Editorial (21.3)

It is at least 20 years since authors such as Peter Oakley1 and Jonathan Friedman2 wrote about the concept of empowerment, and even longer since Paulo Freire3 and others popularised the concept of ‘conscientisation’. Do these concepts still have a value and a relevance at the present time, when so much development thinking is dominated by technological solutions to problems, or alternatively assumes that the hidden hand of the market will resolve economic and social ‘inefficiencies’? Behind the idea of empowerment was always an assumption that action was required to help to rebalance political and socio-economic inequalities resulting in or maintaining structural poverty. A few years ago in The Broker4 and elsewhere, several commentators tried to argue that development had become depoliticised under the influence of technologists and growth economists. It has been argued that this tendency enabled elites to avoid having to make the changes necessary to confront the real causes of poverty. Post-empowerment concepts such as ‘agency’ had the disadvantage of placing too much of the onus for change on the individual – which raised questions about what produces agency in some people and not in others.

More recently there has been a welcome resurgence of interest in governance, but much of the debate about empowerment gets lost in programmes for the reform of public administration. Reform of public administration is, in itself, valuable, but it does not necessarily remove the need for rebalancing unjust and unequal relationships – for example between classes, castes, sexes, and ethnic groups. The question which should still concern us all is: have we downgraded the importance of the political and power in development, from the household or community level, through to the nation state, and even international relationships? Is the current discourse dominated by euphemisms and the misuse of language, such that we talk of ‘governance’ rather than ‘inequality’, and ‘democratic deficits’ rather than ‘dictatorships’? If this is the case, what are the implications for our understanding of empowerment: is it still about genuine social transformation, or is it no more than introducing minor changes in the way that development is managed?

This issue of Development in Practice presents several articles which attempt to reassert the importance of empowerment, especially in the context of gender and generation. These articles illustrate that empowerment can be looked at from the perspective of the individual, or the organisation, or the community, with a gender or policy perspective, and at many other levels.

Trae Stewart explores ‘community-based service learning for Palestinian youth’, an approach to empowerment for Palestinian young people which uses learning acquired outside schools which is linked to strengthening the concept and practice of citizenship. This was achieved by encouraging young people to play roles in their society which reinforce their self-confidence, provide positive experiences, and enable them to achieve a great deal in an otherwise negative and constraining context of a contested political space, traditional values, and restricted physical mobility – problems compounded by low levels of employment.

Babken Babajanian describes a World Bank programme in Kyrgyzstan which aimed to promote ‘empowered participation’ in poor villages. He finds, however, that where levels of personal experience and capacity are low, a more conscious design process and effort are required to enable such participation to take place effectively. Jason Hart et al. look indirectly at children's empowerment in the context of an international aid agency's attempt to incorporate child participation into its organisational practice and culture. This was a challenging process in itself, which gave rise to valuable reflections on the importance of spaces for individual reflection, ownership, and indeed participation when trying to shift an organisational culture towards one that incorporated these values.

Abdulkareem Lawal, writing about gender diversity in Nigeria, notes the increased income from poultry projects for women in fishing communities, but argues that even more important was the increased empowerment of the women, as evidenced by their greater confidence. This study is also interesting because it relied on longer-term tracking of the outcomes of the original poultry programme on the status of the women participants.

Similar gains are claimed by Hilary Ferguson and Thembela Kepe in their Practical Note, which reviews the work of Ugandan women-based agricultural cooperatives. They also look beyond the tangible gains of those cooperatives to social benefits, such as the increased confidence and enhanced empowerment of local women. Self-confidence in the workplace and in local community organisations resonates with the definitions of empowerment used by the women in Cambodia who feature in Jenny Pearson's article, which provides an honest account of her attempts to improve women's empowerment in the Cambodian NGO for which she works. Although the approach was well thought out, it did not seem to deliver the expected outcomes. The article considers the constraints of local culture in a post-conflict context where fear and traditional values inhibit even professional women from breaking out of these constraints. The article goes on to demonstrate the effects of the empowerment process on the working lives of the women participants, as well as sometimes unexpected changes in their domestic relationships.

This article brings to our attention an important point about the way in which different local culturally bound perceptions and definitions can affect well-meaning attempts to empower women. In her work in Cambodia, the author shows how local women interpreted the meaning behind some of the Western approaches used within the workplace, and how they affected their personal lives. On reflection, the author notes how many of her own assumptions came from her personal experience of feminism at a particular time and place within Western culture and history.

From a different perspective, Ishara Mahat writes of the failure, in Nepal, to take into account women's views of rural energy production and needs, a failure which slows down the process of adaptation, given that women in particular are often the major users and often producers of energy (collecting wood). Therefore the views of women are essential if new alternative technologies are to achieve major possible gains for Nepal. The importance of gender mainstreaming is also argued by Mary Njenga et al., who discuss ways of redressing the lack of gender-based needs analysis in the processes of agricultural research, describing an attempt to improve on this through the urban harvest programme sponsored by the International Potato Centre. Bipasha Baruah's Practical Note provides tips on disaggregating data by gender for environmental and development programmes, based on experiences with CIDA in the Caribbean.

Other articles include an innovatory description of index-based insurance for pastoralists by Harriet Matsaert et al., reviewing risk management in the context of climate insecurity and livestock production in Kenya. This is complemented by an article about a market-information service run by the Zambian National Farmers Union, using SMS messaging systems, described by Simon Milligan et al. This demonstrates the potential of new technologies to resolve long-term constraints such as a lack of market information for isolated small-scale farmers.

Finally, I would like to draw readers' attention to a new feature, ‘Essential Reading’, where we have asked senior people in our field to reflect on three key books which have influenced their thinking and practice over the course of their careers. We felt that the increasing proliferation of new information tends to make us forget about some of the more formative books, articles, and reports from the past. The first article in this series is by Ian Smillie, the well-known Canadian writer on development, previously Executive Director of CUSO and founder of Inter Pares, who has chosen to write about essential reading in relation to ‘Learning and Development’. Other reflections will follow in future issues, and we would be pleased to hear from possible contributors.


P. Oakley (ed.) (2001) Evaluating Empowerment: Reviewing the Concept and Practice, Oxford: INTRAC.

J. Friedmann (1992) Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

P. Freire (1974) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Continuum.

The Broker (2008) ‘Issue 10: Deep democracy – Civic driven change: Reinventing citizen action’ (retrieved December 2010). www.thebrokeronline.eu/index.php/en/Magazine/archive/Issue-10-Deep-democracy-Civic-driven-change-Reinventing-citizen-action