All Insights

Defining Empowerment

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byYossef Ben-Meir
onOctober 22, 2018

Various perspectives exist on the relationship between participation in development and empowerment. First, that there is indeed a relationship is now widely recognized.[1] Some writers suggest that empowerment and participation are actually one and the same. “Participation is another name for empowerment.”[2]

Just as with other concepts, however, empowerment is difficult to define and prone to alternative explanations. Often time’s empowerment may be recognized more easily by its absence. There is no agreed definition but this has not stopped the term from being used increasingly to the point that it has become a buzzword.

Empowerment is a long-term objective, and it should not be strictly judged in terms of cost-effectiveness or efficiency. Rather, just as with the concept of “participation,” empowerment is both a “process” and an “outcome.”[3] Though, the literature does seem to emphasize process and means, over product and end results.[4]

Empowerment is operationalized in a range of contexts – economic and political, people and institutions, and at the micro and macro levels. None of these comparisons are mutually exclusive; for example, an empowering development process is intended to benefit the individual[5] (personal, citizens) and groups[6] (community, partnerships, weakest and poor, women and youth, rural people).

There are several recurring recommendations for achieving empowerment or instilling the qualities needed to attain it in individuals, communities, different levels of society, and contexts. Capacity-building, particularly in decision-making, is widely regarded as essential.[7] For capacities to be built and empowerment to occur, there must be training.[8] Training towards empowerment includes developing skills and abilities, including in conflict resolution and leadership formation,[9] in catalyzing dialogue, and in listening.[10] Participatory training is also called for and includes communication, planning, research, and evaluation; integrated initiatives through education; and informal education. Melkote and Steeves suggest that power must first be understood for there to be the empowerment to be possible, underscoring the necessity of critical thinking.[11]

Building self and group/community confidence and decentralizing control and decision-making, putting it in the hands of the local level, have also been called for to induce empowerment. Decentralization is one way to redistribute power, and reverse or change roles, and thereby enable empowerment to occur.[12] Decentralization is also a way government can support people in becoming empowered.[13]

Empowerment is a central objective of participatory development.[14] Participation and empowerment are integral and share a framework. They are conceptualized in relation to each other. Operationally, participatory development is a precondition for empowerment.[15]

Empowerment is stated to include many different outcomes and can be identified by a number of capabilities. Among the observed benefits are diminished feelings of marginalization[16] and organization toward development.[17]

This Table lists the attributes of empowerment, according to the following categories: a) action capabilities, b) areas of critical reflection, c) areas of decision-making, d) kind of development that ensue, e) organizational outcomes, f) personal qualities, and g) economic, political, and social outcomes.

  • Action capabilities: on own behalf and interests; for development; to achieve goals; to resolve issues;
  • Critical reflection: awareness of circumstances, causes of dis-empowerment, and identity
  • Decision-making in: planning, implementation, and evaluation, politics, and markets
  • Development: human-centered, sustainable, bottom-up, and small and successful: informed by or co-determined at the local-level
  • Economic outcomes: increase in: efficiency; employment opportunities; security of water and energy; local self-reliance (including food)
  • Organizational: improved capacities of local groups, including to adapt; standard & greater transparency and accountability through peer reviews & public audits
  • Personal qualities: improvement in: self, caring, dialogue, expanding choices, mutual respect, creativity, adapting, managing skills, & applying knowledge (indigenous & scientific)
  • Political outcomes: increase in: participatory democracy; foreign aid managed by smaller organizations; political awareness of political power and rights; good governance; equitable power-sharing between individuals and institutions
  • Social outcomes: increase in: social power; space for culture, spirituality, and learning; basic needs (housing and health); decentralization to civil society; emancipation through education, including non-formal

Through the years, several dominant criticisms of empowerment and its relationship with participatory development have emerged. These concerns go beyond the difficulty of achieving empowerment, raising questions about whether empowerment is even feasible or operational.[18] Thus, empowerment is not liberating as it is purported, or it may simply involve the perception of people’s control of their own lives.[19] Its impact is not clear, since it is hard to evaluate and measure.[20] It is also suggested it is unclear who specifically is to be empowered, for there are a number of possibilities (the individual, community, women, the poor, etc.).[21] Regarding criticisms directed at the relationship between empowerment and participatory development, one writer has called the suggestion that it is a new form of empowerment a “messianic” claim.[22] According to Green, there is no evidence that participatory development leads to an empowerment separate from the political action that is needed.[23]

Considering all of the above, empowerment is here defined as a long-term development objective that is achieved by individuals and groups through participatory experiences and training that build their capabilities (both practical and reflective) and confidence. This definition most closely resembles that of Melkote and Steeves who state that empowerment is “the process by which individuals, organizations, and communities gain control and mastery over social and economic conditions; over democratic participation in their communities; and over their stories.”[24] Both definitions include individuals and groups and improved development organization through participation and personal growth.

[1] Rolly, 2001:125

[2] Alamgir, 1989:8-9

[3] Laverack, 2001:2

[4] Williams, 2004:559

[5] Melkote and Steeves, 2001:354-5

[6] Fraser et al., 2005:123

[7] Balacazar et al., 2004:17

[8] Rolly, 2001:125

[9] Singh and Titi, 1995:14

[10] Laverack, 2001:10

[11] Melkote and Steeves, 2001:36

[12] Kumar, 2002:31

[13] Lyons et al., 1999:19

[14] Fraser et al., 2005:123

[15] Green, 2000:69

[16] Turner et al., 2000:1731-2

[17] Dockery, 1996:167

[18] Laverack, 2001:1

[19] Melkote and Steeves, 2001:355

[20] Henkel, 2001:178

[21] Cheater, 1999:599

[22] Mikkelsen, 2005:76

[23] Green, 2000:70-3

[24] Melkote and Steeves, 2001:37