What Does Understanding Empowerment Mean?

What Does Understanding Empowerment Mean?

What does understanding empowerment mean to what does it apply and to what doesn’t it apply? This piece gives you more than a bird’s eye view of the concept of empowerment. It visits the details and does a mini-taxonomy on the various kinds of empowerment there is. Yes! Empowerment is not generic. There are specifics to it. Well, there’s only one way to find out. Read on!

There is no word more cliched today than “empowerment”. We hear it in conferences, symposiums, op-eds, interviews and from the lips of people who, no offence, have no idea what the eleven-letter-word means. But that is okay. In a world that applauds bravado over knowledge, appearing you know it means you don’t have to worry about being asked about minor definitions.

Empowerment is a series of systems created and monitored to ensure an improved level of independence and freedom in people or communities to enable them to define, pursue and achieve their highest aspirations in a sensible manner. The end is to help individuals and communities to become more autonomous and confident in their ability to control the outcome of their lives for good.

Therefore, any and every mechanism that enables individuals and communities to override their limitations and lack of ability to identify and use their resources for their good can be tagged Empowerment.

The earliest mention of the word in mainstream literature dates back to 1981 by Julian Rappaport, an acclaimed social scientist. However, the idea draws its origin from the Marxist theory in sociology. Although the earliest Marxists built the framework on which the theory rests, it would take the efforts of Neo-Marxist proponents to refine it into what it is today. The word has now become a construct that is common to several disciplines and areas such as social work, community development, economics, citizenship education, civic engagement, continuing education, and self-help.

What is Empowerment?

Although empowerment is understood and defined in several ways depending on the context of use, there is no single definition that all experts can agree upon. Some have warned against sticking a certain definition to the concept so as not to limit its scope or relevance. According to a 1984 study by Rappoport, “it is easy to define empowerment by its absence but difficult to define in action as it takes on different forms in different people and contexts.” Studies by Robert Adams even warn against the danger of a single definition.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a common understanding. Not for theoretical purposes only, but for ease of recognition when we see it happening anywhere. Therefore, understanding empowerment has been described as a multi-dimensional social process that empowers individuals to wield control over the outcome of their lives and the outcomes of their lives. This process engenders power (i.e. the capacity to execute) in people, for the betterment of their own lives, their communities, and their society. It enables them to take informed action on matters they deem to be important for their well being. So far, studies suggest three basic assumptions about empowerment.

1. It is multi-dimensional: It happens within psychological, sociological, economic, and several other dimensions.

2. It is social: It happens on levels such as individual, group, and community. It never happens in isolation

3. It is a process: It can be likened to a journey.

What are the Elements of Empowerment?

In all of its dimensions, levels, and processes, empowerment has four inherent elements. Although they may not come in this order and may even be implemented in isolation, these elements, nonetheless, must feature in every empowerment effort. Else, it is not an empowerment effort. They include:

1. Access to information

2. Inclusion and participation

3. Accountability

4. Local organizational capacity

Access to Information

The first step toward change is awareness. Since empowerment schemes are geared toward positive change, it is only normal that it begins with an effort to enlighten those being empowered.

Once informed, individuals, communities and societies can then maximize the other resources provided in the course of empowerment. This is because the more informed people are, the easier it is for them to leverage opportunities, exercise their fundamental rights, negotiate excellently access services, and public officials and government structures accountable.

If there is no relevant, timely, and understandable information for the people, their empowerment will be short-circuited. The systems for passing information include mass sensitization, group discussions, storytelling, drama, poetry, talk shows, and TV programs. It could be through mediums such as news dailies, television, radio, or the Internet.

Inclusion and Participation

While information deals with what, inclusion deals with who. Who is involved? How do they participate? What roles do each individual, group or community play? The inclusion of the very objects of the empowerment program is important. Especially when these people have been excluded from previous development efforts.

However, if inclusion must remain paramount, some existing rules and norms must be changed to break down discriminatory barriers and build trust enough for open dialogue. Since conflict is a necessary part of societal change, resolution mechanisms must be set up to curtail spillage.


Accountability, in this case, would mean the ability to hold public officials, private sector players or service providers to account for their actions and inactions. Accountability is at its best when those being empowered have been offered the right information, given the appropriate avenue of participation and are now obligated to hold the authorities accountable, requiring them to be answerable for their actions, policies, and use of public funds. This will reduce the need for a violent outburst from frustrations. When an ordinary citizen has direct access to their government representatives and can demand their rightful privileges accorded by the constitution, they are less likely to take laws into their hands.

Local Organizational Capacity

It is not only bees and ants that are social beings. Humans are also social species who have a strong affinity for communal life. This is why advancing our civilization has taken more than individuals’ efforts to pull off.

Certainly, that pattern isn’t changing any time soon. Local organizational capacity here refers to people’s ability to work together, organize themselves, and mobilize the required resources to achieve a common interest. When they are being neglected by the formal authorities and their systems, people often look to each other for help and support to surmount their challenges.

Informal organizations such as market women contributing money in turn to support each other’s business is a clear example of these kinds of efforts. For empowerment to happen, there must be the willingness and ability of groups to converge and be of support to each. This is because an organized community is more likely to get the attention of those who matte and voice their demands with more cogency.

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