Conceptualising Empowerment: A Matter of Approach

Gyanaranjan Swain


In twenty first century the term empowerment has gained an added significance. It has largely become an unquestioned good aspired to by such diverse and contradictory institutions as the World Bank, Oxfam and many non government organization, radical or otherwise. Initially, the term was most commonly associated with alternative approaches to development, with their concern for local grass root community and their movements and initiatives and their growing disenchantment with mainstream top-down approaches to development. More recently empowerment has been adopted by mainstream development agencies as well to address questions of the status quo and to foster social transformation. Why is empowerment acceptable to everybody? What can empowerment mean if it is watchword of such different and often-conflicting development approaches and institutions?

The objective of the present paper is to respond to some of the above questions. It seeks to propose empowerment focusing on three things. First, understanding empowerment requires a more nuanced analysis of power. Empowerment is not simply the ability to exert power over people and resources. Empowerment must be understood in terms of both individual conscientization (power within) as well as the ability to work collectively, which can lead to change.

Second, although empowerment is a process whereby women and men experience as well as subvert power relationship, it takes place in institutional, material and discursive settings or contexts. Whether gaining skills, developing consciousness or making decisions, individual empowerment takes place within the structural constraints of institutions and discursive practices. Groups become empowered through collective action, but that action is enabled or constrained by the structures of power that they encounter.

Thirdly, empowerment is both a process and an outcome. It is a process in that it is often unpredictable and requires attention to the specificities of struggle over time and space. It can also be seen as an outcome that can be measured against expected accomplishments.

The paper argues that empowerment is a process which can be best defined within the context of capabilities. Because it gives the maximum autonomy to the freedom of individuals. 


Enabling Environment, Women’s Movement, Caste System in India, Capabilities, and Functionings

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