How can a deeper understanding of power and empowerment contribute to citizen-centred advocacy? This chapter from Just Associates’ (JASS) Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation looks at power as an individual, collective and political force that can facilitate, hasten or halt the process of change. It draws on practical experience and theory related to poverty and women’s rights and includes a number of exercises and frameworks for exploring power and empowerment.
The failure to incorporate an understanding of underlying power relationships and interests into advocacy programming can lead to missed opportunities and poor strategic choices. It can even be counterproductive for those promoting development and democracy. Incorporating these interests and relationships requires thoughtful analysis of the local scene. Aid providers need to think more about process than outcomes and about how to stimulate processes of socio-political change rather than merely reproducing institutional forms.
Power can be defined as the degree of control over material, human, intellectual and financial resources exercised by different sections of society. Analysis of power has to explore many angles and strategies to incorporate activities that address all of the levels of power affecting change:
- There are different expressions of power: ‘Power over’ involves repression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption and abuse, and is readily reproduced. ‘Power with’ involves finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength. ‘Power within’ refers to a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge.
- ‘Power over’ operates at different levels: ‘Visible power’ refers to observable decision-making which discriminates against certain interests. ‘Hidden power’ refers to the power to set the political agenda. ‘Invisible power’ refers to the power to shape meaning, beliefs, sense of self and acceptance of status.
- Attempts to challenge hidden power involve creating broad-based constituencies for policy and institutional reform. Whilst invisible power can foster resistance, it can also be difficult and contentious as social values and beliefs are extremely sensitive and personal.
- From a gender perspective, change is unlikely unless political strategies address power in the public, private and intimate realms. Acknowledging the layers and contradictions in the way power is experienced can be helpful in understanding the difficulties associated with empowerment for many women.
Empowerment is a debated topic with multiple and sometimes misleading meanings. Most definitions combine the goals of building confidence with those of eliminating barriers that underpin exclusion and powerlessness. Empowerment involves individual discovery and change whereby participants question their roles and the world around them. This can cause tensions and may cause some people to withdraw from the process. Political change efforts can also generate backlash and be dangerous to those involved.
Three empowerment frameworks are presented: The Political Empowerment Process looks at dimensions of empowerment that contribute to new forms of political power through citizen action. The Women’s Empowerment Framework aims to understand and address the overlapping problems of poverty and gender inequality. The Chaz framework illustrates the spiralling, contradictory process of empowerment. The following indicators are suggested for monitoring and evaluation of empowerment:
- freedom of mobility
- involvement in major household decisions
- relative freedom from family control
- political and legal awareness
- involvement in community and political activities
- economic security
- awareness of choices
- awareness of own health
- participation in groups
- desire for information and new experiences.