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Empowering collaborative communities

Empowerment in International Development

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This post chronicles empowerment theory in international development from 1970 to the present with an emphasis on the impact of the political climate and trends on INGOs.

Background of Empowerment Theory

Empowerment theory in the 1970’s and 1980’s was seen as a radical, or alternative, form of development that grew out of the work of Paolo Friere and Feminism (Luttrell et al., 2009). Friere’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a seminal work holding society and not the individual responsible for the many illiterate citizens and calling for quality education for the poor. According to Kamat, empowerment during the women’s rights movement meant “empowering individuals to change their societies” (2003, p. 68). The emphasis was on consciousness raising and social justice.

This emphasis began to change in the 1990’s. In this decade, funding seemingly dictated focus. In 1989, the World Bank began funding NGOs that educated communities on technical and entrepreneurial skills (Goldman, 2005) and thus those NGOs grew. This change of focus resulted from funding agencies’ agendas and not the INGOs’ agendas (Kamat, 2003). Edwards, Hulme, and Wallace warned, “What would make a difference (like mass-based public protest against Western indifference to genocide) – is never given sufficient attention in NGO strategy. It is too expensive or too “political,” and wins few plaudits or contracts for foreign aid” (1999, p. 9). As NGOs began to accept money from governments and the World Bank, they began to focus on building technical skills rather than removing political barriers to equality (Pearce, 2000). Empowerment of individuals to change society gave way to empowerment of individuals to change themselves in congruence with the liberal view of the individual as the problem and solution to economic development.

Empowerment Theory Today

In 2000, the UN has adopted a human development model, as seen by the name of the report above, in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The eight MDG are measurable outcomes of development: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, to achieve universal primary education, to promote gender equality and empower women, to reduce child mortality, to improve maternal health, to combat HIV/AIDS and malaria and other diseases, to ensure environmental sustainability, and to develop a global partnership for development (UN, 2013). According to Sen , human development seeks to improve the quality of life of a nation through improving education, health, and capacity (1999). As Sen’s terminology was adopted by mainstream top-down development, the terms capacity, capabilities and even empowerment began to be associated with the top-down approach (Luttrell et al., 2009). Human development from a top down approach includes direct government (foreign or national) investment in public schools, health care, and social security (Sen, 1999).

Opponents of the top down approach conclude that foreign aid and service delivery are too short- sided to rid stubborn poverty (McCloskey, 2012). Development should not be defined as delivery but as leverage (Pearce, 2000). In other words, development must reform society and transform the systemic causes of poverty. To address the concerns, development practitioners can develop a multidimensional approach to development. Utilizing Rowland’s (1997) framework for understanding power, development practitioners can define empowerment as both “individual capacities and collective action to address inequalities that are the causes of poverty” (Luttrell et al., 2006, p. 16). Another concern of top down development based on the MDG is that “it presupposes a set of (essentially bureaucratic or government) goals or objectives which may not be shared by many of the people who are supposedly benefiting from development” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, p. 13). A solution to this concern is the participation of beneficiaries in all steps of the development process.

Future Directions

Accountability to beneficiaries keeps the focus on the communities and not the donors.  The end goal is for donors to disappear and communities to develop sustainable solutions.  In order for INGOs to disappear, the community must progress in the four dimensions of power.  The INGO needs to focus on the fourth dimension: building the efficacy of the community members.  Efficacy is confidence in one’s ability to successfully complete a job (Perry, Turner, & Meyer, 2006).  If members of the community know what to do, have the power to do it, and believe that it is possible, the members have empowerment and efficacy.  However, if the members of the community do not believe that they can succeed, then they may not be motivated to invest the time or money necessary to achieve success (Perry et al., 2006).  Again, taking this theory further is the idea of agency.  Communities must move beyond having the power to exerting the power (Sloan, 2013).  According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, agency is “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agency).  Moving beyond empowerment to agency is the future direction for international development organizations.

References and Resources

Eade, D. (2000). Preface. In D. Eade (Ed.), Development, NGOs, and civil society (pp.9-14).
Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB.
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder & Herder.
Friedmann, J. (1992). Empowerment – The politics of alternative development. Cambridge,
UK: Blackwell.
Kamat, S. (2003). NGOs and the new democracy: The false saviors of international development. Harvard
International Review, 25(1), 65-69. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/59896246?
Laverack, G. (2006). Using a ‘domains’ approach to build community empowerment. Community Development
Journal, 41(1), 4-12.
Luttrell, C., Quiroz, S., Scrutton, C., & Bird, K. (2009). Understanding and operationalising empowerment (Working       Paper 308). London, UK: Overseas Development Institute.
Pearce, J. (2000). Development, NGOs, and civil society: the debate and its future. In D. Eade (Ed.) Development,          NGOs, and Civil Society (pp. 15-43). Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB.
Rowlands, J. (1997). Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras. Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Anchor.
Sloan, L. (2013, April). Mixing, selecting, doing: The intersection of structures and agency for women in Ghana.               Poster session presented at the Global Engagement Exposition of North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.     UN. (2013). Millennium development goals. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/reports.shtml World Bank. (2002). What is empowerment? Empowerment and poverty reduction: A sourcebook. Washington, DC:      World Bank.


Author: 4 the World

4 the World identifies and collaborates with communities across the globe to empower them to identify and solve the most pressing needs of their communities within the areas of health and education. By partnering with the communities in these areas, we provide critical support and capacity-building initiatives to ensure these communities are capable of continuing to grow and thrive in the future.

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