Relationships Matter for Supporting Change in Favour of Poor People

R Eyben


What role does influencing play in bringing about pro poor change? Are current international donors spending too much time managing their budgets and not enough time managing relationships? This paper by the Institute of Development Studies examines the role of organisational learning in improving the performance of international development organisations. A number of approaches are identified for agencies to influence processes that lead to positive changes in the lives of poor people.

Everything an aid agency does is necessarily about influencing processes in favour of economic, political and social change. Understanding the policy context and investing in relationships are the two activities that are the primary means for supporting these processes. Aid agencies need to become more sensitive to how their power relations can strengthen or undermine the voice of the poor. Donor organisations need to examine how to better invest in relationships, build trust and work to support others and development efforts.

Influencing is seen as something new and different from the traditional project approach, which suggests measurable outcomes are achieved from discrete activities. Agencies are now recognising that it is difficult to control the complex processes of resistance and change involved in development assistance. The Department for International Developments’ (DFIDs) experience with influencing in Asia has been as follows:

  • DFID needs to be much more open to being influenced by others, building genuine partnerships and demonstrating its transparency and accountability to local communities.
  • The management culture of ‘getting things done’ can make staff vulnerable to criticisms of arrogance. Working on issues that have a number of willing partners may be more effective than forcibly raising a topic.
  • Donor agencies can sometimes be manipulative in order for their priorities to be recognised. It is important to build relationships of trust between partners involved.
  • Country offices have variations in the quality of relationships with local partners depending on their knowledge of the local context and culture.
  • Aid instruments should be seen as secondary to understanding the local policy context and building relationships to effectively support processes.

Influencing is based on establishing opportunities for engagement and should not be viewed as a linear or sequential process. Development agencies should aim to support not undermine poor peoples’ empowerment by:

  • Understanding the policy context. Policy-making requires analysing key contextual political, structural and historical factors with local partners.
  • Investing in relationships. Create the space to let others take the lead through engaging in facilitation.
  • Assessment for accountability and learning. Commitment from country teams is needed for systematic learning about their behaviour through indicators for changed behaviour.
  • Be more flexible and responsive to partner’s priorities. Responding to partners need may involve changing the way agencies assess their success.
  • Change the structure of administration and programme costs to view staff as a key component rather than an ‘overhead’.
  • Improving the collective emotional ability of staff to enable the achievement of a shared vision. This requires empathy and contextual understanding.


Eyben, R., 2004, ‘Relationships Matter for Supporting Change in Favour of Poor People’, Lessons for Change in Policy and Organisations, no. 8, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton