The idea of empowerment has become a popular one in present times. To empower, simply, is to release the energies of a marginalized group, or individuals, so they can take control of their own lives. The Chinese have a proverb about giving a man a fish as compared to teaching him how to fish. Give him a fish and he comes to your home every morning with his grumbling stomach. Teach him to fish however, and he takes responsibility of his grumbling stomach. Teaching people to fish for themselves is the crux of empowerment.
Empowerment is also about giving people a voice, so they can speak up against oppression and injustice. Throughout history, there has been one empowerment program after the other. As long as inequality remains, there will always be the need for the strong to lift up the weak. Be it the empowerment of Black people, or of women, of sexual minorities, or of street children – there is always a need for someone to rise up and say ‘it is your time to speak up; you can lay claim to any resource around you, just like everyone else.’
Empowerment is important because it tries to do away with the coercive and oppressive relationships of power that often exists in some societies. It is really doubtful that anyone would find faults with empowerment’s honest need to give a voice to the oppressed and to make their lives matter.
Nevertheless there is a paradox in empowerment agendas that can result in the abuse of the very people whose interests it seeks to protect.
I will clarify this paradox with an illustration. Mr. Mensah is an oil magnate while Budu sells cigarettes on the rough streets of Accra. Driving home from work one day, Mr. Mensah meets Budu and decides that Budu will be better off if he gets off the street. He does this because he sees the potential for success in Budu, so takes Budu home with him. Mr. Mensah believes that Budu will make an excellent lawyer someday, so he quickly enrolls Budu in the university. Budu is grateful, of course; Mr. Mensah has given him a new chance at life, he has given him a voice, he has empowered him; something no one ever did for him. Where empowerment failed is this: Mr. Mensah never asked Budu what it was he really wanted. Had he asked, Mr. Mensah would have known that Budu had always wanted to learn sculpturing at the community polytechnic. Mr. Mensah gave Budu a voice, but it was a voice Budu couldn’t sing with.
The illustration of Mr. Mensah’s relationship with Budu is to establish that no matter the magnanimity of empowerment, power still remains in the hands of one the strong. That is, within the very structures of empowerment is the possibility of domination.
Empowerment comprises of two parties; the weak/oppressed who needs saving and the strong/free who takes upon himself the role of giving hope to the hopeless. Weak and strong, poor and rich – that is the dynamics of empowerment. Any displacement in the balance that exists between the weak and the strong will result in a new form of oppression, where the savior becomes the tyrant.
Can Budu ever complain if Mr. Mensah employs him as his lawyer personal lawyer? Can he ever say no if Mr. Mensah instructs him to forge documents and perjure himself in court? No he cannot; he owns most of his success to Mr. Mensah.
Tyranny can be cloaked as empowerment, and it is often the case when benevolent NGO’s, civil societies and donor agencies fall into the delusion that they know more about the needs of the poor than the poor themselves do.
With the argument that empowerment can serve as a tool for oppression, it is important to understand poor doesn’t necessarily mean dumb. Can saviors overcome the seductiveness of a new form of oppression? What will be the motive of empowerment, teaching the hungry man to fish for himself, or teaching him to fish so he calls you “Master”?
By Dede Williams