What might we mean when we talk about ‘empowerment’, a term that is widely used in development and social work, even in private sector organisations? It is often stated as a strong value commitment that underpins the work. So we want our colleagues to feel ‘empowered’ and we want those we help to feel the same. What happens when someone becomes ‘empowered’? One of the things that happens is that people begin to recognise themselves, and be recognised by others, differently. In recognising themselves differently, and being recognised, they are enabled to act, and talk about their actions, differently. They come to see themselves anew, and as a consequence this has an impact on how others see them. This could lead to further action and further recognition, or it could also lead to violent repression and reaction.
But even violent reaction is a form of recognition, which says to those becoming more recognised, “we recognise that you are more powerful, and we don’t like it.” The extent of the recognition can be exaggerated: “now women in Kenya are driving bigger cars than us men” as a way of distorting, and trying to claim back the old relationship by suggesting that things are getting out of hand. Power, then, is not in unlimited supply. We cannot go to the power bank and simply distribute power to those who have none. Power is social: it is the way we relate together. In order for you to have more power, it implies that others you relate to will have less. Minute by minute, day by day, we negotiate how this power relationship alters between us in processes of recognition, not always aware of the profound difference this could make until we experience it. And sometimes the difference it makes can shock us profoundly and threaten to undermine our identities, which are based upon existing power relationships. So although we usually talk about empowerment as a ‘good thing’ we are often unprepared for the deep disturbance that altering power relationships can have for ourselves, as much as for others. In seeing others anew, we also end up by changing how we understand ourselves, and this is not always a comfortable process.