The trouble with “empowerment”

by David Week on 05 August 2010


When I did my PhD, it took me 10 years. Part of the reason for that was just me, and part was the fact that I was working full time in development while doing it. But part of it too was the fact that I radically changed topics mid-stream. I became interested in hermeneutics, which is the philosophy of interpretation.

Hermeneutics is important to development because development brings different cultures together: typically the culture of the donor, and the culture of the beneficiary. If an Australian NGO works to combat aids in Cambodia, that program becomes a meeting ground between the culture of Australia, and the culture of Cambodia.

Now, some people think of “culture” as the arts: dance, painting, literature and rap. A more comprehensive understanding of culture is to see it as part of who you are: that if you are an Australian you will have aspects of self and understanding that are uniquely shaped by having been part of Australian culture, and the same for people who are Cambodians, Inuit, New Yorkers, or whoever.

A yet more comprehensive way of thinking of about culture is as the entire way of life of a community or of a people: including ways of thinking and seeing the world, social relations, customs, artefacts, economy: the whole box and dice of a “form of life.”

I use that last definition. It’s the way most anthropologists view culture.

A central part of culture is language, and there’s a body of literature which tells us that language shapes the way we think and see. Key authors in this literature are the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, and the hermeneutic philosophers Heidegger and Gadamer. A great classic in the genre was written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By. This is where I started my exploration of hermeneutics, and I recommend it.

Donald Schön, an architect, was also a central figure in this literature. He showed how public policy and decision-making is determined by the frame in which we set the question. As soon as we describe slums as “urban blight”, we have really telegraphed the solution to ourselves. What do you do with a “blight”? You eradicate it. Thus came in the 1960s the big “urban renewal” schemes aimed at demolishing the houses of poor people. In the 1960s and 1970s, workers like Jane Jacons and John F. C. Turner helped show that “slums” were not “blight”, but rather “slums of hope” worth supporting, and living and lively communities worth protecting and supporting.

Development language also shapes the way that we think, and therefore act. I’ll write  later about how the language of development suggests (starting with the word “aid”) that development flows from “us” to “them”, and how this is not necessarily true, and not necessarily helpful.

Just recently, I posted a tweet (I’m dipping my toes in the waters of twitter) in which I used the word “empowerment”. That words seems on the face of it like a good word. What could be wrong with giving people more power over their own lives?

What’s wrong with it is just that: the sense of “giving”. I empower you. This program will empower villages. We must empower people to make these decisions. And so on. But in these phrases, the people being “empowered” are the objects, rather than the subjects of their own development. And this in the nature of the word “empower”, which is a transitive verb, which means that A does something to B.

The whole concept of “empowerment” shifts power away from the person or community being “empowered”, to the person or agency doing the “empowering”.

I think we need a new word, which reflects what I think is a more accurate depictment of what happens with power ina  development program.

Before a program arrives in a community, people have a 100% of the power over their own lives. They make 100% of the decisions. Aspects of life might be challenging, difficult, painful or hard. Their power may be weak and limited over famine, flood or illness. But they don’t share that power: that life is wholly their own.

When a program arrives, this ownership can start to shift. No matter how well-intentioned, all programs have their own agendas, and their own constraints and objectives. Because they bring money, technology and expertise, they also have their own power, which is associated with that agenda.

The risk that a program disempowers people, by starting to take control over and responsibility for aspects of other lives has been long understood. Good programs are designed to avoid this disempowerment, because it is self-defeating. At least temporarily, this shift in power is not completely avoidable, in so far as all programs have objectives, funders, funds, technology, expertise, and so forth. None the less, a good program seeks to be conscious of these effects, and to minimise disempowering side-effects.

So what I really wanted to say when I used “empowerment”, then, is “avoiding disempowerment”, which is a bit of an awkward phrase. I’m reminded of the longest word in the English language: “antidisestablishmentarianism.” What a good program needs is not to do “empowerment”, but to be invested with “antidisempowermentarianism.”

I kind of like the jokiness of that word. But it is also rather awkward.

So what’s the simple word that doesn’t have the disempowering connotations of “empower” (I give you the power), but means rather that I consciously avoid using my power (money, technology, agendas, expertise) in a way that deprives you of yours?

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