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Empowerment Social Development

Empowerment Social Development

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Published by Frances Tay
In discussing empowerment and the challenges that arise from adopting empowerment as a development objective, it is necessary to understand the context in which the concept of empowerment has gained currency. We examine briefly how the term empowerment has come to populate development discourses. In doing so, we also analyse the many facets inherent in such a loaded term and reflect on the question of what constitutes empowerment. We identify that empowerment is a process that enhances agency; however, the ability to exercise agency must be viewed within the multiple contexts including the political, social, cultural and economic institutions which affect people’s lives.
In discussing empowerment and the challenges that arise from adopting empowerment as a development objective, it is necessary to understand the context in which the concept of empowerment has gained currency. We examine briefly how the term empowerment has come to populate development discourses. In doing so, we also analyse the many facets inherent in such a loaded term and reflect on the question of what constitutes empowerment. We identify that empowerment is a process that enhances agency; however, the ability to exercise agency must be viewed within the multiple contexts including the political, social, cultural and economic institutions which affect people’s lives.

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Published by: Frances Tay on Mar 17, 2008
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12/05/2012

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Frances Tay McHugh (fran@321-connect.com) 1/11
“The process of empowerment, by enabling people to articulate and assert by wordsand by deeds their urges and thinking, is a core dimension of social development.”Discuss this statement, and explain the key challenges that may arise from adopting“empowerment” as a development objective.Introduction
In discussing empowerment and the challenges that arise from adopting empowerment asa development objective, it is necessary to understand the context in which the concept of empowerment has gained currency. We examine briefly how the term empowerment hascome to populate development discourses. In doing so, we also analyse the many facetsinherent in such a loaded term and reflect on the question of what constitutesempowerment. We identify that empowerment is a process that enhances agency;however, the ability to exercise agency must be viewed within the multiple contextsincluding the political, social, cultural and economic institutions which affect people’slives. We conclude that even if people are free to articulate and assert by words and deedstheir thoughts and urges, there are interactions arising from the complexities of socialrelations that may inhibit or constrain the exercise of agency.
Social development and people-centred approaches
In essence social development is the nexus of all development efforts. Regardless of thedevelopment intervention employed, ultimately the end-goal is to achieve some form of improvement in people’s lives and by extension, society at large. However, the idea of social development as a discipline in itself was absent in the early development theoriesand practices from the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, development discourses were focusedprimarily on the objectives of economic growth and modernisation as a means toeradicate poverty (Corbridge, 1995; Willis, 2001). Esteva (1992) has argued that duringthis period, social development and economic growth were perceived as interchangeable.Progressive economic growth on a measurable, predictable scale was thought to equate tosocial development. Free markets, if you will, was seen to be synonymous with liberationand greater democratisation, and ultimately the way out of poverty. Newly independent
 
Frances Tay McHugh (fran@321-connect.com) 2/11post-colonial countries ascribed to this prescription of economic growth, whereindustrialisation and modernisation copied along Western or Eurocentric models, wereperceived as the “common pathway to development” (Corbridge, 1995, p. 3). However,despite the ambitious interventions of the time, uneven growth and disparities continuedto persist along a North-South divide, between the richer developed countries (the North)and what was seen as the poorer and underdeveloped parts of the world (the South). Itbecame apparent that development theories and practices, formulated primarily fromNorth American and European historical experience with its focus on economic growth,were too myopic and ignored the historical and social contexts of individual nation statesand their peoples (Escobar, 1992; Frank, 1995).In the 1970s, the idea that social development as opposed to only economicdevelopment should be the focus of development efforts gained traction. During thistime, social development achieved significance on par with that of economicdevelopment as a development objective in itself (Midgley, 2003). This unified socio-economic approach was enshrined within the Cocoyov Declaration of 1974 at asymposium held by the United Nations Economic Planning (UNEP) and United NationsConference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where it was recognised thatdevelopment as a desired outcome was futile if it did not prioritise improving the qualityof people’s life. This led to the promulgation of social policies to ensure minimumstandards of living. This came to be seen as the basic needs approach, where the crux of development efforts rested on the provision to meet such needs as healthcare, educationand sanitation (Esteva, 1992).From the 1980s onwards, reaction to what was perceived as formulaic, top-downdevelopment practices resulted in backlash. This period was characterised by anti-statistand post-modernist ideologies of the day, where government intervention was seen to beless effective than the free hand of the market (Arce, 2003; Midgley, 2003) and top-downdevelopment approaches were seen as a continuation of oppressive colonialism undernew guise (Escobar, 1992; Frank, 1995). Further, there was increasing acknowledgementof the role individuals and the community played as social actors; it became clear thathow they perceived poverty and development (and therefore the necessary remedy) were
 
Frances Tay McHugh (fran@321-connect.com) 3/11not the same as that of multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, governments ordevelopment practitioners. This disparity has been credited with some of the failures of development interventions. For example, Landel-Mills (1992) has proposed that the poorimplementation of structural adjustment programmes in some African states were a resultof lack of consultation; as such, it lacked popular consensus. It became evident thatbeneficiaries had to be included in the planning process to capture their experience andperspectives. Against this backdrop, “actor-oriented studies ‘demythologized’ planning asa technical rational process” (Arce, 2003, p. 849). Consequently, ideas around people-centric, decentralised and bottom-up approaches gained ground. Grassroots approaches,which popularised the importance of local contexts and indigenous knowledge, lentgrowing prominence to ideas about individuals as social actors (Willis, 2001), whilecommunity participation approaches highlighted the collective power manifested throughcivic society groups to address social injustice (Midgley, 2003). Individuals as socialactors were perceived to be imbued with agency or asset endowments consisting of psychological, informational, material, social, financial and human capital (Alsop andHeinsohn, 2005). In exercising these endowments, individuals were seen to be able toexert some form of control and choice. Personal agency, then, came to the fore as beingcrucial to development. The World Bank, in its World Development Report 2000/2001,even termed empowerment as one of the “pillars of poverty reduction” (Alsop et. al.,2005, p. 5). Rather than being passive recipients, the poor have been recast as “agents of change” that needed to be empowered (Wolfensohn, 2000). Rather cynically, Henkel andStirrat (2001) have suggested that in doing so, it lays the responsibility for developmentoutcomes on beneficiaries and absolves practitioners. Fundamentally, they propose thatthe issue is not what people are empowered to do but how much. This leads us in turn ask what constitutes empowerment? How can empowerment be engendered? What doesbeing empowered mean? In the following sections, we will attempt to address thesequestions.

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