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What is empowerment?

Four areas of practice

Application of empowerment areas of practice

What is Empowerment?

Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Central to this process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets.

The World Bank’s 2002 Empowerment Sourcebook set out to bring together the thinking and practice of empowerment as a first step in developing a better understanding of this component of the Bank’s work. It identified empowerment as “the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives. Building on this, as the Bank and its partners have continued to develop and apply an empowerment framework to their work, and learn from this experience, both ideas and definitions have evolved. This has brought about a definition rooted in both the long academic discourse on power, and one tested and confirmed through applied experience in a number of countries: 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.

Empowered people have freedom of choice and action. This in turn enables them to better influence the course of their lives and the decisions which affect them.

However, perceptions of being empowered vary across time, culture and domains of a person's life: in India, a low caste woman currently feels empowered when she is given a fair hearing in a public meeting, which is comprised of men and women from different social and economic groups; in Brazil, in Porto Allegre, citizens – both men and women -- feel empowered if they are able to engage in decisions on budget allocations; in Ethiopia, citizens and civil society groups report feeling empowered by consultations undertaken during the preparation of the poverty reduction support program; in the USA, immigrant workers feel empowered through unionization which has allowed them to negotiate working conditions with employers; and in the UK, a battered woman feels empowered when she is freed from the threat of violence and becomes able to make decisions about her own life.

In essence empowerment speaks to self determined change. It implies bringing together the supply and demand sides of development – changing the environment within which poor people live and helping them build and capitalize on their own attributes. Empowerment is a cross-cutting issue. From education and health care to governance and economic policy, activities which seek to empower poor people are expected to increase development opportunities, enhance development outcomes and improve people's quality of life.

Four Areas of Practice

There are thousands of examples of empowerment strategies that have been initiated by poor people themselves and by governments, civil society, and the private sector. Although there is no single institutional model for empowerment, experience shows that certain elements are almost always present when empowerment efforts are successful. The four key elements of empowerment that must underlie institutional reform are:

While these four elements are discussed separately, they are closely intertwined and act in synergy. Thus although access to timely information about programs, or about government performance or corruption, is a necessary precondition for action, poor people or citizens more broadly may not take action because there are no institutional mechanisms that demand accountable performance or because the costs of individual action may be too high. Similarly, experience shows that poor people do not participate in activities when they know their participation will make no difference to products being offered or decisions made because there are no mechanisms for holding providers accountable. Even where there are strong local organizations, they may still be disconnected from local governments and the private sector, and lack access to information.

Application of Empowerment Areas of Practice

Empowering approaches can be applied across a broad range of the Bank's work. To provide some practical illustrations from Bank operations and non-Bank activities, we focus on applications in five areas:

In the past, the strategies of the World Bank and its clients for improved development and poverty reduction have focused on formal systems, with little connection to citizens and those working at the community level. An empowering approach creates the link between the supply and demand side of development. A demand side approach to improving governance focuses on educating, informing and enabling citizens and poor people's organizations so that they can interact effectively with their governments. A supply side focuses on the macro level institutions and legal framework which determine how poor people can access development opportunity. An empowerment approach ensures that the two act in synergy. This is relevant for investment projects and budget support loans across the five areas of application.

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