Can states empower poor people? Your thoughts please

June 26, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’m currently writing a paper on how governments can promote the empowerment of poor people. Nice and specific then. It’sempowerment ambitious/brave/bonkers depending on your point of view, and I would love some help from readers.

First things first. This is about governments and state action. So not aid agencies, multilaterals or (blessed relief) NGOs, except as bit players. And not state-as-problem: here I’m looking at where state action has achieved positive impacts. The idea is to collect examples of success and failure in state action, as well as build some kind of overall narrative about what works, when and why.

Here’s where I’m currently at:

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 current literature suggests a neat fit with a ‘three powers’ model first proposed by our own Jo Rowlands (I think). According to this reading, power for excluded groups and individuals can be disaggregated into three basic forms:

  • power within (a sense of rights, dignity and voice, along with basic capabilities). This individual level of empowerment is an essential precondition for collective action. For governments, reshaping the social norms that perpetuate the exclusion of groups and individuals is a crucial aspect of empowerment.
  • power with (ability to organize, express views). Poor people come together to express their views and demand their rights. Governments need to facilitate (and not oppose or seek to coopt) such organization.
  • power to (ability to influence decision makers, whether the state, economic power holders or other). Poor people’s voices are effective in influencing those in power. Governments need to create and maintain channels for such influencing, and facilitate access to them by excluded groups and individuals.

In addition, states play an important role in curtailing ‘bad power’, in the shape of excessive concentration of power and influence, and its use against the interests of excluded groups and individuals.

Legal empowerment, a key weapon in the state’s armoury, cuts across all these categories.

So what can governments do? Using the 3 powers model to organize things a bit:

Power Within

  • Registration of excluded groups of excluded groups and individuals, including lower castes, indigenous, the elderly and disabled, migrants
  • Promoting pro-poor norms and values (eg gender rights; preventing discrimination against excluded groups)
  • Equitable access to assets for poor people eg via progressive taxation systems, land rights, housing and decent jobs

unity is strength cartoonPower With

  • Guarantee Freedom of Association
  • Support the emergence/sustainability of interest and identity-based organizations among excluded groups and channels for them to represent their interests and participate in decision-making
  • Positive discrimination, eg on women’s representation in local and national government

Power To

  • Being responsive to views of poor people and their organizations
  • Opening up public policy and service delivery processes through enhanced transparency and accountability
  • Encouraging the co-production of public services

Curbing Bad Power

  • Limiting corruption by state officials
  • Correcting anti-poor market failures such as excessive market concentration
  • Bringing down excessive levels of inequality through redistribution (taxation, assets, opportunities)

Legal Empowerment

  • Using the legal system to promote rights enhancement, awareness, enablement and enforcement for excluded groups and individuals

Of course in many cases, as recent developments in North Africa, Turkey and Brazil have shown, states are not in total control. There are numerous other players on the domestic scene (social movements, trade unions, political activists and opposition groups, faith leaders), and some degree of external influence that supports/constrains their actions.

States therefore are unlikely to succeed simply by setting out, in advance, a blueprint for empowerment and then implementing the plan. Instead, what matters is developing an ‘empowering approach’ that

  1. Creates the enabling conditions required by excluded groups and individuals to empower themselves. This combines access to information, inclusion/participation, accountability and building local organizational capacity.
  2. Learn to ride waves of empowerment-related change, developing a process through which all parties come together to search for solutions to collective action problems, for example testing different options and discarding the least successful options. Matt Andrews calls this approach ‘Problem-driven iterative adaptation’ or (more memorably) ‘purposive muddling’.
  3. Recognize that change is likely to be discontinuous, and respond to the importance of ‘critical junctures’, such as economic and political shocks, that are likely to create particularly fertile conditions for both empowerment and disempowerment.

All comments welcome, but what I’d really appreciate is your suggestions for case studies (with links or references) and where they fit within this framework. In particular, because it seems to be the least well-documented, examples of where governments have built ‘power within’.

Over to you.

June 26, 2013
Duncan Green