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Perspective, Power and Complexity at the Planning Table: Thoughts for NGOs Working in International Development



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I served as an intern with a “successful” European Union (EU) funded dairy improvement Extension education project in rural Eastern Turkey, in the Fall of 2006. I have been uncomfortable with the role of development in improving people’s lives since that experience. This program ostensibly met its objectives by convening an appropriate number of meetings across the region and involving a posited number of dairy farmers. The Western-university trained Turkish faculty spent money on battery packs, projectors and screens in imitation of the Agricultural Cooperative Extension meetings with which they had been involved in the United States.

But this orientation did not account for the fact that many of the dairy farmers involved in the project were illiterate, not only in their ability to read and write, but also in their understanding and practice of the scientific method. The Turkish agricultural faculty presented research results using Power Point presentations. The farmers sat attentively, men in one room, woman in another, and offered appropriate niceties to me, the Westerner in the room, to the culturally prestigious faculty and to the village elders. As I sat eating delicious food it occurred to me that everyone at the gathering was simply going through the motions. That is, it seemed to me that deep learning among the farmers was likely not occurring.

However, the reports, the ones I wrote on behalf of the project, were beautiful. I suggested that the team had achieved its targeted results: hundreds of farmers had sat through Power Point presentations on dairy cattle artificial insemination. EU officials were pleased, the Turkish government agency involved was happy and the presenting faculty were content. Yet, in reality, the costs for what I became convinced was an ineffectual program were exorbitant, and that fact led me to reflect that to the extent the effort had involved Turkish government resources, it implied real opportunity costs for the families and fellow villagers of the participating farmers. That fact struck me hard, but I was not yet able fully to articulate my sense of unease. As I grew in my understanding of education and community engagement, however, I realized the fundamental flaws of the project that I had served as an intern. My involvement with this initiative proved transformational for me as it left me deeply uncomfortable with one-size, top-down and expert-driven development. I came to see that, improperly conceived and/or implemented, international development work can cause as much harm, as good.

Nevertheless, I know that I and the overwhelming share of those who choose to do development work are deeply passionate about improving people’s lives and that there is still a need to fight for a more perfect world in order to shift the pendulum towards justice. Development work can and should be conducted more effectively, meaning through more equitable and engaged processes to increase responsiveness to local needs. One step toward securing that goal might be for individuals and the organizations to which they belong, e.g., international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to start acknowledging the complexity and power at play in their interactions with the people and organizations they aim to assist.

Constructivism is a social science paradigm currently being adopted by many professionals in the development field. It is dynamic and holistic and, as such, it can be useful in capturing the complicated phenomenon of development, “there is no rational choice theory of the pursuit of freedom in the global politics of human rights or beauty in global environmental politics” (Willetts, 2010, p.131). Indeed, human beings evidence intricate patterns of value preferences and typically seek to secure a shifting balance among security, freedom, wealth, justice, equity, equality, beauty, health and other values as conditions and contexts evolve (Willetts, 2010, p.130).

Because of their potentially grass-roots character, nongovernmental organizations possess an ability to recognize and address the complexity of local conditions and populations and thus, when appropriately led, are able to respond effectively to the needs of specific local communities. Nevertheless, Schaaf has rightly declared that, “NGOs should neither be considered a panacea nor the ‘magic bullet’ for solving the problems of development,” nor should any one implementation paradigm be considered so (2013, p. 214). Perhaps what she should have said is that there is no single magic bullet or panacea that can solve the problem of lifting the 3 billion poor individuals in the world out of poverty. This is to argue that there is not a one-size fits all approach to governance, to economics, to education or to any other imperative that must be addressed to secure positive change for half of the globe’s population.

Indeed, the international development community has discovered during the last 70 years that implementing generic fixes without local residents’ input, guidance, engagement and ‘empowerment’ is very rarely successful (Easterly, 2013; Ronalds 2010; Schaaf, 2013; Smillie, 2013; Wallace, Bornstein, and Chapman, 2007). Ronalds, capturing a change in the international development sector, has observed that the prevailing perspective in the field has shifted to, “the more recent and broader understanding of development that emphasizes people’s capabilities and freedoms, not simply their material poverty” (2010, p. 65). In short, development officials are now beginning to acknowledge that the programs they develop are going to have to address the extremely complex and probabilistic and therefore non-linear conditions present, not only at the macro level, but also at the micro and hyper-micro levels, as well. Nevertheless, Wallace et al. (2007) have warned, that while welcome, this shift in orientation now implies a view of development as a slow and often fraught process that is likely to be characterized by many impediments, including the engrained mindsets, and often poorly understood values of those being served, as well as the ignorance of donors, implementers and governments.

It is important to acknowledge that development, like education, is innately political in character. A modification in a person’s social, financial or cultural capital capacity represents a significant political change. Understanding this is to say that even the most well-intentioned and effective NGO will cause both positive and negative social and political ripple effects when it intervenes in a community. This is not to say that those entities should not undertake such efforts, but instead to recognize that, “Constructivism makes the realm of ideas, the way we perceive the nature of the world and the evolution of norms central to politics” (Willetts, 2010, p. 131). If there is going to be a chance to attain positive outcomes from development initiatives, it will occur only when the perspective of every actor is perceived as legitimate and broadly viewed as such.

Power can be defined in a variety of ways, Cervero and Wilson (2009) developed a working theory of the phenomenon, called the planning table. Planning tables are developed for the purpose of implementing programs and are created by the individuals engaged in those processes.  Planning table theory is concerned with the complex interactions that occur among stakeholders involved in program creation. Planning tables do not simply arise out of people’s minds, but rather are the result of sociopolitical relationships among individuals and groups; in which power is both produced and used (Cervero and Wilson, 2001). As Cervero and Wilson have observed:

Power is a social and relational characteristic, not simply something that people ‘possess’ and use on one another. Second, it is necessary to distinguish between power relations as a structural characteristic and people’s exercise of their power, which is an individual activity. Third, although power relations are relatively stable, they are continuously negotiated at the planning table (Cervero and Wilson, 2009, p. 85).

That is, power is the capacity to act (Cervero and Wilson, 2009). This capability is distributed to individuals by virtue of their position and their participation in social and organizational relationships (Apple, 1996; Winter, 1996). Defining power as a result of relationships frames it as involved integrally in all human interactions (Foucalt, 1977). Therefore, power is not specific to a particular form of relationship and it both enables and constrains actions, resulting in a constant negotiation. Power relations matter because they shape who has the capacity to be represented at the planning table, a metaphor for the place at which decisions with significant implications for the general public occur.

As individuals working in development efforts navigate the complex relationships and sociopolitical exchanges in which their efforts are necessarily enmeshed, shifts in power are likely to occur. Democratic ideals of voice, agency and action may not be respected by all actors at the table. For example, there may be too much self-interest among those in power to want to upset the status quo. In many developing nations, those advantaged by existing conditions very well may include international nongovernmental organization leaders and a broad share of global south government elites. This said, it is important to note that INGO leaders are and should be intrinsically motivated to seek their organizations’ continuation and survival (Schaaf, 2013). There is nothing innately wrong with working to ensure the health and legitimacy of an enterprise in which you believe. The same holds true for government leaders.

Nevertheless, some public officials in some developing nations have surely personally benefitted from leading a poor population; by pilfering a portion of the aid money coming to assist their citizens via development efforts. More, as those corrupt leaders have grown richer, their populations have remained poor, ensuring a continued flow of aid from external actors. This situation can occur because very poor individuals, focused on survival, are generally less politically motivated and active than those possessing means and often lack a sense of what might constitute democratic self-governance in any case (Iyengar, 1990). Of course, happily, these conditions do not always obtain in practice. Nonetheless, even assuming the integrity and probity of all involved, a recognition of shared purpose, outcomes and implications is still required for development organizations at all levels, from the largest INGO to the smallest NGO in a rural community to achieve their goals.

Lang has observed that “NGO representatives speak, but, they do not speak for a clientele; instead, they suggest ways to do things that are then pushed back and forth in the discussion [with their stakeholders, including those they seek to serve]” (2013, p.135). NGOs, when undertaking their work with a constructivist lens and a right-sized approach, will be engaged with the populations and individuals they are serving, and with the society more broadly. NGOs possess the potential to alter the power relationships of individuals and society at large. As a consequence, many scholars have observed that NGOs are involved politically at multiple analytic scales: the local, state and international levels (Easterly, 2013; Lang, 2013; Schaaf, 2013; Willetts, 2010). The presence of NGOs at the proverbial development planning table at all of these levels can influence the direction and character of the political discourse that occurs at each. In pointing out this possibility, it is important to note, too, that NGOs act principally on behalf of those stakeholders that created and sustain them. Given that reality, who is to say that their motives are positive or negative? The negotiations that occur between NGO staff, their donors, their clientele and other societal actors, conducted either implicitly or explicitly, have implications for issues of participant power and access for those being served in international development work (Cervero and Wilson, 2006).

Returning to my experience in Eastern Turkey, what made me deeply uncomfortable is that the project’s implementers had not involved local community members in the program planning process. Not inviting the dairy farmers to the planning table did not allow for the integration of their knowledge, needs and perspectives and resulted in an offering that ill fit their requirements. This initiative maintained a hierarchical power dynamic and prevented those it nominally aimed to assist from exercising agency. Perspective, power and contextual complexity are essential considerations at the planning table, whether as an NGO or as an individual who deeply cares about making the world a better place.


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Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A. L. (2001). “At the heart of practice: The struggle for knowledge and power,” In R. M. Cervero, A. L. Wilson, and Associates, Power in practice: Adult Education and the Struggle for Knowledge and Power in Society (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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Jeremy Elliott-Engel

Jeremy Elliott-Engel is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. His research and practice is focused on the organizational and programmatic effectiveness of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Cooperative Extension is the community outreach and education organization of land-grant universities. 4-H is the youth development program of Cooperative Extension. Before returning to graduate school, Elliott-Engel was a Regional 4-H Youth Development Specialist and County Program Director with University of Missouri Extension in rural Southwest Missouri. He holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management from State University of New York at Cobleskill.

Publication Date

February 8, 2018