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.)