The Individual as an Agent of Change: The Empowerment Process

Development “In Perspective”
December 2006
The Individual as an
Agent of Change:
The Empowerment Process
FRIDE has started the project Promoting empowerment in
Development “In Perspective”
post-conflict scenarios with the establishment of an analytical
FRIDE’s publication Development “In
framework that constitutes the base of the consecutive stages
Perspective” will provide in-depth infor-
of the project.To this end, a series of short documents has been
mation on current issues related to
published in order to clarify concepts, define instruments and
development. It aims at encouraging
analyse measures, with the objective of understanding post-
debate and providing analysis of the
implications for development cooperation policies.
conflict situations, through a particular approach, the
empowerment processes. Subsequently, FRIDE will analyse the
extent to which empowerment can be an efficient tool for
conflict prevention and peace-building. Even though each
separate document provides an independent analysis, the whole
series presents a broader picture. The ultimate goal of this
FRIDE is an independent think-tank
project is to spark the recurrent debate over the need to
based in Madrid, focused on issues
conceive the concept of development from a standpoint other
related to democracy and human rights;
than the traditional one.
peace and security; and humanitarian
attempts to influence policy-making and
inform public opinion, through its
research in these areas.
Paula San Pedro
Despite the rise of empowerment during the last
decade as one of the main paradigms for development,
poverty reduction, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding, the term is still an ambiguous concept due,
primarily, to a lack of a common and universal
definition. The concept of empowerment is understood
in many ways depending on the socio-cultural and
political context. A search for local words associated to
the concept yields a varied and complex range of
definitions and nuances.1 International organisations
control in order to make decisions and meet his or her
own objectives4. According to this interpretation,
empowerment may be the means to an end (such as
reducing poverty or preventing conflicts) or it can be
considered an end in and of itself (an individual or
group that empowers itself). The focus of this
interpretation considers that the process begins with
the individual and only through the latter’s own
understanding of reality does he or she succeed in
changing the structures of power.
and donor agencies interpret the concept differently
depending on their intervention policies and areas of
A detailed analysis of the above definition is required
action. To resolve this, FRIDE proposes the following
in order to understand empowerment since the
conceptual analysis of empowerment focusing on
definition includes many elemental concepts:
marginalised and vulnerable collectives.2
1) Transformation Process. Empowerment implies a
continuous, upward evolution in which the individual
moves from one stage to another, becoming aware
and taking control over his or her decisions and, in
so doing, transforming his or her own role within
society. This process can be conceived as a cycle of
reflection and action which feeds empowerment and
Empowerment is valuable in and of itself, although it
vice versa.
also holds value as an instrument. It is relevant both at
the individual and social levels and it can occur across
various dimensions - economic, political, socio-cultural,
Additionally, the term can be used to describe
Transformation Process
relationships between individuals, between collectives,
and between the latter and institutions.
Due to the lack of a single and standardized definition,
we have opted for our own, defining it as broadly and
inclusively as possible using many of the concepts
already used in previous and varied definitions. In
addition, this definition is flexible enough to adapt to
the different contexts in which it can be applied. As
such, empowerment is understood as a transformation
process by which the individual gains power and
1 Among these are: control, power, trust, choice, dignity, ability,
independence, and liberty, amongst others.
2 For more information on vulnerable groups see ‘Post-conflict as
seen by the victims’, FRIDE Development “In Perspective”, 2006.
3 Another interesting classification on empowerment is the one
done by Jo Rowlands in ‘Questioning Empowerment’, Oxfam
Publication, 1997.
Development “In Perspective” 01
4 To consult other relevant definitions see John Friedman, The
Politics of Alternative Development, Blackwell, 1992; Naila Kabeer,
‘Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment’, in
Discussing Women’s Empowerment-Theory and Practice, Sida Studies
No. 3, SIDA, 2001.
2) Power.5 Understanding what empowerment means,
progressive learning process in which the individual
inevitably means understanding what power is. A
ascends from one state to another, increasing the range
study of this concept within the development
context reveals four types of power.6 Each one of
of possibilities available. Inevitably, this personal
these is related to empowerment differently but all
structures and the elimination of negative social
are fundamental to the process. With respect to
development implies a break with the existing power
‘power over’, empowerment implies incorporating
the people removed from the decision-making
Nonetheless, the decision-making capacity is only
system. This places special emphasis on the
possible if certain elements which make up
individuals’ ability to participate in all spheres of
empowerment are available:
their lives. In terms of ‘power to’ and ‘power with’,
empowerment refers to the moment in which the
1) Resources. These are the individual’s human and
individual becomes aware of his or her own
social material conditions. Economic resources
interests, how these relate to others’, and how the
range from the most conventional assets (such as
union of all of these interests can achieve greater
land, financing, technology, among others) to other
influence over decision-making. ‘Internal power’
less tangible, yet equally important, capital
(economic security, politics). Human resources are
participation since it also adds self-esteem to the
moulded individually and include values such as
equation. With self-esteem, the individual gains the
knowledge, trust in oneself, self-esteem, and
confidence to make decisions.
creativity. Social resources (such as organisational
ability, expectations, and demands) allow for the
With this interpretation, empowerment contributes to
improvement of the individual’s situation and his
the conformity of self-sufficient individuals who know
or her opportunities beyond what can be achieved
how to manage their own development, how to
through individual effort alone. These resources
participate in the decision-making process in
are distributed along the different existing
coordination with different levels of government (local,
institutions8 in a given society. As such, access to
regional, and national levels), and with the capacity to
them is determined by the regulations and
demand inclusive policies.To summarise, empowerment
procedures currently in place within those
is the individual’s capacity7 to choose an option from
institutions, including both informal structures
among various alternatives, whilst being aware of the
(such as family) and formal structures (the
existing options. As such, it is conceived as a
government).This distribution of resources implies
that the heads of family, tribal leaders, company
5 For more information see Ruth Alsop (ed), ‘Power, rights and
poverty; concepts and connections’, World Bank and DFID, 2004.
6 ‘Power over’ represents a ‘no win’ game in which one’s increase in
power implies another’s loss of power. This focus implies a dynamic of
oppression which characterises the decision-making process and the
way influence is exerted. ‘Power to’ is the power some have to stimulate
the activity of others and raise their spirits. It is a generating power
which opens possibilities and actions without domination, that is,
without using ‘power over’.This type of power is related to ‘power with’
insofar as it allows for power to be shared. It becomes manifest when a
group generates a collective situation for a common problem, allowing
everyone to express themselves in the construction of the group agenda
that is also assumed individually. Another type of positive and
cumulative power is ‘power from within’ or ‘internal power’. It is based
on the creation of trust in oneself and is related to self-esteem. It
becomes manifest in the ability to resist others’ power when rejecting
undesirable demands.
7 Capacity refers to the knowledge, abilities, and attitudes that each
individual possesses and is able to use for his or her own personal benefit
as well as for collective benefit.
leaders or an elite class within a community are
endowed with greater decision-making power and,
as a result, have more resources available. Access
to these resources can be obtained in various ways,
such as clientelism, exploitation, or effort. In terms
of empowerment, it is as important to analyse if an
individual or group has resources or not as well as
under what conditions they have access to them,
8 Institutions are the rules, regulations, and behavioral models and
they may or may not be expressed as an organisation. This implies that
there are formal institutions (such as state laws and norms governing
the private sector) and informal institutions (such as networks,
neighborhood associations, and informal restrictions for excluded
The Individual as an Agent of Change: The Empowerment Process
December 2006
that is, the form of power used to access those
norms) that do not approve of these measures. This
contextual structure needs to be taken into account
to measure and assess the individual’s capacity for
2) Agency. This concept is understood as an individual
or group’s ability to define its objectives and act
based on these. The notion of agency is not limited
4) Results.The union between resources and agency in
exclusively to the act of making a decision; but
a specific contextual structure is the individual’s
rather, it includes a previous phase implying
potential to live the life he or she wishes. Its
motivation and the objective for carrying out that
consecution will be the result. This result is not
activity. As indicated above, this implies that there is
always positive for the individual, that is, he or she
a phase dedicated to reflection and analysis prior to
will not always achieve what is desired.
taking the action itself. In terms of empowerment, it
Nevertheless, the process of empowerment will be
is absolutely necessary to analyse the entire
effective. On the other hand, the individual may
process, from reflection to decision making. In
achieve his or her objectives without undergoing a
terms of the concept of ‘power’, agency has a
process of empowerment.These types of actions are
positive and a negative dimension. In positive terms,
very common when an individual achieves his or her
agency can be seen as the power to choose the
goals by means of bribery, humiliation, or
alternative that best meets the individual or group’s
objectives even if this implies opposition to others.
In negative terms, agency can be an individual or
Empowerment strategies are very diverse and their
group’s capacity to use its power to exceed the
success depends on the concrete circumstances of
agency of other individuals by means of coercive
where the action takes place and on individual
measures or threats. A third alternative that must
conditions. Despite this specificity, experience has
be taken into account is that power is exercised
shown that there are a series of recurring factors that
without any explicit agency. This can be seen, for
promote empowerment regardless of the situation:
example, in actions which respond to social norms
or customs which have never been questioned and
1) Access to Information. Information is power. An
do not imply any prior reflection before making the
open and transparent society with freedom of
expression and a free and independent media allows
society to know more about the public sphere
3) Contextual Structure. The capacity to make
(politics, society)
decisions depends on the presence and functioning
(companies, NGOs). It is, then, a basic tool for
of the formal and informal institutions. These
individuals to demand their rights, to be able to
include laws, regulatory frameworks, and social
negotiate, to take advantage of opportunities, and,
norms which govern an individual’s behaviour,
especially, to demand accountability.
determine access to resources, and how these are
used to achieve the desired results. For example, an
2) Social Inclusion10 and Participation. Active social
organisation is a key tool to pressure, facilitate
institutions (such as laws and decrees) that promote
change, and make decisions. Facilitating inclusion
the empowerment of citizens may conflict directly
and participation requires creating spaces for
with traditional informal institutions (such as social
debate in which to deliberate before taking a given
9 A significant example are the norms regulating marriage in
numerous parts of the world, such as in southern Asia, which grant
parents the power to choose their child’s partner without this authority
being questioned.
10 Social inclusion is the elimination of institutional obstacles and
the creation of incentives that increase the population’s access to
opportunities to develop their capacities and assets (economic, political,
and cultural).
Development “In Perspective” 01
action. Managing participation to achieve a certain
consensus is not always easy, which is why conflict
resolution mechanisms are often needed.
3) Local Organisational Ability. The formal and
informal mechanisms developed by a community
Individual and
allow the individuals to work together and mobilise
resources to resolve their problems. Thanks to this
The process of individual empowerment advances as
organisation, the individual also feels represented
the individual becomes aware of his or her possibilities,
and socially supported, thereby reinforcing his or
increases his or her decision-making capacity, and
her self-esteem and abilities.
gains self-confidence. This empowerment has a
reciprocal relationship with social activity. In this
4) Open and Transparent Institutions. Formal and
sense, a self-confident individual with high self-esteem
informal institutions with these characteristics
and developed capacities can contribute more actively
allow, among other things, for the correct
to collective action. By the same token, collective
functioning of accountability systems and the flow
action allows individuals to have greater access to
of information; they promote the equitable
services and promotes a greater diffusion of
distribution of resources; and they establish
adequate mechanisms to strengthen civil society’s
organisational capacity.
organisations, individuals can express their preferences
more easily, and demand accountability from the
government and private sector. Empowerment, then,
develops individual capacities but also challenges the
preceding silence within the community and succeeds
in amplifying the collective voice.
Empowerment Framework
11 See Peter Evans, ‘Collective Capabilities, Culture and Amartya
Sen’s Development as Freedom’, Studies in Comparative International
Development 37 (2): 54-60. 2002.
The Individual as an Agent of Change: The Empowerment Process
December 2006
Though it is true that concerns and psychological
barriers, and granting society greater access to
values (self-esteem and self-confidence) arise at the
development resources and opportunities. Institutional
personal level, on many occasions individual
inclusion, which implies institutional reform, depends
empowerment is not enough if it does not succeed in
on two processes. On the one hand, it depends on
mobilising collective action, especially in terms of
measures originating within the state and aimed at
modifying formal and informal norms and laws, which
society (downward accountability). Among these
imply challenging the power structures. In these cases,
measures is the reform of laws, procedures,
the individual must organise socially and create
regulations, values, ethics, and incentives that guide
interest within the community, thereby promoting
public and private sector actors. Institutional inclusion
social inclusion.
allows for the results and policy impact to be
distributed equitably within society. Seen in this light,
reform supports the processes of empowerment with
Empowerment and
Institutional Reform12
the resulting change in relationships between
institutions and individuals. On the other hand,
institutional reform also depends on individuals being
well-informed and organised and on having the ability
The capacity to make choices among those who are not
to actively participate in society and interact with
empowered is very limited due to a lack of resources as
institutions, thereby strengthening the demand side of
well as a lack of power to negotiate with institutions.
these. This reform implies adjusting institutional rules
Given that not having the power to negotiate is part of
so that individuals can interact and monitor
the very nature of institutional relationships, it is
governability. Empowerment is indispensable on this
necessary to understand empowerment from this
point since the individuals have to feel they have the
perspective. In this sense, empowerment is understood
right and obligation to demand accountability from the
as the expansion of resources and individual capacities
institutions for their actions (upward accountability).
to participate, negotiate, influence, control, and
The three fundamental mechanisms for accountability
demand accountability from the institutions affecting
(political, administrative, and public mechanisms)
their lives. The transformation of the traditional power
reinforce each other and, through these, individuals can
structures, intrinsic to the notion of empowerment,
succeed in having control and power transferred to
must include, then, institutional relationships.
The state has the obligation to establish the necessary
In the same way that there is no single model of
mechanisms to improve public and private institutional
empowerment, institutional reform is not subject to a
functioning. The state can change the culture of
specific outline. What is possible and appropriate will
exclusion and inequality, ensure that marginalised
vary depending on each context. In spite of this, the
groups have access, promote elections, and strengthen
main conditions that influence this reform can be
accountability. The state’s policies and institutional
identified as:
culture are responsible for shaping the actions of the
remaining actors. When a culture of corruption and
1) Nature of Public Action. Depending on the type of
clientelism dominates a state, the other actors feel
public intervention, governmental institutions must
excluded. This culture can only be changed by what is
include various or all of the factors promoting
called institutional inclusion.The concept is understood
empowerment13 in order to strengthen policy
as the elimination of public and private institutional
efficiency ensure it has a positive impact.
12 For more information see ‘Empowerment and poverty
reduction; a sourcebook’, World Bank, 2002; Adrian Zenz , ‘Evaluating
empowerment’, World Vision.
Development “In Perspective” 01
13 These elements are: information, participation and inclusion,
organisational capacity, and open and transparent institutions.
2) Models of Social Exclusion.There are marginalised
groups in every society, excluded from the majority
of decision-making processes. Efficient institutional
reform must take these models of exclusion into
account in order to guarantee that its intervention
does not worsen those inequalities. An active policy
aimed at eliminating exclusion must include legal
changes. The first phase is focused on making the
exclusion visible, gathering data on poverty broken
down by social groups. Additionally and in order to
facilitate the participation of these groups in public
life, it is necessary to invest in their capacities.
The Decision-Making
Individual empowerment is the motor that promotes
change in the decision-making chain and is responsible
for breaking the existing power structures. As has
already been described, for specific matters, the
individual will join a group when he or she recognises
that it is the most effective way to increase his or her
voice and weight, and demand that the formal and
informal institutions support social demands. Due to
3) Degree of Decentralisation. Decentralisation
implies transferring decision-making to a level
closer to the people. This presupposes that public
decisions will better reflect local priorities. Despite
this, decentralisation does not lead to better
governability or greater equity if it does not truly
reach the communities, if it does not allow
individuals to react to policies, or if it does not
provide incentives for local governments to
empower the communities.
these demands, whether individual or aggregated,
institutions can be changed, thereby achieving a more
equitable distribution of power. This ascending chain
turns into a cycle when institutional inclusion has
positive repercussions on the individual, and as a result,
on social empowerment. That is, achieving objects
instils confidence within the individual, strengthening
his or her self-esteem and reinforcing his or her ability
to make decisions. By the same token, the institutions
that respond to society’s demands are first required to
establish mechanisms for the spread of information
4) Strengthen Local Institutions and Civil Society.
and accountability, thereby becoming permeable and
understanding local groups, their institutions,
activities, and leadership models. This knowledge
may not be easy to attain because not all local
organisations are formally registered nor are they
easily identifiable. In addition, institutional reform
must include changes in the laws and regulations so
that these groups can access resources, freely
associate, finance themselves, be independent, and
have the freedom to act as they see fit.
5) Extend Political Freedom. Depending on the
context, these freedoms (freedom of expression,
freedom of the press, freedom of association, equal
access to justice) will vary and condition viable
institutional reform.
The Individual as an Agent of Change: The Empowerment Process
December 2006
Decision-making chain
The sum of these processes leads to the development
transparent, inclusive and democratic institutions the
of a cycle which powers itself and allows society to
individual and social empowerment processes will be
develop. In this sense, society’s development begins
very limited. For this reason, it is essential to promote
with the individual and acts as an agent of change
institutional development in parallel to the
using empowerment as a key tool. Seen in this light,
empowerment process, and thereby manage that the
individuals identify the problems that must be solved
institutions adapt to demands and social needs. In
and act accordingly. Despite the individual’s central
conclusion, the empowerment process will be only
role in development, responsibility is shared with the
effective when all the stakeholders (individuals,
institutions, which
transformation process. If there are not open,
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