Empowerment has been defined and supported in many ways in development cooperation, reflecting different underlying theories of change that are often implicit. The frameworks discussed in this section are useful because they take into account not only agency – individual and group capacity for action – but also structure – underlying norms, beliefs and institutions.

The frameworks are taken from studies of women’s empowerment carried out by the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment research consortium, which understands empowerment as a journey rather than a destination. What that journey entails will depend upon how power is understood. As consortium researchers Rosalind Eyben, Andrea Cornwall and Naila Kabeer wrote in their 2008 paper Conceptualising Empowerment and the Implications for Pro-poor Growth, empowerment happens when “individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations of power that have been keeping them in poverty.”

The role of imagination in this definition is key, as it reflects the ability of marginalised or excluded groups to reflect critically on their situation and to develop a vision of alternatives that they can act upon. Without this critical awareness, individual and collective empowerment and action will be less effective.

Empowerment: liberal or liberating?

In Liberal vs. Liberating Empowerment, her 2009 paper for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment consortium, Brazilian feminist anthropologist Cecilia Sardenberg draws on her experience of women’s movements in Latin America to highlight the differences between two key forms of empowerment.

She defines liberal empowerment as “a process individuals engage in to have access to resources so as to achieve outcomes in their self-interest.” She goes on to argue that collective political organization is not necessary to achieve this kind of empowerment, and economic, legal and personal changes are sufficient for liberal empowerment.”

Liberal empowerment is associated with trends of individual self-help, and is widely used in business leadership and employee motivation programmes. Most mainstream development discourse and practice emphasises this understanding of empowerment.

A liberal view of empowerment sees it as a process through which individuals obtain the ‘power to’ act, and is based on an assumption that power is a resource held and used by people and groups. It can be criticized for ignoring the power that is part of social structures, because it fails to address the norms, discourses and behaviour that are socialised and internalised by all actors, but are less visible and difficult to challenge. It also does not recognise ‘power with’ or ‘power within’ as expressions of power. Sardenberg argues that these omissions mean that a liberal approach to empowerment is not the most effective framework for women’s empowerment in the long-term.

By contrast, Sardenberg defines liberating empowerment as being “influenced by empowerment as a goal of radical social movements” and emphasizes “the increased material and personal power that comes about when groups of people organize themselves to challenge the status quo through some kind of self-organization of the group.”

Liberating empowerment thus becomes not a means to meet development goals, but an end in itself, and a process of gaining the ability to make strategic life choices.

Three dimensions of empowerment

In her 2005 paper, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A critical analysis of the third Millennium Development Goal, Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the London School of Economics, identifies three key dimensions of empowerment:

  • resources, pertaining to the existing preconditions
  • agency, defined as the capacity to define and pursue their strategic choices despite possible opposition
  • achievements, the outcome of a person exercising their agency.

While this definition of empowerment at first seems focused on individual agency rather than structural change, Kabeer also calls attention to what she calls the conditions and consequences of choice, which are always shaped by context. As such, she argues the second dimension of empowerment also includes “transformative forms of agency that do not simply address immediate inequalities, but are used to initiate longer-term processes of change in the structures of patriarchy.”

Women’s empowerment, for example, is dependent on collective solidarity in the public arena as well as individual assertiveness in the private arena, with women’s organizations and social movements having an important role to play in creating conditions for change.