Power relations and community organisations

It’s a quiet week for me in Gitega as every village in the province is taking part in a vaccination programme so my field visits are write-off. Still, it’s a chance to catch up and reflect on what I’ve learnt so far.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing lots of focus group discussions with community-based organisations in different parts of the province. I’m using participatory methods to encourage the groups to discuss what their strengths are and how they can overcome problems in their community. It has been really interesting to see how some groups are more effective than others in changing their community and some of the results are quite inspirational. At the centre of it all is the question of social structures and power relations. While some groups really include people from the most marginalised social groups, such as widows and repatriated people, others groups are dominated by the local leaders and offer little hope for raising the status of the most vulnerable people.

The groups which include people from a range of social positions and which have been well-trained in advocacy and conflict resolution have shown that they really raise the voices of their members. Women, who said they never used to speak out, now say that they challenge injustice and that local leaders are afraid of them because they know that they speak the truth. Such community groups have managed to reduce the elite’s monopoly on power and have increased their own power through their collective action which has gained them greater respect from the community too. Other groups, however, are led by the existing male leaders who do not give the women and young people in the group a chance to speak. Despite being encouraged to respect women’s rights and advocate for the most vulnerable, I saw the leaders ridiculing women as they tried to participate in discussions. It’s hugely frustrating to see this but it underlines the importance of recognising the power structures in a community and making sure that any intervention addresses the imbalance of power which is reproducing inequalities in the community.

Changing power relations and social structures is, of course, not an easy thing to do or something that is easily measured and documented but I’m convinced that this is essential for reducing poverty and increasing social justice.