Dissecting “Empowerment”


Empowerment is one of the biggest buzzwords in development work today. As one of my co-workers Vishvani says, “you see the word [empowerment] everywhere!” She’s right. These days, practically every organization that works with girls or women is capitalizing off the power of the word. VOICE 4 Girls is no different; we use the word in the byline of our website: “Empowering Girls in India.”

However, too often I find myself wondering, what does empowerment even mean and why do we use this word?

The World Bank defines empowerment as “the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.”

For VOICE, this empowerment means “enabling marginalized adolescent girls in India to take charge of their futures by imparting critical knowledge, spoken English, and life skills through activity based camps,” as defined by our mission statement.

When I questioned my fellow co-workers about what this empowerment actually looks like for VOICE, my co-worker Brinda replied, “These girls already have the power. We’re just going to empower that power.”

Still, the word empowerment can have much more complicated implications, especially for those who aren’t thought of as ‘empowered.’ Amrita, VOICE’s Director of Operations, explains that, “often people who are empowered are the ones determining what empowerment looks like to people who aren’t ‘empowered.’”

Even if we were to solve this problem of who gets to determine what it means to be empowered, I still do not know if I would feel comfortable using the word to describe development projects. Many of the difficulties that I have are inherent to the word empowerment. One writer with over 30 years of experience in international development work, David Week, perfectly describes the trouble with how organizations use the word “empower”:

What’s wrong with it is just that: the sense of “giving”. I empower you. This program will empower villages. We must empower people to make these decisions. And so on. But in these phrases, the people being “empowered” are the objects, rather than the subjects of their own development. And this in the nature of the word “empower”, which is a transitive verb, which means that A does something to B. The whole concept of “empowerment” shifts power away from the person or community being “empowered”, to the person or agency doing the “empowering”.

If empowerment is not the right word, what word could be? The other day, I stumbled upon a talk where I was introduced to a term that could very well fill that void: mutual liberation. Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal Elder, describes the idea behind mutual liberation in her famous quote:

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The term mutual liberation is so much more powerful than empowerment because it recognizes that power requires both groups of people, working together towards a cause that will better everyone. It is likely that “empowerment” will remain a buzzword in development for a while longer, but hopefully, the next big buzzword in development is “mutual liberation,” or a similar term without the negative connotations “empowerment” carries.

– Rachel Funk

VOICE Intern, Winter 2014