Abandoning Empowerment: Semantics or Reality?

By Jamie Way, M.A. (Way is Village Earth’s Training Director.)

While attending an activist conference recently, I heard a plenary speaker passionately declaring his hatred for a number of words used by non-profits. Among the list of usual suspects (sustainability, etc.) he seemed particularly angry with the word “empowerment”.

At first I dismissed his argument as just another rant so common among activists and academics that readily discredit or abandon a word. Over the following few days, I kept trying to figure out what it was that he disliked so much about “empowerment.” Was it the word’s co-optation or its real significance?

What is clear is that this speaker represents a growing debate amongst organizers over the use of a handful of terms. Have they been so over-used and abused that once sacred terms like “participation”, “sustainability” and “empowerment” that were used to distinguish our work only have any significance if they are comfortably positioned next to a table illustrating their levels in an academic journal? Perhaps. If this was the case, I was confident that we could stand up to reclaim these words, rather than counting them as another casualty before adopting the next set of politically correct vernacular.

What started to concern me more, however, was if the term “empowerment” had as much significance as I had once hoped.

As a student of Political Science, I have long championed the idea of “development as empowerment,” (a play on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.) After all, as a literature review will suggest (read a literature review here), empowerment has been utilized in academic discourse to refer to support for the process by which a community gains power over their own future and increases their freedom of choice.

Seeing empowerment as just increasing self-determination, however, fails to note the connotations of the word in everyday language. A quick dictionary search yields a revealing list of related terms: confer, grant, delegate, give or invest. All of these words are used to describe how a presumably more powerful party “gives” power to a less powerful group. Colloquially speaking, it is evident that the term at least connotes a transfer of power.

The recognition of a power differential is not necessarily negative. Solidarity activists have long utilized their position of power to support the grassroots movements of less powerful actors. The term, however, is seen as problematic by some, because there is an aspect that implies giving agency, as if it is “ours” to give, rather than “theirs” to take.

In its best form, the literature on empowerment sees it as a means of overcoming structural limitations. (At its most paternalistic it speaks of increasing a groups capacity for decision-making.) Solidarity work is particularly effective when agency is limited by structural impediments, removing obstacles to liberation. Due to positions of privilege, there are times when allies are able to overcome structural limitations or be granted access to otherwise off-limit locations. But empowerment (in the sense of conveying power) seems to go a step beyond acts of solidarity. It raises the question of if we can actually transfer some of our position of privilege to others. And, if we can transfer power, is this a true means of liberation, or merely another form of the privileged having pity on the oppressed?

Perhaps the speakers annoyance with “empowerment” was somewhat warranted, at least if we use the term in its colloquial sense. Without some clarification of what we mean when we use the term, it seems to miss the point of Freire’s mutual liberation through process of discovery. It instead sees power as concentrated in ones’ hands and something to be given through a charitable act, not claimed through a dignified action. While the grassroots can use solidarity and the support of those in places of privilege, organizers should be careful not to recognize their agency as our gift.

Literature Review: Theories of Empowerment

By Heather Lausch 

Empowerment is a word that has been used so often and so widely that its definition has become blurred (1). Activist groups use the term to rally behind different issues, while academic circles frequently cite the word in scholarly articles. But what do they mean when they say “empowerment” and whom do they want to “empower?” I will discuss these questions by first starting with a brief history of the term.

In academic literature, the word empowerment first came onto the scene with regards to civil rights. One of the first articles was written in 1975 and called “Toward Black Political Empowerment – Can the System Be Transformed.” (2) This sparked multiple articles discussing empowering the black community, but it also ignited the use of the word in other circles. In 1978, the social work community utilized the word in an article entitled “From Service to Advocacy to Empowerment.” (3) Still other groups, from political entities to health organizations, latched on to the word citing it in articles such as “Grassroots Empowerment and Government Response” in Social Policy (4) and “Counseling for Health Empowerment.” (5)

The term really took off with literature discussing empowerment of marginalized peoples, such as women and the poor, and especially with regards to community development. For example, in 1983 the Women’s Studies International Forum discussed empowerment of women in “Power and Empowerment.” (6) From then until now, the literature has increasingly been focused on these issues. In 2010, articles were published entitled “Power and empowerment: Fostering effective collaboration in meeting the needs of orphans and vulnerable children” (7) and “Women empowerment through the SHG approach” (8) that demonstrate just a few ways how empowerment is being discussed in the academic community.

So while we can see that the word empowerment as been used by many different groups, how has it been used? What does the term mean? In a paper written by Solava Ibrahim and Sabina Alkire entitled “Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for internationally comparable indicators”, they document thirty-two different definitions of empowerment that are currently in use. (9) However, most of the definitions define empowerment in terms of agency, “an actor’s or group’s ability to make purposeful choices,” (10) and it is easy to see that these two terms are intricately linked. In fact, Ibrahim and Alkire define empowerment simply as the expansion of agency. Another source that views empowerment in this way is the article entitled “Well-being, Agency and Freedom” from The Journal of Philosophy.

The author characterizes empowerment as a person’s freedom to do and achieve the desired goals (11). This framework of empowerment focuses on the individual. Other authors take a slightly more narrowed approach, taking into consideration the institutional, social or political structures rules and norms within which the actors make and pursue their choices. This is how the World Bank measured empowerment in their World Development Report 2001; (12) by the existence of choice, the use of choice, and the achievement of choice.

In “Empowerment in Practice from Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, Bertelsen and Holland, they define empowerment as the process of enhancing an individual’s capacity to make choices and then transforming those choices into the sought after outcome (13). Similarly, in an article written in 2002 entitled “Empowerment and Poverty Reduction” by Narayan, the definition of empowerment is seen as increasing poor people’s freedom of choice and action to shape their own lives (14).

All these authors demonstrate their definition of empowerment as the relationship between agency and structure. What these authors can all agree upon are some overall themes of empowerment. First of all, empowerment is very multidimensional and it can be exercised on many different levels and domains (15). Empowerment can look different at the individual level versus the community level, and it can look different in the state versus the market. Empowerment is also relational, for it occurs in relation to whom a person interacts with. Authors like Narayan (16) and Mason (17) are quick to point out that empowerment is not a zero-sum game, but rather different types of power, such as power over, power to, power with, and power within. Finally, the literature stresses that empowerment is extremely culturally specific, and this can be seen in articles written by Malhotra and Mather (18), Mason (19) and Narayan (20).

Empowerment is related to the norms, values and beliefs of a society; therefore empowerment can be revealed differently in different societies. The term empowerment may have some general agreed upon qualities and definitions in the academic community, but how the word is used in organizations or among individuals may still vary.

  1. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development” by Malhotra et al from The World Bank (2002)
  2. “Toward Black Political Empowerment – Can System be Transformed” by Conyers, J. in Black Scholar 7:2 (1975).
  3. “From Service to Advocacy to Empowerment” by O’Connel, B in Social Casework 59:4 (1978).
  4. “Grassroots Empowerment and Government Response” by Perlman, J. in Social Policy 10:2 (1979). in Personnel and Guidance Journal.
  5. “Counseling for Health Empowerment” by Sternsrud, R.H. and Sternsrud, K. in Personnel and Guidance Journal 60:6 (1982).
  6. “Power and Empowerment” by Moglen, H in Women’s Studies International Forum 6:2 (1983).
  7. “Power and empowerment: Fostering effective collaboration in meeting the needs of orphans and vulnerable children” by Wallis A. in Global Public Health 5:5 (2010)
  8. “Women empowerment through the SHG approach” by Augustine D in Indian Journal of Social Work 71:4 (2010)
  9. “Agency and Empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indiciators” by Ibrahim, S and Alkire, S in Oxford Development Studies (2007) pg 6.
  10. “Agency and Empowerment: A review of concepts, indicators and empirical evidence” by Samman, E and Santos, M from Human Development Report (2009).
  11. “Well-being, Agency and Freedom” by Sen, A.K. in The Journal of Philosophy LXXXII (1985).
  12. World Development Report 2001: Attacking Poverty from the World Bank (2001)
  13. “Empowerment in Practice From Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M., and Holland, J. from World Bank (2006)
  14. “Empowerment and Poverty Reduction” by Narayan, D. from World Bank (2002)
  15. “Empowerment in Practice From Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M., and Holland, J. from World Bank (2006) pg 19.
  16. “Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives” by Narayan, D. from The World Bank (2005).
  17. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment: Learning from Cross-National Research” by Mason, K.O in Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (2005)
  18. “Do Schooling and Work Empower Women in Developing Countries? Gender and Domestic Decisions in Sri Lanka” by Malhotra, A. and Mather, M. in Sociological Forum 12:4 (1997)
  19. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment: Learning from Cross-National Research” by Mason, K.O in Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (2005)
  20. “Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives” by Narayan, D. from The World Bank (2005).