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?

  • Do you think it is correct to assume that before a programme arrives people have 100% power over their lives and they make 100% of the decisions in their lives? I don’t know if this statement reflects reality for many people.

    • admin

      Perhaps I spoke too loosely in the interest of rhetorical force. Thanks for pointing out the problem: one reason I like writing publicly, is iron out the bugs.

      What I mean is that as well as bringing (hopefully) benefits, every programme also brings with demands of the beneficiary: on the scope of their decision making, on their time, on their future direction as a community. These demands were absent prior to the arrival of the program.

      Therefore, rather than see an aid program as an unproblematic “delivery” of benefits/development assistance, we should see it as a negotiation between two parties, and take care that the deal thus struck is indeed “win win”, as well as open and transparent.

      What I’ve learned is that every program and funder has its own interests, which get expressed through the design and management of the program. That’s not bad: that’s just human. In the best kind of negotiation, these interests are transparent and “on the table”. Often though, not only is the beneficiary unclear about the funders interests, but the funder itself has not articulated these interests to itself.

      I intend to expand on this theme in the next few posts.

  • Thanks for the response. I agree that the negotiation that takes place between donor and funder is important and your point about added demands being placed on beneficiaries is also interesting. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  • MJ

    Hi. I like the blog.

    I think your characterisation of “empowerment” programmes is a little misleading, although your central tenet is right. Often, tho not always, the power being developed is at the expense of government structures (local or national). The empowering programme may well be a donor-funded government programme (in which case the contradictions are obvious – donors take note!), but often times the empowering work may be undertaken by an NGO. In these cases you could view it as the NGO transferring some of their power to the recipient community, but even this does not capture the whole picture as communities that can get their act together (NOT an easy job) can be much more powerful in certain local arenas than an NGO since the NGO is necessarily something of an outsider.

    That all said, the notion that aid projects are in themselves disempowering is very useful and pertinent, and helps to explain aid dependency. It is also v useful as a back-drop for any efforts aims at empowerment; exactly what powers are being conferred and at what expense? Too many empowerment programmes don’t really seem to empower anyone, and that is a crying shame.

    • David Week

      Thanks MJ. On reflection, I realise I don’t have any issue with the idea of helping people change the balance of power in a positive way. And I agree with your insight that in many cases communities—in the big picture, long view—can be more powerful than any NGO because: they are there for the long term; they have a political license; they have local knowledge; they have hundreds or thousands of local members; for them, it’s personal.

      Since I wrote this post, I also found this paper while reading and thinking about the topic. I thought it had a few good points:

  • Pingback: Dissecting “Empowerment” | VOICE 4 Girls()

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