Abandoning Empowerment: Semantics or Reality?

By Jamie Way, M.A. (Way is Village Earth’s Training Director.)

While attending an activist conference recently, I heard a plenary speaker passionately declaring his hatred for a number of words used by non-profits. Among the list of usual suspects (sustainability, etc.) he seemed particularly angry with the word “empowerment”.

At first I dismissed his argument as just another rant so common among activists and academics that readily discredit or abandon a word. Over the following few days, I kept trying to figure out what it was that he disliked so much about “empowerment.” Was it the word’s co-optation or its real significance?

What is clear is that this speaker represents a growing debate amongst organizers over the use of a handful of terms. Have they been so over-used and abused that once sacred terms like “participation”, “sustainability” and “empowerment” that were used to distinguish our work only have any significance if they are comfortably positioned next to a table illustrating their levels in an academic journal? Perhaps. If this was the case, I was confident that we could stand up to reclaim these words, rather than counting them as another casualty before adopting the next set of politically correct vernacular.

What started to concern me more, however, was if the term “empowerment” had as much significance as I had once hoped.

As a student of Political Science, I have long championed the idea of “development as empowerment,” (a play on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.) After all, as a literature review will suggest (read a literature review here), empowerment has been utilized in academic discourse to refer to support for the process by which a community gains power over their own future and increases their freedom of choice.

Seeing empowerment as just increasing self-determination, however, fails to note the connotations of the word in everyday language. A quick dictionary search yields a revealing list of related terms: confer, grant, delegate, give or invest. All of these words are used to describe how a presumably more powerful party “gives” power to a less powerful group. Colloquially speaking, it is evident that the term at least connotes a transfer of power.

The recognition of a power differential is not necessarily negative. Solidarity activists have long utilized their position of power to support the grassroots movements of less powerful actors. The term, however, is seen as problematic by some, because there is an aspect that implies giving agency, as if it is “ours” to give, rather than “theirs” to take.

In its best form, the literature on empowerment sees it as a means of overcoming structural limitations. (At its most paternalistic it speaks of increasing a groups capacity for decision-making.) Solidarity work is particularly effective when agency is limited by structural impediments, removing obstacles to liberation. Due to positions of privilege, there are times when allies are able to overcome structural limitations or be granted access to otherwise off-limit locations. But empowerment (in the sense of conveying power) seems to go a step beyond acts of solidarity. It raises the question of if we can actually transfer some of our position of privilege to others. And, if we can transfer power, is this a true means of liberation, or merely another form of the privileged having pity on the oppressed?

Perhaps the speakers annoyance with “empowerment” was somewhat warranted, at least if we use the term in its colloquial sense. Without some clarification of what we mean when we use the term, it seems to miss the point of Freire’s mutual liberation through process of discovery. It instead sees power as concentrated in ones’ hands and something to be given through a charitable act, not claimed through a dignified action. While the grassroots can use solidarity and the support of those in places of privilege, organizers should be careful not to recognize their agency as our gift.


  1. Nice set of thoughts Jamie. I’ve been having this conversation with several people over the last few months. Please consider this? Architects have a very precise language they share across the planet. Engineers have another set of very precise terms in order to communicate in order to their work safely and effectively as do Airplane pilots and Archeologists. and so on and so forth. In wrapping up your essay you use some terms such as “charitable act” and “dignified action” both having a wide scope of meaning even upon the person who utters them. George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld saying these words have had nearly the opposite meaning as I’ve often interpreted. Food for thought: how is it that we develop a language far more precise for communication as the mathematicians and science has? Some one in my discussions said something about Sanskrit. What do you think? Sure would make ever ones collaboration more successful.

  2. Well I fully agree to the issue raised in the article…”whether empowerment is an act of charity by few privileged ones or it is a right of every individual to be empowered” Most of our policy makers and our decision makers work with the psychology that they are doing a favour to others by empowering them. That is why social schemes fail to deliver.The rights based approach has not yet been able to influence our policy makers and decision makers. Its high time that all policy makers are senstized on this approach if we want see this world where every human being is respected and can live a life of dignity

  3. David Root says:

    Empowerment, as in any other term, can have a vast array of shadings and meanings. The subtleties of human thought opens within each individual an unlimited ability to view, interpret, and otherwise shade the meaning of a word to fit their own personal construct, which is most appropriate for them at that moment in time. At the same time, there has been a strong tendency throughout history to codify language and impose strict definitions and interpretations of meaning on any word developed. It is argued that this allows for more effective and efficient communication between individuals, groups, and societies. While this is often the case, it also prevents individuals from embracing the beauty of a multidimensional word colored in uniquely individual shadings of meaning.

    As a “community development” practitioner/trainer in an intercultural setting, I try my best to limit the use of dictionary definitions of key terms. Instead, I work with my participants to create a shared understanding of key terms that work for us in that moment. This not only deepens our understanding of the term; it also opens up a discussion that shows the unique history each of the participants has with the term. This exploration of individual history then provides a more complete context for our engagement in the learning and growing process involved in “community development” work.

    While not exactly an efficient process, I have found it to be highly effective, and “empowering”, in the “community development” work I have participated in. I feel that the process of locking in one universal meaning of any word, by academia or practitioners, is inherently disempowering for those whom the meaning is then imposed upon. Instead, recognition of the flexibility of language and meaning could open much more meaningful engagement between individuals, groups, and societies.

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