“Empowerment” generally refers to development approaches that “enable” the beneficiaries, especially the poor and marginal and excluded groups such as women, to take initiatives to solve their own problems of poverty, exclusion, and chronic dependency (Narayan 2005). The role of government and nongovernmental agencies is to encourage and support local organization efforts, help local groups define their own needs, and respond to requests for training and other technical or capital assistance. Beneficiary groups are expected to initiate participatory communication within their communities, establish communication networks with other beneficiary groups, and build cooperative linkages with government and nongovernmental agencies. Because personal and social isolation is so much a part of social passivity and exploitation, communication strategies of organization, networking, group communication, and community media are central to empowerment methods.
Models of development emphasizing local control and initiative emerged because highly centralized decisions often imposed approaches that were not related to local needs and were not able to build on local cooperation, understanding, and voluntary contribution. Neo-colonial power elites and those in positions of privilege in systems of class and caste tend to define the rural and urban poor as “inherently inferior.” Critiques of modernization point to elites using their power in the economy, education, and media to instill in lowerstatus people attitudes of passive dependency, resignation, and incompetence, while disregarding indigenous knowledge, leadership, and organizational traditions.
A New Paradigm of Development Communication
The process of building a participatory communication structure for development often begins when groups recognize oppression and the lack of services from state bureaucracies, which require different solutions. The leaders in the movements often develop a communicative rhetoric and a new culture that rejects the myth of weakness and dependency and re-evaluates the identity of youth, peasants, or women as a positive value (Heward & Bunwaree 1999). These grassroots movements have often been assisted by persons and organizations with a more urban-technical background, who wish to share their organizational, educational, and communication skills with these popular movements (Burra et al. 2005). Typical of this phenomenon is Paulo Freire, a Brazilian professor of education, who became involved with literacy training projects and applied his philosophical and educational background to develop the culture of popular confidence into a new method of education for the poor and excluded. The thought of Freire and others provides much of the theoretical foundation for methods of education for dialogical communication aimed at creating a new culture of confidence and organizational capacity in these movements.
The relative success of the popular movements as a development strategy has gradually caught the attention of most of the major theorists of communication for development. Today, the theoretical paradigm based on participatory, grassroots communication and empowerment approaches has become dominant (Melkote & Steeves 2001; Servaes 1999; R. A. White 2004; Wilkins 2000). Theory and practice of development at the local level is today generally expressed in some form of empowerment, and this perspective has wide acceptance throughout the world including in some international development institutions such as the World Bank (Alsop et al. 2006; Bebbington et al. 2006).
Concepts of Empowerment Strategies
Empowerment communication strategies generally take into consideration different dimensions of power, not just the traditional meaning of power as “power over” (Rowlands 1997, 13 –14). Personal empowerment (“power to” or “power within”) attempts to develop a sense of self-confidence in one’s identity as female, peasant, or young person. The consciousness of personal identity as full of value, competent, and able to contribute to national development becomes important (Freire 1972; 1973). Relational empowerment develops the ability not to passively accept power relations but to actively negotiate and influence relationships and decisions made in them (Rowlands 1997, 15). Collective empowerment (“power with”) trains people to work in organizations so as to have a greater impact. This develops the ability of groups to analyze problems, to discover solutions, and to carry out these solutions as an organization.
Political empowerment (“power for”) prepares people to participate in representative democracy in order to get the regional, national, and international political decision-making process to provide opportunities and resources for grassroots organizational efforts. Some conceptions of empowerment stress building freedom of choice (agency), gaining awareness of assets, and learning to take advantage of opportunities (Alsop et al. 2006). Another dimension is social capital, the degree to which one can call upon the social commitment, trust, and support of family, friends, community, and other social relations. Empowerment, as a de facto exercise of initiative, leads toward entitlement, when there is an awareness that the exercise of creativity is a human right inherent in personhood (Gready & Ensor 2005).
Strategies at The Group and Community Level
Empowerment approaches place great emphasis on participatory forms of interpersonal, group, and organizational communication. Especially important is a nondirective leadership and administrative relationship with beneficiaries that encourages them to recognize and express their own ideas for solving the problems they face.
The first step in the process of educational and communication change is the formation of groups interested in more formal discussion led by locally elected, nondirective leadership. This leadership, which may have been accustomed to authoritarian power structures, often benefits from training in participatory communication by those who have skills in empowerment. The best of the leaders have come out of the movements themselves.
Central to the communication process of empowerment is the animation model of dialogical discussion conducted by nondirective leadership, which includes the following components. First, there should be an open and free space in which all members of the group are able to say what they think and experience a supportive response of listening, appreciation, respect, and constructive building on the good ideas of others. Second, the animator should refrain from telling the group what their problem is or its best solution, but encourage group members to come up with their own ideas. He or she must have a deep respect for the capacity of the group to come up with its own solutions and patiently allow it to do so in its own way. Third, the members of the group are encouraged to get in contact with their own ideas, to establish their own sense of identity, and to bring this before the others with confidence. Many participants may have lived in a context of fear or repression and therefore find it difficult to raise their own perceptions to the level of conscious affirmation.
Fourth, members deliberate on the causes of the problem they face and the best course of action. For those accustomed to authoritarian communication, it may be difficult to create a solution together from all the ideas of those present so that everyone can see something of themselves in the final decision and in the group action. Fifth, those in the group who may never have participated in public decision-making are enabled to reach and enact a responsible decision. Sixth, the animator provides guidance for the group on how to build communication networks with other groups and how to negotiate with government and nongovernmental sources of assistance as a network. Group and community communication may use “small media” such as videos they produce themselves, theatre, traditional music, dance, and other forms of indigenous media. The purpose is not primarily to instruct but to present for analysis the everyday relations based on a power structure that they may initially take for granted as “natural.” In the production, witnessing, and discussion of this media, participants can deconstruct and rebuild social relations according to principles of democratic governance such as equal representation of women and men, open discussion, free elections, and rotating leadership (S. A. White 2003).
Empowerment at The District and Regional Level
Although group communication is important for personal empowerment, these groups must be brought together to form community councils, cooperative associations, and voluntary associations to gain access to technical and economic support. At this level community media, which provide intergroup and district-level communication, are important. Particularly useful is community radio, which is “owned” by a cooperative of local organizations and manned largely by volunteers from all these organizations (Alumuku 2006). Community radio opens program areas for less powerful sectors – peasant farmers, women’s organizations, youth, artisans’ associations – and conducts a continual open forum of discussion of the problems and interests of these sectors. Community radio circulates local news, takes advantage of local entertainers, sponsors information and improvement campaigns, supports local language and cultural traditions, and defends local interests against the economic and power elites. Community radio is open to all who wish to speak and provides training in radio broadcasting for all.
Typically, community radio runs a series of instructional programs and educational campaigns that use methods of empowerment: interpersonal mentoring and guidance, participation in educational broadcasts, consciousness-raising discussions, theatre and video produced locally, and community radio “open forum” programs in which issues of power relations are often debated. Community radio is also empowering in that it often links rural neighborhoods to national and international information sources through wireless forms of the Internet.
Empowerment at The National and International Level
The networks of local organizations are now increasingly being brought into regional associations directed by elected councils. These associations are able to make agreements with government and nongovernmental agencies to provide technical training, capital investment, marketing access, agro-industry processing, support for small “informal economy” industries, and special informational services of national newspaper, television, and radio networks. The networks of associations are themselves a communication infrastructure and are able to “translate” the highly technical languages and service approaches of banking systems, government development agencies, and international NGOs into the culture of the people-oriented “economy of affection” at the local level.
In many countries of the world there is now a major shift in the structure of governance and development from centrally directed “command models” to “response models,” which encourage grassroots organizations and provide services to these initiatives. The theory and practice of empowerment is currently playing a major role in this new model of democratic governance and administration.
- Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M., & Holland, J. (2006). Empowerment in practice: From analysis to implementation. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Alumuku, P. (2006). Community radio in Africa. Nairobi: Paulines.
- Bebbington, A., Woolcock, M., Guggenheim, S., & Olson, E. A. (eds.) (2006). The search for empowerment: Social capital as idea and practice at the World Bank. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Burra, N., Deshmukh-Ranadive, J., & Murthy, R. K. (eds.) (2005). Micro-credit, poverty and empowerment: Linking the triad. New Delhi: Sage.
- Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Continuum.
- Gready, P., & Ensor, J. (2005). Reinventing development? Translating rights-based approaches from theory into practice. London: Zed Books.
- Heward, C., & Bunwaree, S. (eds.) (1999). Gender, education and development: Beyond access to empowerment. London: Zed Books.
- Melkote, S. R., & Steeves, H. L. (2001). Communication for development in the third world: Theory and practice for empowerment, 2nd edn. London: Sage.
- Narayan, D. (ed.) (2005). Measuring empowerment: Cross-disciplinary perspectives. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Rowlands, J. (1997). Questioning empowerment. Oxford: Oxfam.
- Servaes, J. (1999). Communication for development: One world, multiple cultures. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- White, R. A. (2004). Is “empowerment” the answer? Current theory and research on development communication. Gazette: The International Journal for Communication Studies, 66(1), 7–24.
- White, S. A. (ed.) (2003). Participatory video: Images that transform and empower. New Delhi: Sage.
- Wilkins, K. G. (ed.) (2000). Redeveloping communication for social change: Theory, practice and Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
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