Overcoming Empowerment

Let’s hope, once empowered, the events will get out of poverty.

Empowerment is one of the buzzwords in the development discourse. From World Bank to NGOs, one would hardly find someone who is against the promise to empower the poor to develop themselves. Even more, empowerment as a catch-all term has even left the realm of poverty in order to empower anyone and everything: a DEEEP roundtable at the Rio+20 people’s summit promised to “empower future”, a meeting place in Brussels proposes to “empower events”.

Empowerment implies that someone receives power from someone else – it is not the result of an autonomous struggle against oppression or exploitation, or the negotiation of resources and power between equal parties. It is based on the merciful permission to exercise power to a certain degree, and not on an active conquest of power, which necessarily challenges the power of someone else.

It is no coincidence that Paulo Freire didn’t use this term and rather used the word emancipation for the role of education in relation to power:

“Problem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that the people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process [..]. The world [..] becomes the object of that transforming action by men and women which results in their humanization. Problem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor. [..] [O]nly a revolutionary society can carry out this education in systematic terms” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Moving from charity to justice in development should imply that we stop talking about empowerment and move to alternative terms, such as emancipation, which point to the quest and struggle for power rather than proposing a harmless, well-meaning and meaningless empowerment of everyone and everything.

(This text is a modified extract of a recent essay “The question of Power in educational Partnerships“, for which I owe some inspiration to the blog post „Time to move beyond Participation and Ownership?“ and personal exchange with its author.)

The question of Power in educational Partnerships

Everyone thinks linking schools in “North” and “South” is a great think to do: It opens minds, supports intercultural learning, and with a little fundraising, we can even help those poor guys far away to set up the so desperately needed library/lavatory/computer room… But what if such educational partnerships actually contribute to perpetuate stereotypes and neo-colonial relations? Research shows that schools links can have – and often have – no or even negative learning outcome. In order to set up school links which contribute to create a more just and sustainable world (the thing education is about, after all, isn’t it?), the question of power seems to be the crucial one.

In another essay for my MA Development Education, I try to examine the question of power in school partnerships. This includes a critique of a certain vocabulary we are so used to use, i.a. “North-South” and “empowerment”. I also try to set up a typology of partnerships based on charity, participation or emancipation.

The essay concludes:

Addressing power in school links is not an easy task: The complex and irritating questions challenge the comfort zone of well-meaning philanthropy, which often is the starting point of a linking initiative. The challenge is to channel the energy of an approach driven by exotism and charity carefully into a meaningful, equal dialog between the partners, not without omitting the ultimate aim of any critical global citizenship education: To question viewpoints in order to come to a more informed, responsible, ethical and political transformative action. This emancipation of students and teachers through joint and dialogical learning is highly subversive, and thus difficult to embed and justify in an institutional programme and a learning context, which mainly aims to enhance skills and competences of learners to survive in an even competitive economic environment. However, without challenging this very environment we are living in, global learning is meaningless. The question of power is the central question, not only for school links and other educational partnerships, but for any relevant political reflection and action.

You can download the full text here: From Charity to Emancipation – The question of power in international educational partnerships

Feedback and comments are welcome, as always!