July 11, 2014

What Exactly Does Empowerment Mean?

Despite the fact that it has become one of the more ubiquitous terms of post apartheid South African society, the word “empowerment” is understood in many different and often contradictory ways. Much like it’s older cousin “democracy”, the term empowerment has come to mean anything from giving people the vote through to providing capital to establish enterprises and taking the cane out of the teachers hand. The implication that this ideological confusion has had on the rule of law alone suggests that this idea deserves further scrutiny and more precise definition.

To understand what empowerment means one has to account for power because empowering someone must mean making him or her powerful. The term “power” has had a bit of a rough ride in our egalitarian world. It invokes slightly nightmarish images of jackboots and little mustaches. However, let us, in the first instance, account for power by distinguishing it from weakness.

If you want something from someone else, that person’s capacity to withhold what you want makes you manipulable. This suggests that being here to get something from the other creates the conditions where the other has power over the self and the self therefore becomes weak and powerless.

However, if you are in the relationship to give something to someone, and that giving is completely unconditional, the other has no power over you. In this case the self is powerful. You have no power over what you get because what you get is not in your power. What you get is in the power of the other. This might concern you greatly but in essence you actually have no power over it. You only have power over what you give, what leaves you. Therefore, to be empowered means that you are focussed on what you should be giving or contributing, rather than being focused on what you want to get.

Weakness is connected with being here to get and strength is connected with being here to give. The powerful are those who change the outcome of events. This is so because the are willing to loose, to take risks, to give. The weak are defined by events because the approach the event that faces them with expectation and therefore create the conditions where the event has power over them.

One also accounts for the strength enterprises on the basis of this criterion. It is true to say that the strength or success of an enterprise may be measured in terms of its capacity to produce a surplus. In a capitalist company this surplus is referred to as a profit. However, what one calls a surplus and who it belongs to is a secondary matter. It is clear that not even the peasant commune is sustainable if it does not produce a surplus.

A surplus suggests that a group of people have worked together in such a away that the total product that they produced was bigger than what each person took out of the enterprise. This means that collectively they have given more than what they have taken. One can therefore only account for the existence of a surplus in the first place because the various participants in the enterprise gave in order to give away.

The enterprise is a web of transactions between people. The more the people of the enterprise go the extra mile in these transactions, give in order to give a way, serve unconditionally, the more successful and powerful the enterprise becomes. This is not only true for enterprises, it is true for any social group. The more the individual within the group is motivated by a reality bigger than his self interest, the more powerful the group becomes, whether this group is an army, a company, a soccer team or a dramatic society. For a good example of this please see the following article on the success of the Greek national football team.

One often hears about the importance of  “vision” with regard to leadership. This importance is both misunderstood and sometimes a little overplayed. The role of a vision is to provide people with an excuse to suspend their self-interest. Assume you had an interaction with employees of a pharmaceutical company, and you wanted to get them to work diligently and with great care. Which of the following two statements is likely to motivate them to do so?

“ If you work very carefully then the medicine which you are making will make a shareholder on the stock exchange very rich”.


“If you work very carefully then the medicines which you are making will save people’s lives.”

The second statement is obviously more likely to enthuse people and invoke a sense of commitment. This is so because there is something benevolent about it. It provides a reason sound enough for the person to suspend their self-interest. Powerful groups are ones that convince their members to suspend their self-interest. To focus on what they should give rather than on what they wish to get.

Empowering people therefore means to focus them on what they should be contributing or giving, and not on their expectations and what they are getting. This not only makes them powerful as individuals but it also accounts for the power of the groups which these individuals participate in. These would be individuals who would be principally concerned with what they are doing rather than with what is being done to them. They would naturally tend to focus on their responsibilities and their duties rather than on their rights. They would be accountable people.

This is why holding people accountable for what they should be contributing plays such a vital role in the empowerment process. It suggests that once people have been given the means and the ability to do what is required of them they have to be held accountable. The spirit of this accountability is not as modern HR practitioners would argue, which is to correct and not to punish. The spirit of accountability suggests that you are appropriately rewarded or punished for what you do.

The sad reality is that the understanding of empowerment that is current our country at the moment seems to confirm the issue of expectation rather than that of contribution. We have become a forerunner of what Robert Bly called “the sibling society”, where there are no higher ideals, no greater authorities which demand from us a spirit of sacrifice, contribution and accountability. This dethronement of an order which is higher than the self has resulted in the enthronement of the self. The overthrow of giving and service has resulted in the pursuit of the great acquisition and gratification of the self.

And so we have created a world where nothing is sacrosanct other than the rights of the individual. It is precisely because this translates into a world where what people get is the focus rather than what they give, that this has become the key factor in the dis-empowerment of both individuals and the society. One cannot call a society where the women are raped, the infants are abandoned and aborted, where the children are molested and the citizens robbed and murdered a powerful or a successful one.