Power Relations, Inequality and

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Power Relations, Inequality and


A Concept Paper for

Empowerment Team, Poverty Reduction Group

World Bank

Final Draft

Joy M. Moncrieffe

Overseas Development Institute,

August 2004

Table of Contents

Text Boxes 3

Tables and Diagram 4

Overview 5



1.1 Approaches to Understanding Poverty: Two Examples 7

1.1.1 Power Relations and Poverty Processes 10

1.1.2 The Value of Combined Methodologies 11

1.2 Summary: Key Messages 14

2 Power, Knowledge and ‘Framing’ Poverty 15

2.1 Conceptions of Poverty and Inequality 15

2.1.1 Economic Understandings of Poverty and Inequality 15

2.1.2 Social Inequality and Poverty 17

2.1.3 Rights-Based Approaches and Political Equality 20

2.1.4 Horizontal Inequality 21

2.2 Power, Discourse and Poverty 23

2.2.1 A Synopsis of the Transition in Development Orthodoxy 23

2.3 Implications for Power and Poverty Analysis 26

2.4 Summary 30

3 How Power Performs: Domestic Domains 31

3.1 A Case Study of Ceres, South Africa 31

3.2 Power and Regime Type 33

3.3 Macro, Meso and Micro Institutions 36

3.4 Summary 39

4 Conclusion: Key Messages and Future work 40

4.1 Overview 40

4.2 Research Areas, Selected Questions and Early Guidelines on Approach 43

Text Boxes

Text Box 1.1: Maymana and Moziful’s Story 8

Text Box 1.2: The Distinction between Categorical and Relational Approaches to Poverty and Inequality 9
Text Box 1.3 Power Relations and Poverty in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Region 12

Text Box 2.1: Multiple Forms of Injustice and Consequences for the Batwa

in Uganda 18

Text Box 2.2: Group-based Identities and the Incidence of Poverty 21
Text Box 2.3: The Development of American Attitudes to Wealth Creation 26
Text Box 3.1: Power Relations and Policy-making in Uganda 36
Text Box: 3.2 Politics and Local Government in Uganda 38
Text Box 3.3: The Power of Tacit Consensus: Gender Relations in Uganda 39

Tables and Diagram

Table 1.1 Qualitative, Quantitative and Combined Methodological Approaches: Some Advantages and Disadvantages 10
Table 2.1 Selection of Major (Economic) Approaches to Understanding Poverty and Inequality 17
Table 2.2 Selection of Major social and political Approaches Understanding To Poverty and Inequality 22
Table 4.1: Domains and Sub-domains: Some Descriptions of How Power Performs 42

Diagram Multiple Features of Power 29


Power relations must figure significantly in explanations of poverty and inequality.’ This paper examines that statement and concludes that relations of power underpin inequality and are among the critical variables that cause and keep people in poverty. It, therefore, underscores the importance of integrating ‘power’ into analyses of inequality and poverty.
The paper’s main objectives are to:

  1. Highlight some of the key ways in which power influences inequality and poverty; and

  2. Provide guiding principles and early directions for future longitudinal research on the relationship between power and poverty. Correspondingly, it will:

  • Synthesize arguments on the relations between power, vertical and horizontal inequalities, and poverty;

  • Use theoretical and empirical data to provide explanations of the links between power, inequalities/disparities and poverty – emphasizing crucial factors such as the role of history, institutions, economic opportunities, factor endowments and ideology – and to identify critical areas for data collection; and

  • Suggest subjects for future research.

The paper is not intended as a theoretical treatise on power. Instead, it uses case examples to highlight key features and to emphasize the role of power in inequality and poverty.


The paper draws substantially on selected major publications. Section 1 outlines the case for focusing on power. It suggests that there is a relationship between power, poverty and inequality; that by not focusing explicitly on power, dominant methodological approaches fail to analyze one of the critical variables that both keep people poor and undermine development initiatives; and that poverty analysis would profit from combined methodological approaches and an explicit focus on power. Section 2 reviews some of the major approaches to poverty and inequality. It then uses debates on the policymaking process to (a) identify key dimensions and features of power and (b) emphasize that empowerment of the poor also depends on external accountabilities. Section 3 uses a case study of Ceres, South Africa to focus on how power performs in the domestic arena. It expands on the themes outlined in Section 2. Section 4 summarizes the main arguments and highlights key areas for future research.
The Annexes focus on the cultivation of inequalities and unequal power relations in Uganda, the misuse of power and the consequences for the poor, the legacies of power, and the prospects for change. They highlight the following themes: identities, power and poverty; power, poverty and gender disparities; economic power, politics and class formation; historical legacies and the consequences for empowerment.

Annex 1 provides a historical account of the development of social and economic inequalities in Uganda. It describes social relations in the pre-colonial period and highlights the ways in which colonial administrators manipulated existing tensions and provoked new inequalities. Milton Obote and Idi Amin used power repressively and this resulted in widespread destruction and dislocation. The Movement system has managed to secure peace and stability but there are longstanding power structures and relations that continue to impair poor people’s capacity to improve their welfare.

Annex 2 expands on the themes raised in Section 3 of the main text. It contends that the quality of the institutions and regime type influence power distribution and relations. However, its assessment of post-1986 institutional developments in Uganda also shows that power structures and relations shape institutional development. Not all of these structures of power are historical and ingrained. New relations of power are formed during processes of transition and these can both empower and disempower the poor.
Annex 3 continues to investigate how power relations can affect change processes. Uganda is in a process of transition to multiparty democracy, which many analysts believe will open political space and empower the poor. Yet, there are enduring challenges that are likely to affect political development, including unequal gender relations; social stratification; deep horizontal disparities; and conflict. Factors such as these have helped to keep people poor.
Annex 4 reviews Uganda’s economic development. It suggests that donor financed programmes have benefited some but not all the poor. Chronic poor groups remain marginalised. It comments on decentralisation and participation programmes and discusses their limitations. The annex emphasizes that policymakers have not paid sufficient attention to how power structures and relations affect programme implementation and outcomes.
Acknowledgements: Ruth Alsop and Bryan Kurey (The World Bank), Caroline Moser (Overseas Development Institute) and Rosalind Eyben (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex) provided very helpful comments on the drafts.

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