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Empowerment - The Ideal Way to Eradicate Poverty

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Poor people need empowerment, not charity

Poor people need empowerment, not charity

Why Poverty Exists Today?

Q: What is the quickest way to eradicate poverty?

A: Give political power to poor people.

The reason why poverty doesn't go away is because people who have political power don’t know a thing about poverty and those who live in poverty do not have power. As a result, eradicating poverty does not get priority. However, the moment power comes to poor people, poverty eradication would become the most urgent issue and soon there would be no poverty!

Simple solution. Isn't it? Yet, so impossible in the world ruled by the rich.

What is this “power” poor people lack?

They are not in the position to influence processes that affect their lives; this lack of control keeps them locked in perpetual poverty. Therefore, at the core of the concept of empowerment lies the idea of power. When we think of empowerment, we actually think of changing the power-dynamics of the society and achieving what we want to achieve.

In order to understand what it means to empower people, what it involves and how it operates we should first get a clear understanding of the concept of power because it can mean different things to different people.

Understanding Power

Power is often related to our ability to influence or control others. It is fair to say that power exists within the context of a relationship between people or things. It does not exist in isolation. Therefore, power and power relationships can change.

For a lot of people power revolve around only control and domination. They see power as zero-sum, as something like you-lose-I-win game. It is as if power is a “fixed” quantity like one gallon water. Obsessed with the idea of control and domination such people resist change, until they are forced to. They need to be asked: Have you ever felt powerful? Was it at the expense of someone else’s power?

Since relationships and interactions define power it can take many forms including mutuality and collaborative sharing. Away from the ideas of control or dominance researchers now define power as “the capacity to implement” (Kreisberg, 1992:57) which is liberal enough to allow for change and expansion of power. It is this definition of power, as a process that occurs in relationships, that gives us the possibility of empowerment.

Empowerment as a process of change, now, becomes a meaningful concept. Empowerment is possible only if power relationship can change and expand.

Empowered people become agents of change in their own life

Empowered people become agents of change in their own life

What People Think of Empowerment

The local terms, from around the world, associated with empowerment convey things like capability, independence, ability to fight for one’s rights, self-reliance, leading life according to one’s values, own decision making, self-strength, and control. So the sense of what people generally think of empowerment is broadly conveyed by these terms.

What is Disempowerment

Disempowerment – whether defined in terms of a lack of self confidence, apathy, fear, or an inability to take charge of one’s own life – is perhaps the most unrecognized problem in Africa today. I have found (this syndrome) to be as substantial a bottleneck to development in Africa as inadequate infrastructure or bad governance and it has added an extra weight to the work of those who want to enable individuals and communities to better their circumstances.

Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize

What do you think?

What Is Empowerment?

If any person in the community faces crisis we all join hands to help him. – A Fisherman in Odisha, India

Group or community support is perhaps the most traditional form of mutual empowerment. Sadly, it is falling apart as modern societies move towards “individualism” but still people seek comfort in community when disasters happen.

In simplest terms, empowerment is the expansion of people’s freedom of choices and actions. It involves increasing their authority and control over the resources and decisions that affect their lives. Poor people’s choices are badly limited both due to lack of assets and also by their powerlessness in dealing with institutions. Democratization and participation are seen as two vital processes that enhance empowerment of people.

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According to the World Bank, empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of poor people to influence the state institutions that affect their lives, by strengthening their participation in political processes and local decision making. It means removing the barriers – political, legal and social – that work against particular groups and building the assets of poor people to enable them to engage effectively in the markets.

An OPHI working paper of 2007, Agency & Empowerment: A Proposal for Internationally Comparable Indicators, lists (on page 7) 32 different definitions of empowerment.

Empowerment occurs across personal, social, political, economic and other dimensions. It also occurs at various levels – individual, group, and community. Empowerment is a process similar to a journey; it develops as we work through it. What the process of empowerment makes clear is that people and communities are inseparable. While the perceptions of being empowered vary across time, culture and phases of a person's life, two elements of empowerment stand out clearly: it’s enabling and it’s freeing. In application, empowerment deals with several things like power, participation, capability, autonomy, choice and freedom.

You can be the agent of change in your life

You can be the agent of change in your life

Empowerment Seen as “Agency”

Poor people can be “agents” of change in their own lives, not patients of poverty needing expert treatment.

Empowerment is generally seen as composed of two components. One is individual, seen as “agency” as described by Amartya Sen. It is the ability to pursue whatever goals a person wants to. This however is closely linked with the second, outside forces of the social, political and economic environments, which can have either positive or negative impact on people. For the poor, these forces have restrictive effect. For instance, women’s abilities are often restricted by the patriarchal forces of the society.

In Amartya Sen’s capability theory, development is seen as a process that removes constraints of people which leave them with little choice and opportunity in exercising their agency.

You can always feel strong

You can always feel strong

Why Empowerment

Poor People Have Limited Assets And Capabilities

Poverty is a state of shortages and deprivations. People living in poverty are badly limited by assets and capabilities which restrict their choices and freedoms. With very few assets in the form of land, property, savings, livestock etc they are vulnerable to sudden shocks. Thus, they are always at the risk of being pushed into deeper poverty.

They are also low on human capabilities like health, education, knowledge and skills; social capabilities such as capacity to organize, sense of identity, the ability to mix up with higher classes etc; and also political capabilities like the capacity represent oneself or others, access information, form associations and participate in the local or national political processes.

Combined together, all these constraints lead to voicelessness and powerlessness which result in social barriers. These conditions are conducive for sustaining or promoting poverty. Empowerment is needed to break free these limitations and can take many forms depending upon what the people need.

Microcredit is very useful for the poor

Microcredit is very useful for the poor

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How Empowerment of People helps Reduce Poverty

Empowerment of people, in the sense of enlarging their choices and freedom to act, is much more than a means to achieve other objectives; it is a good in itself, and a desirable goal of development.

In the context of development and poverty, empowerment implies changing the environment around the poor people and helping them build and capitalize on their own attributes. Empowerment can come from a wide variety of activities that affect people’s life: from education and health services to legal entitlements such as the right to food and right to information. Any initiative is empowering if it increases development opportunities and improves people's quality of life. Empowered people become agents of change in their own lives and actors of their own development.

Empowerment through Education

This is by far the best strategy particularly when focused on women. Education of girls is known to have an all round impact that goes to the future generation. Being better informed an educated woman is more likely to have smaller families, manage the timing of her pregnancies well and look after her children well. It is rightly said: when you educate a girl you educate the whole family. When gender biases are removed, and given opportunities, she can contribute to the welfare of her family economically also. The tiny Indian state of Kerala offers a great example of the power of women empowerment and people development.

Empowerment through Microcredit

In a village in India, poor women earned their livelihood by breaking stones near a construction site. Their lives were in stark contrast compared with those living in a nearby colony of executives of a cement plant. When a microfinancing NGO began work in their village these poor women discovered a new sense of self-confidence that can be called a kind of empowerment. They described the phenomenon in their words: Earlier we were always afraid to enter a bank, we did not know how to talk to them... But here it’s different. They allow us to sit with them and speak our language... They easily understand what we say. They also tell us how we can earn better by taking small loans from them. They are not cunning like that money-lender.

What the microcredit people did was to expand choices and freedom of people living highly restricted life; they now feel that they can manage their life better. Professor Muhammad Yunus has revolutionized the world of microlending through his Grameen Bank initiative. These small credits perhaps mount the most direct attack on poverty by promoting income and reducing vulnerability.

Better Management of Local Projects

Empowerment in terms of poor people’s inclusion and participation at the local level can help ensure that basic services reach them. Projects managed by local communities have better chances of success than those managed by other entities. The empowerment is particularly effective in the management of local public facilities like water supply, roads, schools, health centers, sanitation, and forests. Improved performance comes from transparency of information, sense of ownership, participation, and inclusion.

Transparency in Public Expenditure

Empowerment in the form of citizens’ monitoring of public expenditure invariably leads to better utilization of funds by improving transparency and accountability. For instance, in Uganda when public monitoring of funds going to schools was introduced, the share of nonwage allocations to schools increased from about 22% in 1995 to 80-90% in 2000. It only goes to prove that empowerment of people and effectiveness of development go hand in hand.

Inclusive Growth With Participation

Social exclusion and marginalization of the poor is a common phenomenon. Since the poor are not being able to live like others, they get excluded by the wider society. This leads to their further marginalization and they tend to get cut-off from the mainstream social, political and economic processes. It can happen due to other divisive forces of the society such as discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.

Once marginalized, people tend to lose self-sufficiency and become, at a minimum, dependent on charity or welfare. This often leads to loss of their self-confidence because they cannot be fully self-supporting. They are cut-off from opportunities that provide sense of accomplishment to others living in the society. This is a situation of dis-empowerment that feeds poverty.

Empowerment of excluded people involves promoting inclusion and participation besides encouraging development of skills for better livelihood opportunities. It always helps if people are asked to form groups and connect with other groups of people living in similar situation.

Empowerment of women is the best developmental tool

Empowerment of women is the best developmental tool

What do you think?

Empowerment and Good Governance

Poverty reduction is a complex undertaking because of the multifaceted nature of poverty – an important aspect is inequality of wealth distribution and access to basic services. Therefore, the quality of governance becomes a vital factor to decide the effectiveness of the anti-poverty measures. Good governance ensures a positive investment climate and has a symbiotic relationship with people’s empowerment. A look at good societies tells us that citizens’ empowerment and good governance promote each other.

Rule of Law

The rule of law is an important foundation for good governance. It means having a dependable and reasonably speedy judicial system along with an effective enforcement mechanism. It also affects empowerment of people: if ordinary citizens and the poor can easily get their grievances addressed their freedom is enhanced. At the same time, if people have access to information about how the system is working the quality of the judicial and enforcement system improves.

Transparency in Governance

Corruption is a ubiquitous but highly poisonous phenomenon – it takes away people’s sense of empowerment and vitiates the quality of governance. In fact, it is both a symptom and a cause of poor governance. If the poor have to pay bribes they are further pushed deeper in poverty and their sense of powerlessness is further degraded. It can however be countered by empowering people through greater openness in the functioning of the state machinery and ensuring greater public participation in the socio-political processes.

Promoting Civil Liberties

An important cause of ordinary people losing their influence on the government and the state machinery, which has adverse consequences on their well-being, is the “state capture” by large businesses. The degree of capture depends upon firms’ ability to influence lawmakers, courts and the Central bank. The “state capture” becomes rather easy in countries where civil liberties are badly curtailed. Therefore, good governance means encouraging growth of civil liberties by creating forums at different levels for the people to raise their voices.

Reading Further


Poverty can be only eliminated effectively if people are seen and dealt with as agents of change in their lives. Charities and welfare programs often do more harm than good by making people dependent – which is actually dis-empowering!

Empowerment takes place in the mindset of people and is a process that takes time. It is far too easy to hand out food packets or medicines and get over with the task of “poverty management” but it is exactly that, poverty management – not eradication. On the other hand, empowerment demands working with and spending time with people; understanding their issues, showing the way out and guiding them to do that.

However, merely counseling is not enough, the efforts have to be back up through skill development and economic opportunities along with suitable policy changes. Promoting grass-root democracy and public participation are always empowering. Good and transparent governance, promotion of civil liberties and inclusive economic growth work efficiently against poverty. Empowerment promotes sustainable development, social cohesion and political stability.


Goodpal (author) on April 20, 2015:

Thanks Akriti, for reading and sharing. Unfair system creates inequality that deprives a section of people of their rightful share. This is like disabling people.

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on April 20, 2015:

Very well researched piece.

Goodpal (author) on February 08, 2014:

Thanks HSchneider, for reading and sharing.

You are absolutely right. People are being dis-empowered everywhere including the "free" and "developed" countries like the US and UK. When people's representatives put themselves on "sale" and become pawns of rich elites, it is the ordinary person who becomes dis-empowered. When the US is spying on its own people and innocent civilians in the name war on terror, who is being dis-empowered - ordinary people.

I have a strong feeling that the world is heading towards a new and better order than what the WWII and cold war have given us in last half century. The threat of climatic disasters which appears increasing with time not an issue for our leaders, global poverty is not an issue, replacing fossil fuel economy with renewables in not an issue, the rising inequality everywhere is not an issue, eliminating all weapons of mass destruction from the world is not an issue, reducing defense budgets in all countries is not an issue. I really wonder whether the humanity on this planet is ruled by some alien forces whose only obsession is making money and sitting in isolation.

People everywhere need more voice and more participation in all social, political and economic activities that influence their lives, not less.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on February 08, 2014:

Excellent analysis, Goodpal. Our politicians, especially on the Right, only cater to those that fund their campaigns. The poor need to band together with their votes and insist on action for their behalf. Politicians respond to votes and the fact is the poor are usually too busy or too alienated to vote. This disregard for the poor is simply inhumane. Your remedies are also fine ones but we need people outside of the poor to give a damn a lot more.

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