Power relations including participation

Last changed: 25 January 2023

Research shows that power relations are an often overlooked but hugely important factor in development projects.

Neglect of power relations in project design and implementation can significantly reduce the potential of achieving expected socio-economic benefits and increase inequality. This is because power relations influence for example if and how different people are represented when decisions are made, if and how important information is communicated to everyone affected, and if and how various laws and regulations are implemented in practice and to whose benefit.

Click on the arrow below each question to read about more concrete examples of problems that can happen.

Questions to ask

Is it described how (not only that) key information is communicated to project participants in a way that people can understand? This is especially important when it comes to project requirements, payment mechanisms and potential risks and problems of joining, or not joining, the project.


For example, carefully explaining potential risks (related to land, livelihoods, debt) and ensuring the affected people have understood potentially complex conditions and rules for payments.


How is it ensured that the project does not favor elites at the cost of other less resourceful people?


For example, is it ensured that those who decide to accept the project are representative of the community and not just the local elite? If land titling takes place – how is it ensured that those with more status in the village will not benefit by using their power to claim larger areas of land? Is it ensured that offsetting payments are not captured by the local elite?



If a grievance mechanism is included in the project, does it ensure that the project proponent’s position of power does not negatively influence the community members’ opportunities to raise grievances or suggest changes in project design? Is the grievance mechanism designed to avoid that only people in the communities with more resources and higher status have access to it, or influence over it?


For example, are community members with low status comfortable to raise grievances to a local project representative with high status? Are grievances supposed to be written down and sent to an address in town, excluding uneducated persons or those who do not have resoures to send letters?


Warning signs

Power relations are not acknowledged in project descriptions, which instead use language that suggests that communities are generally in agreement.


For example statements such as “the people decide among themselves how to divide benefits” or “the local people are represented by an appropriate representative” suggest a lack of engagement with local power relations.


Responses about the project from the community are portrayed as homogeneously positive.


For example ”everyone said they were happy with the project”, or ”no complaints were raised”, suggesting the proponents did not consult with communities in-depth or downplay critical questions raised.


The project proponent uses a passive, abstract language that indicates a one-way-communication when describing project “participation”. 


For example, it is stated that project proponent will “inform” or “communicate information” to the participants, or the project will “enable meaningful influence by communities” or that socio-economic risks for participants will be avoided through “clear communication”.



The project proponent does not discuss its own position of power at all, or write as if it is a neutral actor, on ”equal terms” with local communities.


For example, projects may be initiated by outsiders but still described as “grass-roots”, pretending to be designed by local communities. Projects frequently do not acknowledge that they for example offer an important opportunity to gain cash to an otherwise impoverished community that may be in a difficult position to say no to aspects of the project that may be problematic.


Conflict resolution/grievance mechanisms are nonexistent or very limited and difficult for people to access without monetary, language/educational or transportation resources.


 For example, they have to complain to a person who is located at a distance requiring travel, or write letters.