Power is ubiquitous in politics, and by extension the world of international development. In my first year of Political Science at Dal, one of my favorite professors of all time (shout out to Marcella Firmini) posed a question to the brave souls of POLI 1100 X/Y. Professor Firmini asked: “If an alien came down from the sky and asked you to describe politics in one word, what would you tell her/him?” A few students shouted out things like “George Bush” and “money” and my personal favorite, “lying”. Unfortunately my esteemed colleagues, cynical as they were, did not come up with the answer Professor Firmini sought. After a bit more banter, Prof showed us some mercy. She said that politics was about one thing and one thing only: POWER. Power was a reoccurring theme throughout the course; coercion and cooperation (or carrots and sticks), Joseph Nye’s theoretical framework of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, executive power, prerogative power, hydroelectric power – we covered it all! In fact, by the end of the course, whenever Professor Firmini would make little alien ears with her fingers and ask the class what politics was all about, the entire lecture hall would respond in concert: POWER!
Since POLI 1100 X/Y, the concept of power has remained central to my education, both in Political Science and International Development Studies. And just like most things, it has followed me to Uganda. It seems perfectly logical and exciting to provide you with some dry theory before I give some concrete examples of how power shapes my day-to-day life here in Kampala. Academia, am I right? Jo Rowlands writes that power is embedded in all development approaches; therefore, approaches that pay attention to power dynamics are more likely to bring about change (2003). However, Rowlands also tells us that power is insidious and often remains invisible (2003). By asserting that power is both ubiquitous and invisible in development work, Rowlands presents us young learners in the world of development with a bit of a challenge. In my view the challenge is this: well-intentioned as those who do development work abroad may be, we must still recognize that all of our actions, good or bad, are inherently value-laden and therefore a result of underlying power relations.
So, how does a ‘learner’ in the world of development approach the aforementioned challenge? Answer: critical reflection. Critical reflection is essential to international development work, because if one fails to evaluate the implications of her or his decisions, she or he runs the risk of inadvertently perpetuating the very power dynamic that she or he is trying to break down. As John Cameron (2014) argues, it is through the critical analysis of institutionalized power dynamics that those in the world of development become cosmopolitan global citizens in the truest sense.
Theory sermon over.
Political Science and IDS philosophers have conceptualized power in a number of ways: dependent power, independent power, interdependent power, the power to empower… turns out that those with tenure and a carpet have a lot of time on their hands. Fortunately the academics haven’t covered the entire theoretical spectrum of power. You all must be so relieved! I want to pose to you a kind of power that has yet to be discussed by the pointy headed philosophers: the power to be powerless. That’s right, you heard me. For the rest of this long and rather boring post I am going to illustrate to you how the power to be powerless is perhaps the most powerful thing that someone without power can be empowered with. Say that five times fast.
Uganda is a country with an immense amount of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. In the future, power generation is among Uganda’s most promising renewable natural resources. For example, Uganda has the potential to harness hydroelectric power from the Nile, solar power from the equatorial sun, biomass energy from Her forests, etc., etc. Unfortunately, despite Uganda’s energy potential, rolling blackouts are still a reality for the majority of those on the power grid. Consequently, many Ugandans are left quite literally powerless a couple of times a week.
My first powerless experience occurred at work a few days ago. We were going about business as usual when the wifi went off… dun, dun, duhhhhhh! The office is pretty bright and we don’t usually use lights so internet connection is our litmus test for power. After finishing as much work as we could without internet, something amazing happened. My coworkers and I sat in a circle and talked – it was uncanny. People actually talked to each other face-to-face, in this day and age! We covered an array of topics; from domestic politics to geography to money to love, and everything in between. By Canadian standards some might consider this an unproductive way to spend time in the office, but Mrs/Mr. Some could not be more wrong. By talking and listening to one another in a frank and open manner, we were able to critically analyze the nature of our relationship to each other and the world of development as a whole. And through critical analysis came power.
For example, when the topic of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation came up, instead of immediately jumping on my coworkers with my views, I took a step back and let my context of the situation dictate my actions, as opposed to my impulses. In other words, I embraced my powerlessness in the situation. By understanding the contextual structures that informed my coworkers’ opinions, I was in a better position to respond in a firm, yet respectful manner. It is amazing how much power one can gain from understanding their powerlessness in a contextually-dictated scenario – especially when the power is out!
My next powerless experience occurred at the market on Friday afternoon. Friday is market day in Kampala, and let me tell you, these markets make The Farmer’s Market look like the Forks (you won’t get that one unless you are from both Winnipeg and Halifax). These markets are an absolute sensory overload. There are people EVERYWHERE, all bathing in a sea of clothing, food, trinkets, miscellaneous supplies, and the odd stray goat. Unfortunately, most people at the market didn’t read by blog entry on how ‘racial’ identifiers are an antiquated truth of the 21st century. Consequently, my fellow Scholars and I got called “mzungu” (the Swahili word for white person) a lot.
The word “mzungu” does not bother me that much and I understand the reasons why it is used, but the fact remains that its use is not necessary. However, I also understand that I am fairly powerless in situations like the market. The reality is that I am here for 100 days and that is not nearly enough time to change the hearts and minds of my friends here in Kampala. All I can do is embrace my powerlessness and recognize that it was centuries of unequal power relations between colonial oppressors (sorry, Liz) and Ugandans that informed how I was perceived at the market. Once again, by recognizing my powerlessness, I was able to critically reflect on my surroundings – and that alone is a type of power.
Okay last story, I promise. Confession time: today was the first time I ever attended a church service. I’ve always valued religion because it brings people together and when people come together there’s usually food. And I like food, so therefore I like religion. Plus, no matter what religion you practice, you are crazy if you pass up an opportunity to attend a service in a Ugandan church, especially when your colleague offers to take you to his house for breakfast afterward. My fellow Scholars and I arrived at the church bright and early. The English service started at 7:00 AM, and was followed by a service in Luganda (Uganda’s native language) – and we stayed for the whole thing! Both services appeared to be pretty standard, lots of singing, preaching, and praying. What I found extraordinary was the contrast between the European architecture of the church and the uniquely Ugandan terrain that surrounded it. I have seen a lot of cool things in my tenure as a person, but watching the sun rise over a hill with a single avocado tree on it while feeling the cool morning breeze come through the open church structure was something else.
Following the services, we went to my colleague’s house for some tea. The visit to a non-urban area was a refreshing change. In fact, it reminded me of Winnipeg Beach in a number of ways. Families lived in adjoining houses on the same plot of land, there were lots of trees, and children were playing everywhere. I know it’s a bit of a cop-out, but I was powerless to the joy that I felt in my colleague’s village. It was nothing like what you see in those awful World Vision commercials. In fact, I find it ironic how charities like World Vision try to get Westerns to adopt children from villages in sub-Saharan Africa. I say this because it felt like the person that was being adopted this morning was me. Without going on too long, I will just say that there are some fantastic people in this world, and I was lucky enough to stumble on a few today.
To close, I think that sometimes the best way to exercise power is to recognize your powerlessness. The power to be powerless does not translate into one being without a voice or agency. Rather, it means that one has the humility to understand that the underlying power dynamics in a situation are sometimes beyond her or his control. By coming to such a realization, people are better equipped to critically analyze a situation and therefore refrain from reproducing the very power structures they are fighting against. Paradoxically then, sometimes the greatest power one can possess is the power to be powerless.
Well, if you are still awake congrats! You made it through another one. Busy week at work ahead of me as FRA is hosting a week-long training session that yours truly is helping out with. I promise my next one will be less dry. As a side, if you disagree with what I have to say, please comment or facebook message! Dialogue is encouraged!
p.s. I will do a Q&A next time, just waiting for some more Qs!
Epilogue: Yoga in a Kampala flat
6:55 PM, me: ughhhhh we should start soon I guess (already sweating while sitting on the couch).
6:58 PM, Rachel: yeah.
7:05 PM: First yoga pose.
7:07 PM, me: F*** I forgot to take my malaria pill! *Runs into room, takes it, returns*
7:09 PM: Power goes out – Jeremy and Rachel in unison: MOTHER F*****!!!!!
7:10 PM: Rachel finds headlamp
7:11 PM: Power returns (of course)
7:12 PM: Second yoga pose.
7:13 PM: Rachel’s phone rings – our boss wanted us to come in for a meeting the next morning.
7:19 PM: Yoga resumes.
Lesson: things take a while sometimes, gotta role with it.