Retiring “empowerment”

What does empowerment really look like, and how does this need to change (T4D, Malawi)

Working on accountability, we often talk about relationships of two parties — citizens and government, communities and policymakers, the “decision-makers” and the “beneficiaries.” There are lots of problematic things about this — one of which is that there is always at least one additional party: us.

The third party broker, the facilitator, the global development person — I find myself sometimes talking about our work as though me and my colleagues are just invisible bystanders to what is happening. But another colleague (H/T Jonathan Fox) raised an important question in reference to research I recently worked on — “who are the brokers that broker collaboration?” In other words, we can’t just take brokers (including ourselves) out of the pictures; we have to acknowledge that everything about these brokers changes the picture in big and small ways.

This issue of who is doing the brokering — and what that means — gets especially sticky when it comes to empowerment. I have spent much of the last decade of my career using the term “empowerment” liberally in descriptions of what we do — citizen empowerment, women’s empowerment, empowerment of “traditionally marginalized people” (another term worth reflecting on, on another day). But the use of this term rarely unpacks the role of the third party broker in the process of empowerment. And when I actually stop to do the unpacking, a few concerning things arise.

So let’s get into this messy space:

“Empower” as a term refers to giving power to someone and can cover everything from a softer version of power (giving people confidence or personal strength) to a harder version (giving authority).

Starting with the harder version — the idea of empowerment misses the mark of what third parties (especially development professionals — another term to come back to …) do in two key ways. First, the type of direct power we are talking about, such as authority over policy and decision-making, is not ours to give. We don’t have that type of power in a country or in a place that is not our home, nor should we. But recognizing this pushes us into the second “power trap” — we still have indirect power, as people from a higher-income country, with privilege. We may not be responsible for laws or policies directly, but the legacy of colonialism means that our power remains. Which means that the people we are often thinking we are “empowering” potentially are now subject to a double-whammy — power imbalances with both domestic figures and with the brokers themselves (me and other development people).

So what about soft power? In our work, I think about empowerment as giving “self-efficacy.” But there is an extensive and helpful set of literature in psychology (led by Albert Bandura and James Maddux, to name a few) that highlights that the best ways to help support self-efficacy in others is not really about giving … it is about what the “self” is doing: participating and seeking feedback and making their own choices. And while brokers can do things to help encourage these building blocks, the idea of “giving” them is counterproductive. So if empowering is about giving power … no matter what that power looks like, thinking of it as something we can gift is inherently problematic and also not really effective.

It is worth noting that there are lots of smart people coming to this same conclusion (PATH, among others).

But why does this matter so much? The language itself matters, but so do the implications. The language shapes our thinking — and the thinking of the people we work with — about how we think about what we do. “Empowerment” implies giving someone something which means that the way we go about “doing empowerment” just reenforces the power dynamics that we should be trying to break down.

I will be honest … I haven’t found the right alternative. “Shifting power” to work alongside partners to change the system? (Let me know if you have language you use that works for you!). And retiring this term from my lexicon now does mean that it isn’t going to disappear from past products, papers, presentations, and most importantly discussions with partners. Focusing on “empowerment” remains an important if problematic part of our — and my — history in global development, but it is time to reckon with the fact that empowering does not actually support the shifts in power that we as a field should be pushing for.

Founder, Wonderlight Consulting | Senior Fellow, Results for Development. Jazzed by Eval + Learning, Open Gov, Politics, also cats & coasts. (she/her)