Empowerment: just another phrase?

Vesna Terselic

Buzz words. You catch them here and there--in peace, environmental or women's initiatives and United Nations documents. They change from season to season, from year to year. "Empowerment" has appeared in the language of my colleagues who are working on social change as an attempt to explain to ourselves and to others what we are actually doing.

Once upon a time, the magic word was "participation," but for the last few years, it has been "empowerment." People involved in development work during the 1960s, '70s and '80s swore by peoples' participation, while activists in the '90s and the beginning of the new millennium swear by empowerment.

The term empowerment must suit my work better--I am up to date with activist and linguistic fashions! More than a fad, I would like to present some arguments why the concept of empowerment is a step forward compared to the concept of participation.

In development circles, the request for participation was made following the big revolutions of the twentieth century, revolutions which have not brought much to the world's poor. Asking for participation was rather humble and modest, not oriented on gaining power or controlling the world's resources. The idea behind asking for participation was that "big power" might be left to the existing power holders, as long as they allowed space for communities to make their own local choices. Soon, the big organizations (including the United Nations) accepted the language of participation. They started proclaiming it themselves. Unfortunately, with or without participation, the poor continued to get poorer, there have been more wars, and things have gone from bad to worse for many people.

"Power," according to distinguished sociologist Dennis H. Wrong, "is the capacity of a person to produce intended and foreseen effects on others." In other words, power is the capacity to influence. While this definition does not cover all that might be said about nonviolence and empowerment, it will be good enough for this argument about participation vs. empowerment.

The phrase "power to the people" does not sound very fresh, but may be a promising way to understanding empowerment. Seen in this light, empowerment seems to be better than participation because it expresses determination not just to offer any kind of contribution (something that participation has very often meant), but to contribute in a way that will lead to shifts in power relations. Following an era of shyness, when activists felt that any kind of power was wicked--and many people involved in civic initiatives were afraid of being seen as power hungry or manipulative--embracing the concept of empowerment might mean that civic initiatives want to have real influence. To realize that goal, they need to deal with power.

Participation meant taking part in the existing power structures, empowerment might mean transforming power relationships through transforming one's self, changing relationships in society, and changing cultural patterns. The question remains: how to do it. Inequalities, first addressed centuries ago, are still enshrined in present power structures. When power relationships shift today, do we know how to act and not merely complain?

Reality Check the Concepts

In the aftermath of the anti-globalization protests that began in Seattle, the question we should ask might not be "What is the utopian horizon of a more just world?" but "What small, achievable steps can we take now?" "How many successful empowerment experiences can we present in the spaces that open after successful street actions?" Writing in The Ecologist, Simon Retallack makes the point" "Seattle has created a unique and historic opportunity for real change. Now is the time to seize it." Opportunities for change usually open only after protests that use lots of energy and skill. How often have those opportunities been fully exploited? The point is not just to demonstrate at the front doors of decision-makers, but to participate in the decision making process.

I do not want to look at distant examples and will start, therefore, with what is happening in my own backyard. Power structures in Croatia are shifting following the elections in January 2000. The Croatian Democratic Alliance (HDZ) that led my country through the wars, is in pieces, and the new MPs are receptive to different proposals. Organizations that have been working on peace-building since the beginning of the war in 1991 are out of breath and out of sight. People are exhausted. The authoritarian regime of the HDZ lasted too long, and it is unclear whether we will be able to use this unique chance to exert any influence at all.

In 1993 when the Volunteer Project in Pakrac began, activists from the Antiwar Campaign Croatia (ARK) dreamed about such opportunities for dialogue. We had hoped for dialogue between people of Serbian and Croatian nationality from the two parts of the war-damaged town. We had hoped for dialogue on normalization with the local media and authorities. But, our hopes dissolved after several days of military action in May 1995 during which most of the Serbian people fled from Western Slavonia.

Still there have been some important changes; we may have failed in creating space for dialogue, but we have opened paths of empowerment for women. The women's club in Pakrac, which started its activities with a modest laundry in 1995, is now a strong and visible organization. It is participating actively in women's rights campaigns. The group carried out impressive actions before the general election, inviting people to use their power and vote. Women, who had been invisible a few years ago, now have a voice. Women can put issues on the local agenda and can no longer be ignored.

What the women's club in Pakrac, together with most peace organisations in Croatia, still find difficult is to speak to power. How to address important issues like the return of refugees, war crimes and peace-building in the media? How to start local projects to increase economic empowerment? How to open public dialogue?

For civil initiatives in Croatia--and anywhere in the world--it remains to be seen whether we are empowered to take responsibility for transforming a crisis. Are we empowered to stop assuming that everyone will see the value of our arguments? Are we empowered to step out of the margins and jump into mainstream culture, to avoid compromise while promoting dialogue?

Assumptions and Fears

Are we ready to question our assumptions? Are we ready to face our fears?

In the summarizing chapter of his study The Strategy of Nonviolent Defence, Australian nonviolent activist and scholar Robert J. Burrows underlines how important personal change is, pointing out that "everyone can learn to speak the truth...everyone can learn to deal with the conflict in their personal lives... everyone can learn to respect others more deeply." Of course, everyone could choose to do all that, and even more. But why should one do that?

More than two thousand years ago Buddha made similar recommendations. Jesus Christ offered a similar message. Utopian socialists like Thomas Moore described towns of happy, satisfied people. The 18th century English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft demanded equal rights for women. Friends of mine, working on the protection of human rights, share the same dream as Martin Luther King Jr. and hope for, even demand, the impossible.

All of them could do their best to explain that things might work better if all of us could act according to certain prescribed ideals. The saints have proposed different options: meditation as a way to conscientious living, respecting the ten commandments in the Old Testament, following any kind of expected behavior--from Christian morality to feminist ethics.

But, that does not answer the question. What about the people who do not find themselves following these prescribed ideals? Everywhere in the world activists are a minority. While being abused some feel it is better to sit still and wait, others resist. But resisters seem to be the much smaller group. Dialogue among ourselves is important. But, isn't it even more important to engage the majority? How do we continue dialogue with people who are not ready to give up mainstream values? Or are not interested in searching for new kinds of power, but prefer to struggle for their portion of the dominant power?

One of the questions we might consider in reaching out to mainstream audiences is whether their daily struggles within the dominant power system--struggles which appear perfectly natural to many people--are not the source of anxiety and fear. In Women Who Run With Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written: "When culture narrowly defines what constitutes success or desirable perfection in anything-looks, height, strength, form, acquisitive power, economics, manliness, womanliness, good children, good behavior, religious belief -there are corresponding dictates and inclinations to measurement in the psyches of all its members." The majority of people in northern countries tend to live up to these culturally and socially prescribed standards. In turn, they might be entitled to gain a share of security--maybe even power. Perhaps the best way to change these ancient patterns is not to expect radical transformation, but to work out methods of involving more people in dialogue, and eventually in common projects

Activists often speak about apathy, prevalent in many communities. "The cause of apathy is linked to indifference," according to writer and therapist Louise K. Schmidt. "However if we look more deeply, we will find the cause of our apathy stems more from the fear we feel surrounding despair than from indifference. Apathy is a defense that prevents one from facing fear. It is a refusal to feel that, which unattended, creates numbness and ultimately non-action."

How do we confront the feelings of insecurity that Nobel Prize winning author Elias Canetti described in his book Crowds and Power: "Rulers tremble today, not, as formerly, because they are rulers, but as the equals of everybody else." Everybody is afraid, not only are we caught in networks of relationships and power structures, determined by social and cultural contexts, but we are also prey to disabling fear.

In Place of a Conclusion

Empowerment may be a more promising concept than others that have been offered in the development debates of previous decades. Taking steps closer to power, on both a conceptual and working level, means something, but the questions arising from previous concepts have remained unanswered, and are still painfully present. Significant, tangible change is not around the corner. But, that fact does not dissolve my desire for change or diminish my will for accountable power. Even if it does turn out that empowerment has been just another phrase.


Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power, Penguin Books, London 1992.
Burrows, Robert J, The Strategy of Noviolent Defense, SUNY, New York 1996.
Pinkola Estes, Clarissa, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Doubleday, New York 1992. Retallack, Simon, "After Seattle: Where next for the WTO," The Ecologist, Volume 30, No 2, April 2000.
Schmidt, Louise K, Transforming Abuse, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1995. Wrong, Dennis H., Power, Transaction Publishers, 1995.

A version of this article appeared in the June-August 2000 (No. 2439) issue of Peace News.

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