The term empowerment has been used widely in development circles for a number of years. It has also become fashionable to link empowerment to economic opportunities such as Corporate Social Responsibility and social enterprise programs. When a complex idea such as empowerment becomes jargon, it is hard for activists and practitioners who have been working in this field to re-appropriate the term without going through serious soul-searching.
No one method is a panacea to ‘empowering’ the marginalized so that they may be treated with equality and dignity by institutions. There has been many studies and surveys that tried to get to some answers. Last week, I was invited by Huairou Commission to give a presentation on women’s empowerment. It was an opportunity to pull together research that I came across when I worked with Suranjana Gupta on a study of social mobilization and women as agents of change for UNISDR.
slide 1 From the outset, I wanted to distinguish between empowerment as it as been practiced (through grassroots resistance movements since the 1960s), from how it is theorized by northern and southern feminist scholars , and contrast with how it as been taken up as a cause célèbre by multilateral and bilateral agencies, and donors.
slide 2 This is what I’d imagine to be the development paradigm — a rational organizing system in which multitudes of people/ideas/movements translated into an all-encompassing, neatly packaged ‘output,’ ‘deliverables,’ ‘outcomes.’
slide 3 All sociocultural systems evolve. It always escapes capture by language, not to mention government or donor programs. It is often messy, even contradictory. The ethnographic fieldwork I did in Jamaica Queens suggests that if we chart the web of charter buses from upstate New York all the way down to the eastern seaboard, it would overlap with networks of African-American churches, choir groups, and social groups. The phenomenon spread without any central promotion by Jamaica’s merchants or development corporations. When the BID tried to capture this by printing out a shopping guide a few years ago, as soon as the maps are printed, the list of shops have already changed.
slide 4 These are the terms of reference for our paper for the Midterm Review of Hyogo Framework for Action, UNISDR. Noted key phrases are social mobilization, agents of change, and empowerment.
slide 5 When I started reviewing documents from GROOTS and Huairou Commission, I found lots of descriptions of outputs. While it tells me about safe roofs, crop diversification, budget set asides, etc, etc, the outputs are not telling us anything about mobilization or empowerment. Ostensibly, there has a significant amount of grassroots organizing, trust building, consciousness raising, skills and leadership that enabled these outputs, but it was next to impossible to construct a narrative of the process.
slide 6 The enabling factors are many; though they are reduced to “[grassroots] tools” and “[institutional] mechanisms” in the report, the successes may be due to a combination of internal and external factors. Internal variables might be organizational effectiveness, stability, longevity, skills in building consensus, taking advantage of windows of opportunity, sustained involvement of members, etc, etc. External variables might be policy change, change of regime, new champions, donor assistance, etc, etc. Many of these factors are not often replicable, but they could be keys to success.
A mechanism is an institutional structure that enables certain things to happen no matter what the specific context is, e.g. a “report card” is an accountability mechanism, an election is a mechanism to choose leaders, etc, etc. But to speak of mechanisms in grassroots process seems to be forcing a universal model onto a long-term context-specific process and ignoring the factor of time.
slide 7 Taking a step back from the dichotomy of specific vs. universal, I point to Elinor Ostrom’s study of institutions. Given any situation and institutions at any level, Ostrom proposes the use of “Action Arena” as a model in which one could map all the variables in order to see how the parts interlock with the whole. Where does development intervention occur? how/when do events trigger others positively and negatively?
slide 8 While we know that output does not equal process, what is empowerment then?
slide 9 In Ibrahim and Alkire (2007), they point out that empowerment should be described and measured with respect to specific domains of life.
slide 10 Ruth Alsop, Mette Frost Bertelsen, Jeremy Holland, Empowerment in Practice: from analysis to implementation (World Bank 2006) describes empowerment as two separate things. The expansion of agency is the ability to act on behalf of what you value and have reason to value; the opportunity structure refers to the institutional environment which offers people the opportunity to exert agency fruitfully. It is the precondition for agency.
slide 11 Empowerment is after all associated with POWER. Advocates don’t like to admit that power is zero-sum. Why else did it take so long for women to obtain the right to vote, and even longer for minorities? From the point of view of the people/institutions in power, there is no incentives to share. Power-sharing does occur, but often do not happen without struggles or sometimes even bloodshed.
In Norman Uphoff’s analysis of power in D. Narayan ed. Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (World Bank, 2005), he talks the contestations that inevitably occurs in empowerment. He defines Power Resources as accumulated, invested, exchanged assets; and Power Results as the activities that are achieved by using these resources. Moreover, the empowerment process is to provide access to the these resources & used them to gain more power.
slide 12 One thing that has been missing so far is the relational aspects. In Conceptualising empowerment and the implications for pro poor growth, Eyben, Kabeer, Cornwall (2008) says that power can be “usefully be thought of as capacity generated through social relations — this is what enables it to enable social change as well as sustain the status quo. ”Power is part of all social relationships and institutions, shaping the limits of what it is possible for people to do or to envisage themselves doing.”
slide 13 In the hands of development agencies, empowerment has been equated to participation and social inclusion. But that should not be the case, for empowerment needs to come from the bottom, power can’t be conferred (because it is a zero sum) but claimed/negotiated.
slide 14 One of the most articulate scholars on empowerment is a social anthropologist who had a stint as a development specialist at the World Bank. Caroline Moser points to the institutional responsibilities of empowerment.
slide 15Eyben, Kabeer, Cornwall (2008) emphasize collective action as well as imagination as key components of empowerment. They point to structural causes, emphasizing that empowerment in one sphere (e.g. economic) can be reversible if there is no systemic change. They explain how empowerment should be seen “as a path rather than a building enables donors to identify better how they can support poor people’s empowerment. Conceptualising empowerment as a process draws attention to issues of reversibility. Legal changes to status – and the expanded opportunities resulting from these – may be easily reversed by a subsequent administration unless these changes are concurrent with systemic shifts in historically embedded political, economic and social relations. Such shifts may be a process of slow, incremental change, difficult for donors to observe and measure within their limited time frames for financial support.”
slide 16 Finally, empowering women is not the same as empowering other groups, explains Malhortra et al (2002). 1)Women are a cross-cutting category of individuals that overlaps with other groups (the poor, ethnic minorities, etc)– they are not just one group amongst several disempowered subsets of society; 2) Household and interfamilial relations [can be] a central locus of women’s disempowerment – which is not true for other disadvantaged groups; 3) Empowerment requires systematic transformation in not just any institutions, but in the supporting patriarchal structures.
slide 17 The following are some questions and hypotheses that should be discussed. First, we need to make absolutely certain what our unit of analysis is. This chart is taken from Malhortra et al. (2002).
slide 18 As a path, empowerment should be context specific as it can be seen as relational (to others who are more/less empowered?)
slide 19 It is often the case that when donors ask for results, quantitative data is useful. But it is? Shouldn’t we change the paradigm in which empowerment should be measured at the individual/grassroots level? Huairou Commission’s MDG initiative is making progress in using women leaders’ words and definition to do just that.
slide 20 Can qualitative data be measured over time?
slide 21 I think of this as the picture of individuals, collectives, random amalgamation of many different colors and shades which is we should see when we think of the ideal development paradigm.
1 This body of literature is extensive and growing. A few notable ones are, N. Yuval-Davis, “Women Ethnicity and Empowerment,” Feminism and Psychology (1994) 4.1: 179-197; N. Kabeer, “Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment: Theory and Practice,” in Discussing women’s empowerment – theory and practice (2001). For the current overview, I draw heavily on two recent studies, S. Ibrahim and S. Alkire’s “Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for internationally comparable indicators,” OPHI Working Paper Series (2007); and A. Malhortra, S. Schuler, and C. Boender, “Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development,” Paper prepared for the World Bank Working on Poverty and Gender (2002).
2 According to the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women, commitments on financing for gender equality and the empowerment of women have been made by national governments beginning at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), the 23rd special session of the General Assembly (2000), the Millennium Summit (2000).