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.)

When NGDOs say “engaging with the public”, they mean getting their money through marketing & advertisement?


UK civil society recently engaged in remarkable reflections on roles of NGOs in a changing environment (e.g. the Smart CSOs initiative), and particularly on the question of how to engage with the public on issues which go beyond the people’s immediate self-interest. The Common Cause process led to a number of excellent, yet challenging reports, of which “Finding Frames – new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty” is particularly interesting for the development sector (and thus for questions related to global learning).

When I learned that a team of researchers from Polis, the journalism think tank at the LSE, started a reflection on “the relationship between audiences’ knowledge and caring and action” in cooperation with a number of big NGOs such as Plan UK, Oxfam and Save the Children, I was eager to read the first report of this three years research project.

Unfortunately, the findings are disappointing. Based on a round table discussion with high level communication, campaign and advocacy people (no development education people where present – sic!), the reports findings are framed in a logic of marketing, growth and competition. It does not touch on a number of key questions:

  • How can NGOs actually get out of a logic of competion and organisational self-interest in order to serve a common cause towards a systemic transformation of society – together with the UK citizens?
  • How can NGOs overcome the illusion that development aid will actually lead to development, and engage in a honest debate with a ever critical public about this?
  • How can the public actually engage and act – also and especially through NGOs – instead of only giving money or signing petitions?

The paper refers repeatedly to the Finding Frames report, which asks these difficult questions, but the reflection remains strongly in the frames of aid (“getting money to people on the ground” – what about political work in UK and partner countries?), needs and service delivery (what about a human rights based approach to development?) and, when it comes to the UK audience, getting their money through sophisticated marketing and advertisement strategies. It seems that empowerment is a nice buzz word for the “field work” but does not apply to the engagement with the UK citizens. A reflection on how the citizens (here and there!) can be integrated in a meaningful role in the work of the NGOs (including the strategic reflections and decision making processes) is completely missing.

Nevertheless, it is interesting reading, which shows that there’s still a lot of work to do within civil society organisations in order to overcome aid based, salvationist thinking, and to have a real debate on the transformative role (and duty!) of NGOs to work together with citizens to change things here and there.

You can download the report here:

Who Cares? Challenges and Opportunities in Communicating Distant Suffering.