“The process of empowerment, by enabling people to articulate and assert by words and 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 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. We conclude that even if people are free to articulate and assert by words and deeds their thoughts and urges, there are interactions arising from the complexities of social relations 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 the development 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 theories and practices from the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, development discourses were focused primarily on the objectives of economic growth and modernisation as a means to eradicate poverty (Corbridge, 1995; Willis, 2001). Esteva (1992) has argued that during this period, social development and economic growth were perceived as interchangeable. Progressive economic growth on a measurable, predictable scale was thought to equate to social development. Free markets, if you will, was seen to be synonymous with liberation and greater democratisation, and ultimately the way out of poverty. Newly independent

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post-colonial countries ascribed to this prescription of economic growth, where industrialisation and modernisation copied along Western or Eurocentric models, were perceived as the “common pathway to development” (Corbridge, 1995, p. 3). However, despite the ambitious interventions of the time, uneven growth and disparities continued to 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). It became apparent that development theories and practices, formulated primarily from North American and European historical experience with its focus on economic growth, were too myopic and ignored the historical and social contexts of individual nation states and their peoples (Escobar, 1992; Frank, 1995). In the 1970s, the idea that social development as opposed to only economic development should be the focus of development efforts gained traction. During this time, social development achieved significance on par with that of economic development as a development objective in itself (Midgley, 2003). This unified socioeconomic approach was enshrined within the Cocoyov Declaration of 1974 at a symposium held by the United Nations Economic Planning (UNEP) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where it was recognised that development as a desired outcome was futile if it did not prioritise improving the quality of people’s life. This led to the promulgation of social policies to ensure minimum standards 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, education and sanitation (Esteva, 1992). From the 1980s onwards, reaction to what was perceived as formulaic, top-down development practices resulted in backlash. This period was characterised by anti-statist and post-modernist ideologies of the day, where government intervention was seen to be less effective than the free hand of the market (Arce, 2003; Midgley, 2003) and top-down development approaches were seen as a continuation of oppressive colonialism under new guise (Escobar, 1992; Frank, 1995). Further, there was increasing acknowledgement of the role individuals and the community played as social actors; it became clear that how they perceived poverty and development (and therefore the necessary remedy) were

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not the same as that of multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, governments or development practitioners. This disparity has been credited with some of the failures of development interventions. For example, Landel-Mills (1992) has proposed that the poor implementation of structural adjustment programmes in some African states were a result of lack of consultation; as such, it lacked popular consensus. It became evident that beneficiaries had to be included in the planning process to capture their experience and perspectives. Against this backdrop, “actor-oriented studies ‘demythologized’ planning as a technical rational process” (Arce, 2003, p. 849). Consequently, ideas around peoplecentric, decentralised and bottom-up approaches gained ground. Grassroots approaches, which popularised the importance of local contexts and indigenous knowledge, lent growing prominence to ideas about individuals as social actors (Willis, 2001), while community participation approaches highlighted the collective power manifested through civic society groups to address social injustice (Midgley, 2003). Individuals as social actors were perceived to be imbued with agency or asset endowments consisting of psychological, informational, material, social, financial and human capital (Alsop and Heinsohn, 2005). In exercising these endowments, individuals were seen to be able to exert some form of control and choice. Personal agency, then, came to the fore as being crucial 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 and Stirrat (2001) have suggested that in doing so, it lays the responsibility for development outcomes on beneficiaries and absolves practitioners. Fundamentally, they propose that the 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 does being empowered mean? In the following sections, we will attempt to address these questions.

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The process of empowerment Despite the proliferation of the term empowerment within the lexicon of developmentspeak, there are critics that question whether this is merely another buzzword or fashionable window-dressing for business-as-usual practices (Moore, 2001; Cornwall and Brock, 2005). What empowerment actually entails remains vague and contested (Moore, 2001; Mayoux, 2003). Perhaps a reason for this is because empowerment falls within the category of intangible, non-material and “ideational elements” which involve, among other things, concepts such as self-actualization, capacity-building and social integration (Midgley, 2003, p. 840). Not only do such elements carry multiple and often subjective meanings to different people, they are also difficult to measure. Cornwall et. al. (2005) proposed that the original emphasis of empowerment is “building personal and collective power in the struggle for more a more just and equitable world” (p. 1046). Others have suggested that empowerment is about changing power relations so that those who were previously powerless are able to exercise selfdetermination with regards to their lives (Sen, 1997; Mosedale, 2003; Oxaal and Baden, 1997). In referring to Batiwala (1993), Sen summarised empowerment as control over resources such as physical and financial capitals and control over ideology such as values, attitudes and beliefs. Sen (1997) further proposed that the empowerment process “must alter both people’s self-perception and their control over their lives and their material environments” (p. 2). As such, one can say that the battleground for empowerment is not only in the tangible world but one which also involves the mind and heart. Such views are reminiscent of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s ideas about conscientisation or critical consciousness. He surmised that to be critically conscious was to engage in a continuous struggle for freedom. This was because, in Freire’s view, the poor adopted a subordinate reality of themselves as powerless and ineffectual to affect changes for their own betterment, a reality that their oppressors reinforced. Instead, Freire proposed that individuals are active agents able to create their own reality. In recognising this, they become critically conscious which fosters “a self-transformation providing a stance of intervention in one’s context” (p. 48). At the crux of Freirean philosophy is intervention, for “critical thinking leads to critical action” (p. 44).

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Therefore, power relations are central to empowerment issues, for power is derived not in isolation but through interaction. In this way, empowerment relates to intrinsic capability and capacity, as well as extrinsic control. It is manifested through power from within in terms of awareness, self-belief and confidence. It also stems from power in relation to others; that is, power over others in terms of influence or dominance, power with others as a collective group and the power to create change (Rowlands, 1998). Narayan (2002) and Luttrell, Quiroz, Strutton and Bird (2007) suggest that empowerment is multidimensional and encompasses the economic, human and social, political and cultural. To be economically empowered is to have access to assets that will secure and sustain one’s livelihood, such as access to education, employment and financial resources. Human and social empowerment relates to ideas surrounding identity, belonging and self-determination. Political empowerment is closely linked to rights issues; for example, the ability to access one’s entitlements, to be represented, to organise, to engage with and participate in civil society. It also extends to the ability to hold accountable institutions which affect one’s life. Cultural empowerment relates to the rules and norms which are inherent in one’s culture and is often linked to ideas about ethnic minorities and diversity. So while empowerment has proven to mean different things to many people, it is undoubtedly multidimensional in scope. From the above descriptions, I would suggest that the issues surrounding empowerment can be grouped into two broad overarching themes – one relates to agency, while the other relates to the structural. Agency refers to the personal capability and capacity to influence, while the structural relates to an enabling environment. By an enabling environment, I mean the availability of space in which to exert that power. These take the forms of political, social, cultural and economic institutions which constrain or enable the exercise of agency.

Empowerment in practise and challenges In an effort to empower beneficiaries, many development agencies have adopted participatory approaches in their programs (Cooke and Kothari, 2001). However, whether such approaches in themselves empower is a matter of debate. Oxaal et. al. (2007)

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contend that participants must be engaged at all stages of the project for it to promote empowerment. Sen (1997) cautioned that “cursory consultation” (p. 3) may result from narrow interpretations of what it means to empower. Multilateral organisations have come under much fire for adopting participatory approaches. For example, Francis (2001) has critiqued the World Bank’s use of participatory processes. In his view, social and structural contexts have been neglected in favour of “the ‘social’ (being) primarily interpreted in terms of process, consultation and partnership” (p. 85). Moore (2001) suggested that multilateral organisations may use the word empowerment, but by confining programmes to materialist concerns, such as improving economic conditions, reducing dependency and promoting greater freedom, such programmes are fundamentally no different from pro-poor programmes that had gone before. The World Bank however appears to equate participation with empowerment. For example, a World Bank 2000 report reads that policies “have a much greater chance of success if a broader range of actors is consciously and concertedly included” (World Bank, 2000, p. 73). Under the section heading “bolder action by broader coalitions,” Uganda is held up as an exemplary case of how participatory practices have been successful in the country’s implementation of the High-Indebtness Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. It touts Uganda as “one of the first countries to qualify for help” (p. 75) and goes on to detail how Uganda ‘qualified’ by meeting several World Bank-determined requirements. It then details how reviews were undertaken with a broad network of organisations, including the Jubilee 2000 international coalition, resulting in “an exchange of views involving a convergence of interests and agreement on functional goals,” and how these became the basis for the shape and nature of debt relief under HIPC (World Bank, 2000, p. 73-74). The irony of Uganda’s plight vis-à-vis World Bank influence appears to have been lost in the face of such a tour de force of participation. Another less obvious irony is the picture of a Grameen fisheries project on the report cover. The founder of Grameen Bank has steadfastly refused funds from the World Bank as doing so, in his view, would allow the World Bank to “dictate to us and make us conform to their views” (Yunus and Jolis, 2003, p.14).

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Empowerment is not a thing that can be bestowed, neither can it be given or done to someone (Sen, 1997; Mosedale, 2003). Therefore, a development agency or national government, by implementing a programme or instituting a policy cannot be said to have empowered its beneficiaries or citizens. Rather interventions can help promote greater degrees of empowerment by engendering an enabling environment which increases both personal agency or choice and opportunities (Alsop et. al, 2005). That is, to be empowered requires one to have rights, as well as the ability to exercise those rights, to have choices, to make a decision and actually achieve the desired outcome when doing so (Mosedale, 2003; Luttrell et. al., 2007). Therefore, because empowerment cannot be reduced to a specific activity, it cannot be a development objective in itself. This is because “it involves a process whereby (people) can freely analyse, develop and voice their needs and interests, without them being pre-defined, or imposed…” (Oxaal et. al.,1997, p.6). Because it is a transformative process, the outcome is unpredictable and therefore cannot be planned. Arce (2003) echoed a similar view when he proposed that the divergence between planned development outputs and unintended development outcomes is a result of variable social or human dimensions. He suggested that people engaged in countertendencies and negotiations when interacting with development interactions; that is, they adapt planned interventions into existing strategies or create new paths for change rather than follow prescription. He therefore proposed that when considering how people and institutions react, one should take into account the many dimensions involved, including people’s sense of agency, how they negotiate or resist reform, their life-experiences and the social context in which such contestations take place. This raises the issue of the complexities of power relations embedded in social relations. Often, in development practice, these have been largely ignored or downplayed (Moore, 2001). In such cases, Chaves and Stoller (2002) argue that the individual has been reduced to “an abstract entity isolated from any social context” (p. 7). In their view, in neglecting to examine social relations is to be blind to how these relations order society and the motivations that cause someone to act in certain ways. Such relations exert influence in many ways and may not always be apparent.

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For example, Kothari (2001) has suggested that what people say and do may “mask the power structure of the community” (p. 146). She contends that behaviours are influenced by social and cultural norms, therefore what is promoted may be the sanctioned collective view rather than the individuals. Lawler (1992) has also proposed that an individual may adjust his preferences accordingly in favour of the collective’s. Lawler referred to this relation as “affective attachment” (p. 327). The premise of Lawler’s theory rests on two central points. Firstly, social actors “interpret a social structure in terms of either the constraints it imposes or what it enables them to do” and secondly that it is from this social structure that actors derive their “sense of control” (p.330). The latter we can equate to agency. Lawler proposed that the process of enabling or empowerment was determined by the actors’ perceptions of freedom or control, or lack thereof. If the actor perceived his agency was a result of the collective which informed the social structure, he would form an attachment to the collective. Apart from the emotional benefits the actor derived from having agency, he would also feel a sense of responsibility towards this collective. The more freedom of choice the actor credited to the collective, the greater the attachment. In this way, Lawler argued that the actor would then adopt the “collective welfare and redefine their individual interests” (p. 337). Social relations also manifest themselves in other ways. For example, Booth (2003) cited examples of disparities that arose from the Poverty Reduction Strategy Planning (PRSP) exercises between the World Bank and some African nations, where “there were inconsistencies between statements and actions, and examples of contradictory behaviour” (p. 873). He pointed to cases where the PRSP drafting process was “driven by concerns to deliver the kind of product expected in Washington” (p.873). Chaves et. al. (2002) attributed such behaviour to the existence of clientelism, where the patron-client relationship is characterised by a “system of reward and punishments” (p. 8). In this way, as illustrated by Booth’s example of the PRSP exercises and the earlier example of the World Bank-Uganda HIPC programme, the client or the beneficiary subjugate themselves to fulfilling the requirements laid down by the patron. In doing so, they either avail of the reward offered (aid) or face the consequences (disqualification for aid).

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In recognising that the process of empowerment can change power relations, and is in itself constrained by existing social relations and power structures, we can therefore conclude that development intervention focused on creating an enabling environment may enable the voiceless to be heard and the powerless to act for their own interests. However, whether such intervention can result in true empowerment is a contentious issue. As long as the politics of power relations is embedded within the empowerment process, there will be perceptions of trade-offs and zero-sum games, and a relunctance to cede autonomy to the people. As social actors, whether or not individuals will exercise whatever agency they possess to their fullest potential is also open to debate.


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Cornwall, A. and Brock, K. (2005) What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A Critical Look at ‘Participation’, ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Poverty Reduction.’ In Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 7: 1043-1060. Corbridge, S. (ed.) (1995) Development Studies: A Reader. London: Edward Arnold. Escobar, A. (1992) Planning. In Sachs, W. (ed.) (1992) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. Esteva, G. (1992) Development. In Sachs, W. (ed.) (1992) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. Francis, P. (2001) Participatory Development at The World Bank: The Primacy of Process. In Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books Ltd. Frank, A. G. (1995) The Development of Under Development. In Corbridge, S. (ed.) (1995) Development Studies: A Reader. London: Edward Arnold. Freire, P. (1996) Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Continuum Publishing Co. (Previous editions: 1969, 1973) Henkel, H. and Stirrat, R. (2001) Participation as Spiritual Duty; Empowerment as Secular Subjection. In Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books Ltd. Kothari, U. (2001) Power, Knowledge and Social Control in Participatory Development. In Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books Ltd. Landell-Mills, P. (1992) Governance, Cultural Change and Empowerment. In The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 30 (4): 543-567 Lawler, E.J. (1992) Affective Attachments to Nested Groups: A Choice-Process Theory. In American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 3: 327-339. Luttrell, C., Quiroz, S., Strutton, C. and Bird, K. (2007) Understanding and Operationalising Empowerment. http://www.poverty-wellbeing.net/en/Home/Empowerment (accessed 12/12/07)

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Midgley, J. (2003) Social Development: The Intellectual Heritage. In Journal of International Development, 15: 831-844. Moore, M. (2001) Empowerment At Last? In Journal of International Development, 13: 321-329. Mosedale, S. (2003) Towards a Framework for Assessing Empowerment. Paper prepared for the international conference New Directions in Impact Assessment for Development: Methods and Practice, 24 - 25 November. Manchester, UK. Narayan, D. (ed.) (2002) Empowerment and Poverty Reduction: A Sourcebook. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank. Oxaal, Z. and Baden, S. (1997) Gender and Empowerment: Definitions, Approaches and Implications for Policy. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. BRIDGE (development-gender) Report No. 40. Rowlands, J. (1998) A Word of Our Time, But What Does It Mean? In Afshar, H. (ed.) Women and Empowerment: Illustrations from the Third World. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Sen, G. (1997) Empowerment as an Approach to Poverty. Background Paper to the Human Development Report 1997. In Human Development Report 1997. New York: Oxford University Press/UNDP. Willis, K. (2005) Theories and Practices of Development. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Wolfensohn, J. (2000) Foreword to the World Bank 2000 Report. In World Bank (2000) New Paths to Social Development: Communication and Global Networks In Action. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank. World Bank (2000) New Paths to Social Development: Communication and Global Networks In Action. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank. Yunus, M. and Jolis, A. (2003) Banker To The Poor: The Story of the Grameen Bank. London: Aurum Press Ltd. (previous editions 1998 and 1999)

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