Is power a zero sum game? Does women’s empowerment lead to increased domestic violence?

August 27, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been having an interesting exchange with colleagues at Oxfam America on the nature of power. They argue thatgawain-kripke empowerment is zero sum, i.e. one person acquiring power means that someone else has to lose it. In a new post, OA’s Gawain Kripke sets out their case.

‘The development community should recognize that women’s economic empowerment is a threat to established power holders.

Women’s economic empowerment is a growing subsector within the development field.  There’s a lot of enthusiasm and new initiatives in this area.  And rightly so.  There are all sorts of good reasons to focus on women, and on their economic situation, and on empowerment.

But there’s a tendency to think of women’s economic empowerment as an unmitigated good.  Or perhaps to hope that it’s an unmitigated good and ignore the strong possibility that there are negative consequences as well.

That’s why I think this new paper by my colleagues is really useful and important. The paper makes an effort to parse out the impact on “domestic violence” of women’s economic empowerment.  Unfortunately, there is not enough research to fully understand the linkages and correlations between the two.  The anecdotal evidence is mixed.  Yes, women’s economic empowerment has many benefits to women, their families, communities and even to countries.  But it also seems true – at least in some cases — that it causes stress and conflict within households and communities.

When you think on it, it’s not surprising that husbands and fathers might feel threatened by empowered wives and daughters.  More senior women might feel threatened by empowered younger women.  That’s seems obvious, even natural.  And that perceived threat might provoke negative reactions, even violence.

So why haven’t practitioners – Oxfam included – made sure that economic empowerment projects have strong strategies and safeguards to handle any blowback?

Women in a Burkina Faso Saving for Change group hold their weekly meeting. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

Women in a Burkina Faso Saving for Change group hold their weekly meeting. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

I think it has to do with our mindset.  We tend to think of development as a technical enterprise, devoid of power and political content.  The mental frame is something like a public health model – where improving things for some people (i.e. vaccines or better sanitation) doesn’t hurt other people and, in fact, has positive externalities.  A lot of economics is built on frames like this, the Ricardian model, where the sum is greater than the parts and everyone can gain.  Welfare of some can improve at the same time that the welfare of others improves.

But I think power is different.  I think power is zero-sum.  If your power increases, then, necessarily, my power decreases.  There are various definitions and understandings of power.  But I think the most useful understanding of power is the ability of one actor (individual, party, clique, etc.) to compel or influence others to do one’s will.  In voting, expanding the franchise to new groups of voters necessarily dilutes the power of incumbent voters.  Influencing other key decisions is the same.  If one person decides without any consideration for others, all power is held by that person.  If the decision must be shared by two people, the power of each is halved.

We can use the term “empowerment” glibly.  It seems like a good thing and it fits our principles to “help people to help themselves.”   We pursue women’s economic empowerment and think that everyone will be cheered by the better incomes that women make.  But if we’re serious about empowerment, we need to recognize it necessarily means threatening incumbent power holders.  It means women will have more money, more decision-making control, more autonomy, more agency, more influence, more power.  And it is totally predictable that incumbents will resist.  And even when incumbents don’t resist directly there may be social and psychological payments exacted.  And as Frederick Douglass said, “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Thanks Gawain. It’s a useful reminder of the potential risks involved in empowerment programmes, but I think it’s based on a partial unity is strength cartoonunderstanding of the nature of power. I often use the ‘four powers’ model developed by Jo Rowlands, which sees four different kinds of power at work:

  1. Power within: personal self confidence and a sense of rights and entitlement
  2. Power with: collective power, through organization, solidarity and joint action
  3. Power to: meaning effective choice (agency), the capability to decide actions and carry them out
  4. Power over: the power of hierarchy and domination, as described above.

Aspects of these different forms of power are indeed zero sum, but plenty are not. It seems very reductionist to argue that women getting the vote or joining a trade union somehow significantly disempowers men; and domestic violence programmes like We Can have found that men reported marked improvements in their own quality of life from respecting women’s rights in the home, not least because the sex improved, according to some (well, duh).

Thinking of things like trade unions, I wonder if your view of power is culturally determined – do Americans see it as zero sum, Europeans as more positive, with Brits somewhere in between? What do you think?