People Power: what do we know about empowered citizens and development?

December 2, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

This is a short piece written for UNDP, which is organizing my Kapuscinski lecture in Malta on Wednesday (4pm GMT, webcast live)

Power is intangible, but crucial; a subtle and pervasive force field connecting individuals, communities and nations in a constant process of negotiation, contestation and

Who's got the Power?

Who’s got the Power?

change. Development is, at its heart, about the redistribution and accumulation of power by citizens.

Much of the standard work on empowerment focuses on institutions and the world of formal power – can people vote, express dissent, organise, find decent jobs, get access to information and justice?

These are all crucial questions, but there is an earlier stage; power ‘within’. The very first step of empowerment takes place in the hearts and minds of the individuals who ask: ‘Do I have rights? Am I a fit person to express a view? Why should anyone listen to me? Am I willing and able to speak up, and what will happen if I do?’

Asking, (and answering) such questions is the first step in exercising citizenship, the process by which men and women engage with each other, and with decision-makers; coming together to seek improvements in their lives. Such engagement can be peaceful (the daily exercise of the social contract between citizen and state), but it may also involve disagreement and conflict, particularly when power must be surrendered by the powerful, to empower those ‘beneath’ them.

Examining European history over the last two centuries, the scholar Sidney Tarrow sees a dynamic of repression, partial victories leading to reform, and demobilisation, repeating itself, leading (despite reverses) to incremental expansions in participation, changes in popular culture, and residual networks of movements.

Citizen mobilization does not, of course, always lead to victory – what determines its chances of success? A meta-synthesis of a sample of 100 case studies in 20 countries identified some common elements:

  • The importance of democratic space
  • Diverse, nationally grounded coalitions – not necessarily lead by International NGOs
  • Alliances – Civil society organisations rarely change policy by themselves
  • ‘Contentiousness politics for contentious issues’
Seems a long time ago, now

Seems a long time ago, now

The interaction between state and citizen is perhaps the most important relationship in development. Effective, accountable states can empower citizens through everything from promoting norms of inclusion and non-discrimination, ensuring birth registrations and guaranteeing freedom of association, to ensuring states’ own transparency and accountability, and the rule of law. States can also curb the ‘bad power’ of big players in society.

But states are increasingly doing the exact opposite, repressing rather than empowering their citizens. A growing number of governments now treat the concept of civil society as a code word for powerful political subversives, usually assumed to be doing the bidding of the West. Power holders often fear NGOs more than they do opposition parties, seeing the former as nimble, technologically-savvy actors capable of activating sudden outbursts of mass protest.

More than 50 countries in recent years have enacted or seriously considered legislative or other restrictions on the ability of civil society to organize and operate. In part this backlash is testament to the growing power of citizens’ movements. The nightmare scenario for power holders in many countries is waking up one morning to find that thousands of ordinary citizens have gathered in the main square of the capital demanding justice, vowing not to go home until they get it.

Women’s Empowerment

Globally, perhaps one of the most extraordinary stories of the last century has been the empowerment of women. The transformation in terms of access to justice and education, to literacy, sexual and reproductive rights and political representation is striking.

That progress has been driven by a combination of factors: the spread of effective states that are able to turn ‘rights thinking’ into actual practice, and broader normative shifts; new technologies that have freed up women’s time and enabled them to control their own fertility; the vast expansion of primary education – particularly for girls – and improved health facilities.

Politics and power have been central to many, if not all, of these advances. At a global political level, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of suffragettesDiscrimination Against Women (CEDAW) appears to be one of those pieces of international law that exerts genuine traction at a national level, as it is ratified and codified in domestic legislation.

But what is needed to turn such global progress into better national policies? A massive study of changes to policy on violence against women in 70 countries over four decades (1975 to 2005) came to an unequivocal conclusion:

‘Countries with the strongest feminist movements tend, other things being equal, to have more comprehensive policies on violence against women than those with weaker or non-existent movements. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth.’

Citizen empowerment may be one of the most exhilarating dramas on the global stage, but what role is there for aid agencies and international NGOs? The first lesson is humility – any role is bound to be limited, and many of the drivers of change have little connection to the official worlds of aid and project funding. Indeed badly designed funding can tarnish reputations, undermine local support and fuel toxic accusations of foreign interference. To manage these kinds of risks, outside organizations need to build deep local understanding (usually requiring much greater empowerment and recognition of local staff).

Using diplomacy to deter governments from closing down civil society space, and supporting the long term building blocks of citizens’ empowerment, such as the women’s movement or trade unions and others, may be more advisable than seeking to trigger the next Revolution.