Systems, Power, and Gender: Perspectives on Transformational Change

By Jennifer Colville, Regional Team Lead and Kawtar Zerouali, Regional Innovation Advisor, UNDP

October 23, 2022

Have you ever thought… might the systems we’re making so much effort to strengthen be the very systems that are holding us back?

The events of the past few years – increasingly volatile and severe climate conditions, diminished peace and security, the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant disruptions to the global supply chain, to name just a few – have demonstrated that we live in an increasingly complex world, with interconnected and compound challenges that feed into and off one another. Failure to acknowledge this complexity and to respond at the level of systems inhibits the transformational change that is needed to achieve sustainable development for people and planet. 

In UNDP’s Strategic Plan (2022-2025), we committed to “build not just new skills, like systems thinking, but a new culture: one that embraces complexity, actively manages risk, continually adapts and seeks to learn alongside delivering results…. In an uncertain world, its business model must empower UNDP to respond to partners with the flexibility and at the scale they expect.”[1]

As UNDP Country Offices increasingly embrace complexity and formulate and implement initiatives that aspire to transform systems, the Strategic Innovation Unit started thinking about how we can best support our colleagues in taking a more “values-led” approach to systems transformation. We kickstarted our process with an exploration of systems thinking and portfolio approaches (through desk review, benchmarking of good practices, interviews with colleagues), and quickly found ourselves knee deep in issues of power dynamics, particularly gender dynamics.

We see the issue of power playing out in myriad ways as we design and deliver development interventions, from micro to macro and everything in between: from who is invited into the room to which initiatives receive funding; from how systems are understood and defined to how systems change is measured.

Gender inequality is arguably the most pervasive, endemic and disparate manifestation of power imbalances. As António Guterres (Secretary-General, United Nations) pointed out: “Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power. Centuries of discrimination and deep-rooted patriarchy have created a yawning gender power gap in our economies, political systems, and corporations…. Gender equality is a means of redefining and transforming power that will yield benefits for all.”[2]

Through our initial research, it became clear to us that we have an opportunity to become more attuned to power – where it is concentrated, how it reinforces the status quo of inequitable systems, where and how it can be dispersed. We subsequently collaborated with UNDP colleagues to design a framework that could support inclusive transformation of systems, by bringing to the fore the issue of power, especially considered through the lens of gender.

From extensive discussions with colleagues, the idea of a Power Dispersal Dandelion (PDD) emerged. The philosophy behind the dandelion metaphor is that in nature, the seeds of dandelions are efficiently dispersed thanks to tiny discs of radiating threads that act as parachutes, where seeds can sometimes travel 150 kilometers on the wind. Incredibly, they do this with no energy consumption, and can survive in almost any ecological niche. In the dandelion’s structure, it is the porous nature of the parachute—a virtually empty space—that lets air through and helps keep the seed steady as it flies. While dandelions are resilient and compete for territory, they never grow larger beyond their need. In fact, they fade quickly after blooming, and give other plants the chance to thrive by virtue of the nutrients and insects the dandelions send their way.

The Power Dispersal Dandelion is designed to support a deeper understanding of, and sensitivity to, power and gender dynamics in systems transformation work. From among many dimensions considered, we prioritized the following four concepts for exploring power and gender dynamics in systems transformation: Structures, Participation, Data, and Money. In our paper, we offer brief perspectives on each of these four concepts and why we think they’re important in understanding where power is concentrated and how it can be dispersed.

Structural inequity is the dynamic system that generates prejudiced outcomes based on gender, race, age, etc. Power goes to the heart of how structures can be (re)designed in ways that redistribute and rebalance power so that communities co-own decision-making, fulfill their ability to effect change, and define their own narratives. An examination of Participation prompts development practitioners to question and act upon the inclusion of all of those who should be in the metaphorical room. Data and Money are seen as critical enablers of systems transformation but also come laden with risks associated with their mismanagement.

The PDD consists of a set of questions for each of the four concepts and an evaluative framework to identify where along a spectrum – seedling to flowering to dispersal – we might be in our thinking about power and gender dynamics within systems. We were conscious not to produce another “deficit” assessment, one that can be used to classify organizations hierarchically, but rather as an exploratory and self-accountability tool.

We envision the PDD being used to put issues of power front and center in both how we work (e.g., how we design consultations, how we scope data capture and analysis) as well as what we work on (e.g., how we incorporate power dynamics into our understanding of systems and the interventions we support for transformational change). The PDD can be used at various stages: at the design stage; for and monitoring and evaluation of interventions; and for discussion with current and potential partners.

As we voice our intention to create new forms of engagement and power dispersal between privileged and marginalized groups, we invite those interested in using and providing feedback on the first iteration of the Power Dispersal Dandelion to get in touch with us. Already a community of early adopters is emerging within UNDP who are committing to using the PDD to explore power and gender dynamics in their systems transformation practices, while also taking immediate steps to address power distribution in systems transformation. Let us continue the conversation and the journey together!

To access Systems, Power, and Gender: Perspectives on Transformational Change full paper