To empower and behold (for better or for worse)

Photo by Stephanie Buck. All rights reserved.

Empower: to give official authority or legal power to; to enable; to promote the self-actualization or influence of (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Empowerment has become one of the biggest buzzwords in the international development community. We talk about empowering entrepreneurs, women, minorities, youth, and everything in between. We talk about political empowerment, social empowerment, economic empowerment, etc. etc. You get the point.

But what do we really mean when we use this term? And has it become the go-to way to make it sound like we’re saying something important without saying anything at all?

While empowerment can be a good thing, there are several reasons why the way the international development community uses it have become problematic.

Photo by Stephanie Buck. All rights reserved.
Is this street vendor in Bogota empowered? It depends on whom you ask. Image by Stephanie Buck

The problems with “empowerment” as it is used today:

  • Using the term too loosely. Words used too much and in too many places often lose their meaning. Also, sometimes organizations will throw the word around to talk about project “successes” in a way that obscures project failures. Empowerment is hard to measure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The danger is when anecdotes about empowerment are used to avoid learning from failure.
  • Too many meanings and interpretations. Individual empowerment may look different than community or organizational empowerment. It may look different in public health than in the economic sector. Yet, a lot of development literature, reports, and promotional materials seem to refer to a very individualistic, entrepreneurial type of attitude. The drive for this type of empowerment may occur without considering structural or cultural context. And it runs the risk of seeing development challenges through a strict western lens. It may make it easier to have this particular viewpoint become the only viewpoint.
  • Making the same mistakes. Although talking about empowerment is certainly better than traditional white savior rhetoric, we still have to be careful. Sometimes it’s just used to replace other patronizing expressions.
  • Distorting the issues. Empowerment is often painted as a noble end in itself without considering the greater structural issues that might hold back entire groups of people. For example, a microentrepreneur might gain more access to capital through a particular program. By Western definitions she is then more ‘empowered.’ But maybe she lives in a village where the nearest doctor is still dozens of kilometers away. Maybe her children still don’t have access to a good school. Maybe she’s become an internally displaced person who feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. She can’t go home, and she can’t leave. Maybe the financial ‘empowerment’ has made a small change for her. But the way that many organizations would use this word would make it seem like her whole life is about to change drastically. And in this case that just wouldn’t be true.

As Hennink et al point out, “providing knowledge alone is often insufficient to ensure empowerment occurs, without consideration for the opportunity structures that can facilitate or hinder individuals for change.”

That is not to say that empowerment or empowering people is a bad thing. Not at all. It can be a very, very good thing. And by all means, in this field, we have to celebrate small successes where they happen. But we have to think more carefully about how we use this word, and if we truly mean what we say. We need to avoid using it when it becomes meaningless jargon.

Sometimes it is the most appropriate word. And we should define what we mean by it, making it specific to each context. We should think about if the word is accurate. And we shouldn’t use it to obscure real problems and challenges in order to meet targets or match one particular vision of development.

We need to think about the way we use words like this. It forms part of an essential process of communicating about and for development in a way that enables people to see themselves not just as observers, but as part of the solution.

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