways we generally employ it in development contexts. It’s something about the stark contrast between a word that I’ve [not just philosophically, but experientially] come to recognize as the core building block for a flourishing civilization, and the careless ways it is often used. In dislocating the meaning, we often remove the power and potential of the concept altogether, not only in ways that present a loss for our own development objectives but often cause harm.

In development, we tend to use ‘community’ to refer to a specific target group for a programme or policy, or to describe a sub-set of a population that share a common characteristic [e.g. ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographic location, etc.]. Whenever I see the word repeated throughout some analysis or project proposal, I can’t help but wonder, are we saying community because there is actually a community in place (i.e., a group of people who are in relationship and have mechanisms of care between them), or are we using it as an interchangeable term for people who share a common oppression or experience of deprivation?

Particularly when the commonality that binds a group of people enough in our development actor eyes to refer to them as a community has to do with deprivation (or, in its indirect form, referring to a group by something more neutral like their ethnicity, but described in a context where the point of characterizing them by that is to highlight their common oppression as a result of that identity, and the basis for which they are being targeted by x programme or policy), I wonder are we also reinforcing the harm that comes from defining people, and their relationship to others, primarily by their lack (whether or not this is the intention).

And of course, this is a nuanced thing: because to address oppression and harm, there is a necessity to name it, and to name who is experiencing it and why. Likewise, it may not be wrong to say that community exists among a group that is experiencing a common deprivation. For instance, maybe a project is focused on the un-housed community of x city. It may very well be the case that some among that population have actively forged community, maybe even directly as a result of their shared insecurity and the value of mutual support when public support has failed them. But to call the entire population a community can reinforce the dehumanizing treatment of a group of people as a monolith, or privilege a non-chosen identity of a group of people as the defining quality that lends them significance at a macro scale or in relation to one another.

There’s also something about the ways we talk about “empowering communities” in development that I’ve often felt has a tinge of coloniality, as well as white supremacy characteristics, to it. There’s a form of othering that can be found in the patterns of what places we most often talk about as having communities at all (or again, when community becomes another shorthand for a “vulnerable group” or a “beneficiary” population). It has a lot of parallels I think to the way we use the terminology of “local” in development, where the logic of this term inexplicably applies to some places or people but not others. Why would we define one group of people connected by a common geographic residence as a local community over another?

Likewise, when we speak of “localizing” development, or localizing the SDGs — where the aim is ultimately about empowering those “closest to” or “most affected by” the problems to lead the charge in addressing them — I wonder what this does to our perceptions of where development happens: of where it is needed (where the roots of the problems are), where it already exists, and the direction in which capacitating actually happens, or should be happening. Even in the well-meaning intent to validate a person’s wisdom from lived experience by way of granting them the title of local, we sometimes over-correct — to the point of being counterproductive — in this impulse to rectify the devaluation of marginalized groups’ humanity, when we place some people on a pedestal of all-knowingness primarily due to their ascribed local-ness, while denoting others (including those who may also have originated from that location but were educated elsewhere or have amassed cross-country expertise or don’t fit the development story image of marginalization) as outsiders who should simply move to the side and stay silent. While there is of course truth in this need to attend to which voices are most ‘heard’ in development (namely in the discourse around power), it can carry the potential for further damage when it ignores the perceptions that guide the reasoning for the inclusion of those voices, or the meaning of inclusion.

Dehumanization doesn’t always look like the erasure of someone’s value and worth; it could also take the sneaky form of othering that looks like positioning any one person or group of people as having all the answers, or having a kind of saint-like status owing to their marginalization [i.e., negating their “complex personhood” — see Tuck, 2009, Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities], in turn also placing the full burden on them to solve the problems that larger systems have wrought, as opposed to the more nuanced reality where exchange of worldviews, a plurality of resources and capabilities at many levels of change, and continuous mutual accompaniment (including, in some cases, that which crosses borders, or transcends rigid binaries of local vs. non-local) in the path of action remain vital. Not to mention the way that this idea of who is local enough to be part of addressing x ‘local’ issue discounts the web of interconnected problems that generally make any local problem in fact rooted largly in structures that operate at the city, regional, country, or global levels. In other words, in trying to localize, we often do so by transferring many of the logics of individualism, or the ‘hero’ narrative, or the myth of objectivity, or market-based definitions of rationality, that derive largely from Western, imperialistic models of development, in ways that end up impeding our underlying intent to honor and amplify the diversity of epistemologies and experiences that exist across society [i.e., we paradoxically end up importing exogenous ways of thinking or models of progress towards our goal of rendering a process, and its development outcomes, more locally-driven].

But what is perhaps most disconcerting about this impoverished use of the word community that permeates development is that it blinds us to the wealth of opportunities — and often, wealth of existing capacities — in our midst. That is, when we associate community with lack, with marginalization, with that which needs empowering (or as just described, its sneaky parallel: a group of disconnected or loosely affiliated all-knowing solution-holders and entrepreneurs), or with that which somehow only apparently exists in rural or resource-poor places, we miss out on the transformational recognition that if a place truly has community, it has access to the ultimate resource for change.

This recognition reflects a fundamentally different premise than that which guides much of development today. To frame community itself as the highest source of power — or rather, a means by which we can literally create power, and not just shift it perpetually within the existing systems that define and wield it at the expense of others — it shifts our basic understanding of who is most advanced when it comes to human development. It shifts our idea of who it is we as multilateral institutions, or as governments, must be learning from or uphold as a model for governance, if our goal is to co-create a world order based in equity and justice.

But again, this idea of community as power doesn’t apply simply to a group of people who share something in common or live in the same place. It is about the quality of what connects them. As one alternative though perhaps more aspirational definition, the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice has described community as “a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.”

What is significant here is that a community is bound by a shared purpose. The move to forge unity among a group of people, while admirable and valuable in itself, achieves even greater strength and influence when it is done in pursuit of the world’s spiritual and social progress. It is a kind of coming together and leaning in by way of looking outward and forward. Under this definition, the community is also not something that simply passively receives support from a public institution, but is in itself what shapes and eventually constitutes new systems and organizations, capable of channeling its positive force for change into wider, more structured configurations and networks.

But what does this all mean in practice, for development specifically? That is, what might change if we were to adopt even a slightly more intentional, nuanced understanding of community as something that doesn’t happen by chance, but must be actively made and nurtured? If we understood the role of communities — not individuals — as “the originators” of new, more just systems?

Probably a lot (more than can be said here). But to name just a few areas that might be altered as a result of such a shift, particularly in the ways we programme, we might:

  • Recognize the wisdom in grassroots approaches to development and community building. Rather than the all-too-common practice of extracting knowledge generally about specific solutions from communities and funneling it into mainstream development processes, maybe there would be a greater appreciation for different communities’ ways of operating (i.e., less focus on the ideas and solutions alone, and more on what has been built/the foundation from which those ideas came to be, or the mechanisms a community has established to learn more about/refine/mobilize support for those ideas or translate visions to reality through action).
  • Reimagine the role of government as connector: To center community in development efforts doesn’t mean that a government can replace the work that comes from individuals, or that communities can simply be engineered by a higher authority or set of policies. But it does recognize that there are in fact systematic means for forming community, or for building individuals’ and groups’ capacities to establish patterns of cooperation and connection, whether in the locales where they live or otherwise. Perhaps part of the role for government in the future will have less to do with administering only to the material needs of its populations, but also being a connector and resource for new patterns of civic, or spiritual, life to emerge. Whether this comes in the form of creating the physical spaces and offering the resources to enable these patterns, or in the form of spreading learning that comes from different communities, or enabling communities to connect across social, class, racial barriers, etc. via education systems, city planning or economic policies, it is really a question to be answered only when governments are willing to take it on/learn by doing.
  • Attend to the many belief systems and generative forces that bind people: While development gives a lot of lip service to plurality in its guiding principles, this aspiration is often mediated by the ways that another principle — neutrality — is interpreted and applied. Giving space for many ways of knowing and thinking, for epistemological pluralism, to really drive development, includes paying attention to those things that influence and connect people at the level of values and worldviews. Among those things is religion, as one of the prominent sources of belonging for large swaths of the world (not ignoring but also not universalizing the many examples of religion’s misuse as a tool for hatred, oppression and violence). Attending to many belief systems entails acknowledging that religion, among other forces in the world, matters (not as a value statement or stance, but as part of any reading of what influences change or stasis among societies). To ignore the role of religious systems in an attempt to remain ‘neutral’ is actually to project a specific, non-neutral stance and certain worldview as the norm. And to acknowledge there may even be wisdom relevant to development to be found there is not to exclude those who don’t participate in organized religion, but like anything else, to honor and connect sources of possibility present in the diversity of worldviews and belief systems that shape societies, regardless of whether we share them.
  • Invest in innovation as more than a tool for technical fixes, to a means of enabling social reconfigurations: Social innovation — one definition being “the generation and implementation of new ideas about how people should organize interpersonal activities, or social interactions to meet one or more common goals” (Mumford, 2002) — is already a widely applied concept in development and continuing to gain traction. But the idea of innovation as new technology, or financial solution, or pharmaceutical, continues to hold much more weight than the former. If the notion of community as power took on more prominence, it might mean shifting the emphasis of innovation (or maybe, the ways we conceptualize the innovation process and what it comprises), from something that merely fixes or offers solutions within a predominant system, to something that transforms — namely by way of rigorously learning about/creating new models for social relations, and the ways by which those relations influence larger structures. As Ruha Benjamin put it, “what we need is just as much investment and innovation in our social reality as we pour into transforming our material lives.”

The next post will touch on the last of these five entry points, with an eye to where dialogue, leadership, and capabilities fit into all this.