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Our World Isn’t Flat: Role of Power Dynamics in Development Communication

Jing Guo's picture

Power dynamics set the tone at almost every level of human interaction. They influence your decision to speak up in meetings with supervisors, shape an organization’s approach to engaging its clients, and even guide the ways in which a government treats its citizens, responds to dissent, and enforces reforms.
We all internalize and externalize power relationships in unique ways; yet, researchers like Geert Hofstede believe that our individual differences are often perceived through shared assumptions about power passed down to us by the histories of our own societies. In his seminal work Culture Consequences, Hofstede introduces the concept of “power distance” to help quantify and measure how the powerful and the powerless interact.

What is power distance?
Power distance is the “extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Simply put, in a more stratified society (i.e. high power distance), people pay enormous attention to the relative standing of others and are comfortable with hierarchical and paternalistic social structures. By contrast, a society of low power distance de-emphasizes status and stresses informality, straightforwardness, and participation.
The interactive map below shows the power distance index (PDI) of 60+ countries. For instance, Austria has a low power distance (11). Malaysia, on the other hand, has a much higher power distance (104).

Power Distance by Region


Commenting on power distance in his best-selling book Outlier, Malcolm Gladwell says there is not a right or wrong place to be on the PDI scale—nor is the scale an ironclad predictor of individual behaviors of members of a certain society. One of many things I believe the index can do is to help development communicators fine-tune their messaging and expectations while working with international communities.

How does power distance mediate development communication?
Framing development: the notion of development has long been contested. Much of the debate centers on the uneven power relationship between the developed and the developing worlds. If development means change for the better, questions arise about what is good progress, and who drives the development agenda.
Given the varying levels of acceptance of imbalanced power structures (e.g. authority, institutions), formalized development institutions conventionally funded by developed nations could experience different degrees of resistance or welcome from local communities in the developing world. In both cases, effective communication—especially power-conscious discourse—plays a key role in building a positive and trusting relationship between the institution and the locals.
Open participation: regarding the top-down and participatory models of development communication, there has been a clear endorsement of the latter in recent history. The participatory paradigm stresses the voice and identity of local communities and their participation at all levels. For instance, the World Bank Group holds consultations in various forms to incorporate views from civil society organizations, governments, private sector, and academia (a Cambodia example) in its decision-making processes. Yet, the fundamental principles of openness and inclusiveness can be undermined, if public hearings are organized in a way that disregards the effect of power distance. To be more specific, the presence of a high-ranking official at the meeting could silence an otherwise interactive discussion in some high power-distance countries.

Online communication: differences in power distance can even play out in the online world. Tian’s study found that, in parts of the world characterized by high power distance, corporate websites are significantly more likely to emphasize the organization’s ties with governments, feature its major accomplishments, and showcase visits by authorities. In the context of international development, this example demonstrates the need to address cultural characteristics of local communities even when communicating online. We may ask ourselves, on our country websites, are we unintentionally overshadowing the role of common citizens in development projects by highlighting technical experts and government collaboration? Will this approach leave some stakeholders feeling excluded in low power-distance regions?

Development communication is more than success stories and press releases, and I hope that we have moved past the mindset of seeing it as “development support communication” or “a sub-component of development sectors.” Communication, in its own right, is a major force for development, as it facilitates attitude and behavior changes. These changes cannot be pursued effectively or appropriately without understanding the multiplicity of power dynamics at local and global levels.

Photograph of President of Brazil (2011–2015) Dilma Rousseff and the Prince of Asturias during her inaugural ceremony on 1 January 2011 by Agencia Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

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Submitted by Camilo A. on


Thanks for highlighting this important issue of cultural variables. We have heard lately that "culture has strategy for breakfast" in connection the Bank's internal change process. I wonder if we don't need to look at culture also as an important factor in issues related to our work with clients as well. I used to teach Hofstede's model to dispute resolution grad students applying it conflict and collaboration dynamics. One insight about the application of this model was the need to look at several of Hofstede's variables to understand the case studies. For instance, we could we predict from a combination of low power distance/ high or mid individualism/ low uncertainty avoidance (common in developed countries) was an incresaed likelyhood that citizens will voice opinions and even openly challenge government officials during public meeting but also higher levels of collaboration once decisions are made; while high power distance/ high collectivism. high uncertainty avoidance would increase the likelyhood of citizens staying silent during public meetings and low levels of voluntary collaboration during implementation. I remeber how strange it felt to me to attend my first "townhall meeting" in the US. It was strange listening to people standing up and challenging their elected officials, in direct language. It felt "rude" to someone who grew up in Colombia (relatively high in PD and UA) where open disagreements are sometimes equated with personal attacks. The experience of heaaring people expressing opinions openly, and still these not being considered personal attacks unless the speaker crossed certain lines, was new. After some time, I got used to it. I'm sure for many people in developing countries the introduction of "townhall"-like process to get government officials to communicate with citizens may feel weird too.

Submitted by Jing on

Many thanks Camilo for your comment. Indeed, as your experience illustrates, a successful approach in one region of the world might not yield the same outcome in another. Sensitivity to diversity and complexity of culture is essential for those working in international development to ensure open communication, build trusting relationships, and achieve desired development results.

Submitted by Yanna Zhang on

Jing, Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge in Power distance. It is very helpful for us to communicate more efficiently here at our multicultural work place.

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