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).

Geographic Technology as a Tool for Indigenous Empowerment

There is only one month left before the monumental Indigenous Tribunal in the Ucayali region of the Amazon!

As part of the Tribunal, Village Earth was asked to facilitate community mapping workshops for Shipibo Communities but we need your support to get the necessary resources to indigenous leaders.

We’ve bundled these resources into a low-cost and easy to use “Mapping Kit” that we would like to give to community representatives participating in our free mapping workshop.


You can help by purchasing one of these kits for a Shipibo community today!

Support Village Earth and the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon with your sponsorship of a Mapping Kit!
(Contributions of any amount are welcome, greatly appreciated, and 100% tax-deductible.)

Each Mapping Kit will include a hand-held GPS unit and Map Book of their territory to be given to community leaders. Village Earth will then provide the instruction in how to use this technology to their advantage.


Mapping Kits will enable communities to:

  • Identify their boundaries to determine if outside interests are illegally taking their resources or colonizing their lands.
  • Identify illegal logging using the satellite imagery available in the map books.
  • Map existing resources to establish a baseline for future comparisons of resource depletion/restoration
  • Better manage and plan for the use of their limited resources.

Village Earth has been using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to create maps of indigenous territory combined with satellite images of the region. Some Shipibo leaders have already used these maps to dispute government and colonist land claims and build their case in support of indigenous land rights in the region.




Your contribution not only provides the mapping resources, but will help further the greater collective vision for the alternative development of the region based on indigenous knowledge and values. By supporting the Shipibo’s efforts at mobilizing the region and these community-based mapping endeavors, together we can:

  • Organize indigenous communities in the Ucayali region to increase their economic and political clout to determine their own futures
  • Teach GPS technology to indigenous leaders so they no longer have to rely on expensive and biased government GPS technicians
  • Support Shipibo efforts to reclaim and restore indigenous land stewardship practices.

 


Shipibo Regional Organizational Workshop


Above: Enjoying a relaxing evening after the workshop. 

Village Earth was asked by some prominent Shipibo leaders a few months back to facilitate another regional workshop this time with more of an emphasis on intercommunity cooperation. So the Village Earth team returned for a 7-day workshop in early January. Twenty-four Shipibo leaders participated representing six communities in four different districts throughout the Ucayali. The workshop began with a review of past Village Earth-Shipibo collaborations and a viewing of the Village Earth/Shipibo documentary film, “The Children of the Anaconda“. Then we began a district-wide mapping session so community members would be begin to think beyond their own borders. This brought up an array of environmental issues as participants discussed sharing forest and river resources with neighboring communities, but also the destruction being wrought by logging and oil companies in the region.

Below: Shipibo children participated by drawing their own map of their community and then presented it to the group. For community initiatives to be truly sustainable, children, too, must always be involved in the process. 

Village Earth would like to facilitate collaboration between our project partners, and both the Lakota and Shipibo have expressed much interest in working together in the future as they face many of the same issues being the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. We decided to do a viewing of the Village Earth-produced documentary film “Rezonomics” which highlights the economic situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Although they inhabit vastly different environments, the Shipibo found many similarities in their struggles and learned from the Lakota new ways to think about many of their issues.

This was followed by a discussion on the roles and activities of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Shipibo country. This led to a very interesting discussion about NGOs and top-down funding models which many times inhibits NGOs from being responsive to community needs and truly participatory community-based development. The Shipibo have dealt with NGO after NGO letting them down with failed promises. However, this is not purely the fault of the NGO. The Shipibo, too, recognize that they need to be proactive and organized when soliciting the assistance of NGOs. Only when both parties are in consensus and work through the Shipibo model of community organization is there the potential to have successful collaborations. 

This led us to the discussion of ‘So, what has been successful?’ What has worked before and how did they organize to make it happen? This is an important part of the Village Earth process because we want to encourage communities to build off of past successes instead of reinventing the wheel each time. Many community projects had been successful before – from communal construction projects to fish farms. Then we questioned, “How did the communities organize themselves in order to make these projects happen?”

 

 

Above: One influential Shipibo leader, Limber Gomez, draws out the model of intra and inter-community governance that the Shipibo people use to organize themselves. This highlighted the disconnect between the way NGOs were entering the communities and beginning their work and the way in which Shipibo communities build consensus and participation for projects.

Shipibo communities already have their own consensus-building processes in which the community authorities hold assemblies where everybody is welcomed and encouraged to attend. From this point, committees are democratically-elected to take on different project aspects which then report back to the authorities and the community during the assemblies. They have their own treasurers and methods for financial accountability. Although this seems like such common sense, it is surprising how many outsiders come in thinking they have the answers or that the Shipibo don’t know how to manage their own finances or run their own projects. Yet, the Shipibo are actually running their community affairs with incredible organizational capacity which is only disrupted when outsiders try to impose top-down funding and project management.

We then began the strategic planning session with a five-year vision emphasizing regional unity. This was really a question from the heart – what do they really feel for their community and their people, as opposed to just thinking about what material goods they would like to have. This really forced them to look deep inside themselves to come up with their comprehensive vision collectively. Their vision consisted of four main emphasis areas: Community Development, Formation of Shipibo Professionals (business leaders, doctors, engineers, lawyers), Cultural Revival, and the creation of Micro-enterprises.

 

This led to the question, “What obstacles are holding you back from achieving your vision?” The participants really focused on obstacles they could change themselves instead of focusing on larger global systemic issues that might seem more daunting to overcome. We then moved onto Strategic Directions where participants looked at what they can do in the next year to overcome their obstacles and begin to move toward their vision. The Strategic Directions really got the participants involved and thinking about what they can actually do to achieve their own vision for the future.
Below: All participants were involved in putting their ideas onto the board throughout the visioning process. These young men were rearranging the group’s ideas into coherent groupings for the Strategic Directions phase of the workshop.

 

 

Finally, the workshop reached its pinnacle in the Action Planning phase. Participants mapped out their plans for the next three months – practical actions that they can actually take to move toward their vision and be active agents in their own “development” process. Eight aspects were deemed the most important areas for action. They are:

 

  • First and foremost — protect and defend Shipibo territory
  •  

  • Broader regional unity
  •  

  • Cultural revival
  •  

  • University scholarships for their children
  •  

  • Small business development
  •  

  • An Indigenous Bank to facilitate economic development
  •  

  • Promoting indigenous foods for better nutrition
  •  

  • Shipibo-run radio stations broadcasting throughout the region

A committee was formed for each of these eight areas, tasks were assigned, timelines and budgets were drawn up, and finally they were presented back to the group.

Above: Lea
ders of the group planning actions to protect indigenous territory present their plan back to the group for approval.

 

These eight areas will be further discussed in forthcoming Blog postings. A Transitory Committee was democratically-elected amongst the participants (with at least one representative of each community present in the workshop) to hold an Indigenous Tribunal in June. This June event will be the follow-up to this workshop and it is Village Earth’s great honor that the Shipibo have asked Village Earth to return and co-facilitate this historic event. The Tribunal will be a gathering of Indigenous leaders from all 120 Shipibo communities, as well as other regional indigenous groups, to discuss their own alternative plan for “A Better Ucayali”.
All in all, this Regional Organizational Workshop was an incredibly empowering event and a great learning experience for all involved. The Shipibo have expressed to the Village Earth team how happy and grateful they are for our support for their self-determination. Yet, when we asked “Who came up with this plan?”, the participants realized that it was completely decided and directed by them with Village Earth only providing the framework from which to begin to question and think about some of these important issues.

 

Village Earth is honored to work with these amazing individuals that participated in this workshop and the Shipibo people as a whole. And we feel privileged to be invited to co-facilitate their landmark Indigenous Tribunal in June 2007. 

 

Above: Village Earth facilitators Kristina Pearson and David Bartecchi dance with the group as the Shipibo band plays in the background. The community organized a farewell party on the last evening of the workshop to celebrate the achievements of the group.

Below: A special thank you to Mayer Kirkpatrick, Mateo Arevalo, and Freddy Arevalo for their hardwork and dedication to this project.


Above: Thank you to Ralf (Village Earth’s media specialist), and Chloe (Village Earth’s Poet Laureate) for their hardwork and help throughout the workshop.

 

Below: A very special thank you to Flora – an amazing volunteer who gave so much of her time to help with translations and facilitating the workshop. 

And most of all – THANK YOU to all of our donors – without you none of this would have been possible!