One of the ways that development projects and programmes aim to promote good governance is through the empowerment of citizens in developing countries. At its most basic, the idea is that an empowered, active citizenry can influence government officials and institutions so that their interests and ideas are represented in government planning. It’s a fairly simple idea.
In practice, however, trying to empower people is quite difficult. Empowerment is not very tangible – you can’t dump packages of empowerment off the back of a cargo plane, nor can you build an empowerment well in a rural village. It’s not even as simple as educating or training citizens in how to be active citizens (though it is often a requirement).
“Empowerment is the process of increasing the assets and capabilities of individuals or groups to make purposive choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” – World Bank
It probably helps to start with a definition. I think the World Bank’s definition, above, is a nice, broad definition of what it means to be empowered. At the same time, it doesn’t say an awful lot about how to get there.
The reality is that the ability of citizens to make choices and to transform them into actions and outcomes depends on much more than their own capacity or understanding. It depends on the broader socio-political context. Citizens are embedded in intricate networks of power relations shaped by factors such as gender, ethnicity, wealth, geography (though this article has a point), history and politics.
Citizens need information in order to make informed choices and to promote government accountability. Access to information depends on having a transparent government. Influencing the government requires that citizens can understand and use information, and that they have access to platforms (democratic space) where they can voice their thoughts and concerns.
Efforts must be made to build capacities across the entire range of community groups if empowerment efforts are to avoid further marginalising groups that are under-represented and disadvantaged (e.g. women, certain ethnic groups, people with disabilities).
Citizen empowerment therefore requires that development programming looks at the wider network in which citizens are embedded. With this in mind, I am quite impressed so far with the theory behind SEND‘s Grassroots Economic Literacy and Advocacy Programme. It brings together representatives of a wide range of community groups, and provides capacity building so that they can carry out research and monitor the implementation of pro-poor programmes under Ghana’s Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy. In addition, SEND publishes the research findings, and facilitates citizen-government engagement and advocacy at the district, regional and national levels. Other interesting ‘cutting edge‘ approaches to empowerment focus on harnessing the potential of technology, such as Twaweza and the Making All Voices Count initiative.
Even if we have an idea, in theory, of what it takes to achieve empowerment, how can we be sure we’ve achieved it? As an impact evaluation officer, this is something I’m working on. We also have to question whether empowerment is an end in itself, or if it is a means to an end. In the case of the latter, how can we show that empowerment has had the desired effects? Has it improved governance? Has it contributed to poverty alleviation? The answers to these questions will hopefully become clearer as I get stuck into my research here in Ghana. For the time being, it would be great to hear about any readers’ thoughts and ideas.