Nonviolence and Social Empowerment


War Resisters' International presently is carrying out a project on Nonviolence and Social Empowerment. Interestingly, this project developed out of an idea to start consultations with armed struggle movements, presented at WRI's Triennial Conference in São Leopoldo in Brazil in 1994 (WRI 1995: 12). Through the course of the discussion it became clear that it makes little sense to take the issue of weapons as the central starting point. On the one hand the issue of violence cannot be limited to weapons (one only has to think of structural violence), one the other hand this would ignore the aims of the (armed) struggle. Issues of social mobilisation and of what changes in society we aim to achieve became more central (WRI 1995a). At WRI's Council meeting in Liège/Belgium in 1996, the change of focus in the programme was acknowledged by changing the title to "Nonviolence and Social Empowerment"; 'empowerment' became the key word, both for WRI's philosophy of nonviolence, and as the key theme every broader nonviolent movement has to deal with (WRI 1996: 14).

The project now is based on the understanding that:

  • the dimension of social empowerment should be a key element in considering the impact of any social movement activity;
  • that the framework of social empowerment offers a perspective for cooperation between hitherto com-peting or even conflicting approaches;
  • that strategies of empowerment are intrinsic to the effectiveness of nonviolent movements;
  • that the methodology of nonviolence offers spe-cific insights into social empowerment. (WRI 1999)

In this article we try to make links between nonviolence and social empowerment, but also to show contradictions between these two approaches.


Nonviolence offers a particular approach to empowerment. The WRI Statement of Principles presents nonviolence as an approach that "can combine active resistance, including civil disobedience, with dialogue; it can combine non-cooperation - withdrawal of support from a system of oppression - with constructive work to build alter-natives. As a way of engaging in conflict, sometimes nonviolence attempts to bring reconciliation with it: strengthening the social fabric, empowering those at the bottom, and including people from different sides in seeking a solution. Even when such aims cannot immediately be achieved, our nonviolence holds us firm in our determination not to destroy other people." (WRI 1997: 15)

Western research on nonviolence tends to concentrate on the effects of nonviolent action on its opponents (Sharp 1973, 1980; Ebert 1981), although the importance of empowerment and of decentralisation of power is acknowledged. Although Sharp (1980: 309-378) spends an entire chapter on 'popular empowerment', he doesn't go much deeper than to highlight participation, decentralisation of power, and nonviolence as prerequisites for empowerment. In the end western nonviolent scholars reflect little on the how of empowerment. The same in general is true for case studies of specific nonviolent campaigns, which are more interested in the effects and effectivity of nonviolent methods in relation to the opponents than in the effects on those who practise nonviolence.


The term "empowerment" was coined in the US. According to Barbara Levy Simon the history of empowerment starts as early as 1890 in the US, although the term itself only was coined in 1976 by Barbara Solomon in her book "Black Empowerment" (see Levy Simon 1994: XIV/XV). According to Levy Simon the concept of empowerment developed out of a range of political approaches. Among them are: the black liberation movement, the feminist movement, Paulo Freire's literacy campaigns, anarchism, marxism, Jefferson's democracy and many more. Empowerment can point to regaining one's own power, or to give power to someone else.

Nonviolent social empowerment is about people regaining their own power to creatively shape their lives and to influence the course of events around them - against oppression and exclusion, for democratic participation, peace and human rights. "Nonviolent power is not about domination: it is the power to be and to do. It combines a personal sense of power - power within - with a will to collective action - power with - and a desire to achieve certain ends - power in relation to." (Clark 1998: 10) In this it is important to discover one's own skills, opportunities and resources, to develop them, share them with others and to use them to reach one's own's aims.

Power within develops on the individual level and means on one hand to realise one's own situation of adjusting, dependency and oppression, to want to free oneself from this; on the other hand it means to realise that every person him/herself has the possibility, to influence the course of her/his own life and to change it. According to Starhawk power within refers to the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential. It relies on our willingness to act and stems from a consciousness that is in touch with the immanent value of all things (Starhawk in Burrowes 1996: 84).

There then follows the step to join with others - power with. An awareness develops not to be the only one effected by a situation, but that others make the same experience too. This can lead to the realisation that not oneself personally bears the guilt for her/his fate, but that often a structural or political pattern is at work. This realisation and cooperation in the group can strengthen the self-esteem. Not everybody has to find ways for her/himself to deal with the situation, but it is possible to struggle jointly for change. The group provides the opportunity to join skills and knowledge, to support each other. Campaigns and movements can be developed further, even if some activists drop out, because other things became more important for them.

Power with in addition means a consciousness that views the world as a pattern of relationships to be shaped and molded. It is the ability to act as a channel to focus the will of the group (Starhawk in Burrowes 1996: 84). People who want to influence their life actively are often faced with the power of those who rule, and as a group they are better able to face this. Movements are powerful if they are based on many people. Power with also means to create networks between groups, which then can support each other.

The real aims of nonviolent movements are in conflict with existing power structures and conventional believes. Power with has to deal with questions such as: "From what social base are we taking action? whose support can we enlist for particular goals? which sites of power in society are most susceptible for change?" (Clark 1998: 11) Here empowerment is closely linked with strategies of nonviolent movements.

The next step is to look at power in relation to dominant structures in society. "Hence to power in relation to - in relation to our goals and to the dominant power relationships" (Clark 1998: 11). The question is: "What leverage does a nonviolent movement have against the policies of entrenched corporate and institutional power"? (Clark 1998: 11).

These three levels of power influence and strengthen each other. The desire to achieve certain aims can give you the power to act and to join with others. The group passes on power to the individual - and the other way round. Together it is often more easy to change society.

Empowerment processes - described schematically - go through four phases, which are described by Stark as "the development of society's ability to deal with conflicts" (1996: 120). These phases describe how people gain the power to deal with conflicts in society and to participate in the shaping of the situation. These phases cannot be seen as linear, but they must be seen as intertwined and can occur at the same time, or one might jump between different phases.

The first phase can be seen as mobilisation. People experience a sudden change in the context of their life, a crisis. That event makes them loose confidence in politicians and decision makers. They start to look for their own possibilities to influence the situation.

In the second phase they are looking for and finding social support, other people who have similar problems or interests. They find out about their own abilities and take first public actions.

In the third phase people have reached a better understanding about connections in the society. They have gathered experience through taking action, and also start getting conflicts in the roles they play within the group, but also in their private life.

The fourth phase is a phase of conviction and "burning patience". People's skills and ability in handling conflicts have developed, they are understanding that there is a link between conflict and growth and have come to the conviction that they can influence the social context and change it partially. This attitude help to go on with this slow and difficult processes and also to support other people who start similar processes. People who reached this fourth phase might act as 'catalysators' for a broader empowerment, they might encourage others not to see themselves as victims, but as active citizens, and initiate a process to (re-)build social power from below.

Empowerment in nonviolent campaigns

In nonviolent campaigns the active participation of as many people as possible is a crucial factor. Sharp not only points out that "obedience is at the heart of political power" (1973: 16), but also that the ruler's power can be effectively destroyed through the active withdrawal of consent by those ruled with means of nonviolent action. As sources of power Sharp sees authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible psychological and ideological factors, material resources and sanctions (Sharp 1973: 11-12), all of them are - in the end - based on obedience. Reason for obedience are - according to Sharp - habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligations to obey, self-interest, psychological identification with the ruler, zones of indifference, and absence of self-confidence among the subjects (Sharp 1973: 19-24). The individual's outbreak out of a "culture of silence and obedience" (WRI 1999) therefore lies at the heart of every societal change. For this empowerment processes on the individual level, which can be fostered by processes on the group level, are necessary.

Stark (1996: 137) makes a distinction between empowering organisations and empowered organisations. The former focus on the personal empowerment of their members. Empowering organisations are characterised by:

  • the possibility to train new skills through taking part in the work of the organisation (i.e. through rotation of tasks);
  • fostering social relations within the organisation;
  • a social structure that stimulates sharing one's own competences;
  • participation in decision making (i.e. by consensus); common activities;
  • an open leading structure.

Examples for empowering organisations are among others the consciousness-raising groups of early second wave feminism or coming-out groups in the lesbian and gay movement, which generally start as empowering organisations and only at a later stage might embark on a course which leads them to formulate outside goals.

Empowered organisations on the other hand work with long-term goals, which they operationalise into short-term goals. They focus on themes which are of general interest, but also are of concern to their members (Kraft 1998: 25).

At latest since the 1970s affinity groups became common within the nonviolent movement of the Anglo-American (and German) sphere. But a critical remark needs to be made. As a result of the process of individualisation in the 1990s affinity groups which work long-term already became an exception again (1). Local initiatives or affinity groups within nonviolent movements focus on formulating goals to the outside world, which characterises them as empowered organisations. To join such a group, it is necessary that one already went through some empowerment processes on the individual level, processes, which are mainly not supported by the Western nonviolent movement (2). Inspite of this especially in local initiaves and affinity groups aspects such as consensus decision making or the rotation of tasks point to aspects of empowering organisations. Also joint participation in nonviolence trainings can be mentioned here.

Nonviolent concepts of campaigning (Moyer 1987, Lakey 1972, Randle 1975) tend to focus on how the empowered organisations within the nonviolent movement can achieve their long-term goals through nonviolent action.

Strategy is necessary, as Howard Clark points out (Clark 1998: 10-11), otherwise it can lead to repeating actions and events just because they "feel good", without having any influence on the situation at all. For a strategy it not only is important to have clearly defined goals, but also ways to measure success, even before reaching those goals. Clark also points to the danger of radicalisation, which wrongly might be taken for empowerment. "A street action that is empowering the first time we take part, soon begins to need something new - more people, a wider range of groups, more impact. But when it gets difficult to extent the degree of social mobilisation, a common tendency for many of us is to mistake militancy for empowerment. So people escalate the action hoping for similar results in terms of, say, disruption and press coverage. Such militancy, however, has its price. It often increases the social marginalisation activists experience, and in turn is likely to narrow the social base for actions." (Clark 2000: 32) This also might happen with plowshares or other nonviolent actions, if the gap between the radical nonviolent activists and many new nonviolent activists becomes to big. Nonviolent action too has to take into account, that people need to be able to relate, in order not to get into a downward spiral of 'nonviolent' militancy, which in the end might not disempower those involved (the radical activists, who might feel good), but many others, and therefore in the end puts social change off the agenda for a long time.

The concept of empowerment leads to other ways to measure the effectivity of social movements. Reaching the goals, i.e. a ban on landmines, cannot be the only measure. Effectivity also cannot only be measured in terms of quantity, i.e. how many people participated in a card sending action or signed a list. The most important measure is the level of empowerment of those involved, the active participation in the development of the movement, in formulating goals and strategies, in planning and carrying out actions. A campaign might collect many signatures, and might reach its goals, but if the core of activists in the end is as small as it was in the beginning, then the question arises, if the participation of people contributed to their empowerment, and if the campaign really was "effective" in this broader sense (see also Elster 2000: 39).

To measure success only according to the goals also can lead to an "achievement-oriented", "instrumentalist" pattern of work, and a high rate of burn-out among activists. More important, "this narrow view disregards an underlying motivation shared by many activists: to campaign on a specific problem in a way that will facilitate wider change, and enhance our ability to shape our own lives." (Kraft 2000: 35)

To take the empowerment perspective therefore means to look more at the inner processes of a nonviolent movement, the effects on those involved, and the change of social culture that arises from these movements.

Here too the different levels are intertwined. Moyer (1987) highlights the importance of acknowledging movement's successes. Nonviolent movements, empowered organisations, which show a functioning way to change, also encourage people not yet involved, to engage themselves, and therefore contribute to individual empowerment. They promote the "awareness about the possibilities ... to influence the social environment" (Stark 1996: 132).

Open questions

Looking through the "empowerment-glasses" also raises new questions. We only want to mention two here, which are - we admit - a bit provocative:

  • The social processes of globalisation in the 1990s lead to the result that less people are involved in groups for a long time. Many campaigns make the experience that action groups are founded spontaneously and then dissolve again. Movement react to this partly with "professionalisation", setting up office structures with permanent paid staff, who plan and carry out campaigns, to some extend with remarkable success (i.e. the ban on land mines). Still it can be critically asked if in those campaigns empowerment happens for those involved, if the balance between empowered organisation and empowering organisation is right?
  • On the other hand, always to point to empowerment might just cover the lack of "tangible" results. Cynically it can be asked if the new social movements since the 1970s might just have had some influence on the social culture, without changing anything at the real structures of society (which are characterised by increasing global injustice, militarisation at home and abroad, and increasing racism)? Do we just wallow in our "empowerment-successes", which in reality are only a pretence of power?

War Resisters' International presently is carrying out a project on nonviolence and social empowerment. This projects consists of an international email discussion on the understanding of nonviolent social empowerment (3), commissioning of case studies on different campaigns, an international conference on nonviolence and social empowerment, which takes place from 18-24 February 2001 in Puri/Orissa in India, and the publication of a book. Within the framework of this projects more questions will be discussed. The conference in India moves from issues of personal power (power-within), breaking out of a culture of silence and obedience, to the power of organising, a comparison of case studies on three campaigns each from four different themes, finally to issues of counter power and building institutions, of empowering a majority and the discussion of the role of international solidarity and international interventions.

Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck

Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck presently work as coordinators of WRI's Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Project.


(1) Today's campaigns take this into account by organizing the formation of affinity groups "on the spot". After the action these affinity groups generally dissolve again (Kreusel 1997: 14)

(2) This is a 'western' perspective. Especially in countries with an ever present state repression, often relatives of prisoners of disappeared form the core of nonviolent movements. Here an important aspect of the groups is sharing the experience of dealing with this situation, similar to 'consciousness-raising-groups' or coming-out groups. Empowerment within the group in these cases is more closely linked to empowerment in order to reach outside goals.

(3) To participate in this email discussion, send an email to, with subscribe nvse-list in the body of the message. Contributions to this discussion can also be accessed through this website.


WRI Nonviolence & Social Empowerment Project

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War Resisters' International

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Elster, Ellen: Professionalisation and empowerment. Peace News No 2439, June-August, p 39

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War Resisters' International 1999: Nonviolence and Social Empowerment. Project proposal. Unpublished

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