Believe in empowerment? Then just do it!

A little rant/shoot here.

Empowerment - too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR - sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)
Empowerment – too perilous and futile? (credits: yohan1960/FlickR – sculpture by Stephen Broadbent)

Development work is (IMHO) all about empowerment: finding ways to become fully aware of one’s choices in one’s own livelihood, to become capable to make these choices and to proactively develop this liberty of choice and action so as to continually adapt to ever changing challenges – through learning.

Development cooperation work is all about empowerment too, it is about supporting the empowerment mentioned previously and to help connect choices and actions on livelihood, dignity and liberty.

Yet development (cooperation) work surprisingly slips back to habits, bad habits, and known bad habits at that – much like we tend to be continually over planning. We – at least some of us – talk about empowerment but we don’t champion it in practice quite as adamantly.

Here is a review of typical known bad habits that hamper empowerment:

  1. Do it, don’t delegate! Do not bother delegating anything since you do it better than others, you know the end result will never be quite as good as if you do it. Especially if you never give others a chance to become masters and perhaps even improve on you.
  2. Buy/hire capacities, don’t develop them! Why invest in capacities you have at hand? There will always be better experts abroad than in-house. You need a specialist in strategic communication? Recruit a new staff member. Need specialist know-how for your M&E? Hire a consultant! Yeah it takes time to bring them on the same page but they are better to start with and come with a new mindset which can probably be moulded more easily, especially if they are not too old. Who needs the long sweaty road of grappling with capacity development?
  3. Despair and swear, dont’ trust and be patient! People around you are not doing things well, they just don’t get it and never will, why would you be patient and trust that they will bring the best of their intentions and capacities to perform a task? Sadly you can just despair at their misunderstanding and swear at their incapacity to do things like you (see point 1).
  4. Tell, don’t show! It takes too much time to show people how to do something so just tell them and hope that they get it. They probably don’t and then you have a good reason to follow point 3 and ultimately 1.
  5. Hush now, don’t explain! Just diss what people have to say, don’t bother explaining what is going on. So in fact, don’t even bother telling people (let alone showing them) – so ignore point 4 and just ignore people altogether and leave them in their sea of ignorance. Ignorance is bliss they say and you are kind enough to grant them this privilege.
  6. Criticize, don’t praise! People around you might be doing their best, and actually improve, but there’s always so much more that needs improving! Let them understand all these things they don’t get and that there is a long way before they get it right. A good lesson of what’s going wrong helps to learn, right? Besides, surely praising will make them lazy and self-complacent, so put them on the right track again and give them a right rinsing of criticism – preferably publicly so next time they think twice before saying something stupid!
  7. Impose your view, don’t help others find theirs! Since they have a very poor understanding of the situation, you should just show THE right perspective and way: yours. All those ideas about multiple perspectives and complementary viewpoint is just another reason to get soft, not take hard decision and remain ignorant. Luckily one person stands out to correct the ways development is being done – you are the messiah that they should have been expecting because you never fail to see what needs to be done. And there is certainly no point helping people find their own authenticity and purpose; instead they should support your approach, the only right one.
  8. Hide the truth, don’t criticize! In fact, even better, don’t even criticize, not even in private, just say nothing. They will never get it and will never change so just don’t invest any energy in feedback – they are not worth your attention, time and prestigious expertise.

Obviously this is a caricature but we do find a lot of watered down versions of these terrible attitudes in development work. I also don’t deny that in certain situations there might be a teeny tiny grain of truth in some of the statements above but by and large they all miss the point of empowerment and bring a shameful (post-?)colonial twist to development (cooperation) work.

Let’s all face our own bad habits and see how many of these we can trade for true empowerment in our thinking, discourse and actions… Time to be honest about our own limitations and about the great potential of all other people around us. Empowerment: stop talking about it – just do it!

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hello Brian,

    Thanks for your reply and sorry for this very late answer. I totally agree with you as to the importance to communicate ideas to be influential, although IMHO this does not necessarily mean you need to impose your ideas over others as (previously) you would impose your functional authority over others.
    I certainly hope that social media indeed help others find a voice and brings influential leaders to listen carefully to what others are saying to constantly sharpen their own ideas…

    Also totally agree on the probable discomfort coming from staff transparently voicing their opinions (and managers having to transparently share their informed discussions).


  2. Hi Ewen. The point ‘Impose your view, don’t let others find theirs!’ resonated because I think it is the practice most under threat from the application of the social web at work. Giving staff a voice in the context of transparent communication will make management and staff uncomfortable (albeit for different reasons:, but will enhance individual and organizational performance.

    Euan Semple notes in his book ‘Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do’ that the authority managers derive from their positions is being replaced by the need to influence; the force of ideas and the ability to communicate them is becoming more important than job titles.

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