Monday, April 11, 2016

Two Misuses of the Word ‘Empowerment’

Words such as empowerment are thrown around the international development vocabulary as a buzzword.  It forms essential vocabulary in constructing a standard funding proposal with all the right terms, along with gender, climate change, sustainablility, etc. Ironically, despite the pervasive use of this word, I think the discussion of power in international development, and especially at the World Bank, is adolescent at best, and needs to be much more prominent and mature.  It also shows how carelessly philosophy and especially political philosophy is treated in the practice of international development.

There are two main uses of the word ‘empowerment’ that get muddled together, and are used in a problematic manner.  Empowerment derives from the word power, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as:
·      The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality
·      The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Let me start with the first definition, whereby empowerment refers to gaining an ability.  We hear this all the time. For example, X project will empower girls with knowledge and skills.  What I find troublesome is that the use of the word empower here should only refer to the first definition, but is jumbled with the second definition.  In other words, the implication of the use of the word empowerment is that it will increase girls’ capacity or ability to direct behavior, especially their own.  But that’s not what the project is doing.  Instead, the project is simply giving girls the ability to do something if it is a skill.  In other words, in this case, the girls can gain a new skill, but remain completely unable to direct their own lives.  That hardly seems like an ‘empowered’ person.

In the other definition, empowerment relates to influence; this is particularly used in reference to citizen participation, a field in which I’ve done some work.  My problem here is not with the use of the word, but rather the fact that practice generally does not reflect a genuine change in power relations.  In the case of citizen participation, the reason that participation often does not represent empowerment is that citizens do not control projects and programs.  Instead, they are providing information to decision makers, who can choose to follow or disregard this information. 

One example reflects the questionable use of the term.  With citizen report cards, citizens are given the opportunity to provide feedback to government officials regarding the performance of a particular government service or project.  The report card is billed as a means of empowering citizens.  However, the report card does not empower citizens, as it does not change power relations.  Citizen report cards provide government with information, which officials can choose to follow or ignore.  One might argue that, if the report card leads to positive changes, then the report card is a tool of empowerment, whereby citizens have the ability to influence government.  They are not the ones doing the influencing, however.  Information from the report card might flow via existing power relations such as the media to socially embarrass the politicians into action.  Or, the policy maker may be benevolent and discover something new from the report card.  In either case, citizens are not directing the behavior of the politician through the report card.

Discussions like these are important because they get at the fundamental power relations in the society, and question just whether the larger population truly has a say in the development process.  Once the term empowerment is watered down, it can provide a veneer that something transformative and pro-poor is taking place.  I suspect that a deeper look shows how, despite decades of work on this topic, international development remains fundamentally disempowering.