Self Reliance, Hip Hop, Resistance and Weapons of the Weak: do we need to rethink Empowerment?

September 25, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

A 3 day conference at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) inevitably makes you dig deep and question your assumptions, and last week’s gathering of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme was no exception.

This time, presentations from Myanmar and Mozambique set me off. In Myanmar the researchers had expected to find communities opting between ethnic and state authorities, but found instead that many are intent on avoiding both – i.e. they are seeking self reliance. Trust is local, built on ethnicity, past experience (eg of individuals’ behaviour) and familiarity.

So say a community or a family succeeds in being left alone and managing on their own. Does that constitute empowerment? And what does that mean for accountability? It feels like our notions of Empowerment and Accountability (E&A) have somehow shrunk to looking at and valuing only what goes on in the public sphere – protests, voting, holding the state or other institutions to account.

In Mozambique some fascinating research into hip hop artists found that calling it ‘protest’ music misses a lot of what is going on. Their analysis of lyrics by ‘Refila Boy’ (blog to follow), and conversations with a range of musicians, identified issues like the value of catharsis; ridiculing and destroying deference to authority as well as complaining about daily problems like stirring up protests on corruption.

Again, our understanding of E&A seems to only privilege stuff that happens in the public sphere. Calling the president ‘shorty’ in a song lyric, and having people sing along, is not seen as important in itself, only as a way to mobilize them.

From the sludge banks of memory, I dredged up a book I read a long time ago – James C Scott’s ‘Weapons of the Weak’ (1985) and his later book Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1992). Based on two years of field research in a Malaysian village, Scott identified ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance, the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage.’ In the later book he developed his thinking on ‘hidden transcripts’ – ‘ a secret discourse that represents a critique of power spoken behind the backs of the dominant.’

My fear is that we have somehow lost that understanding, and allowed E&A to become synonymous with what are effectively ‘weapons of the strong’ – public acts such as voting, violence, public statements, lobbying and so on.

But in conflict-affected places, this seems a huge mistake – there, public opposition and action is all too likely to backfire, putting lives at risk. Isn’t it time to rethink empowerment and accountability, and the relationship between them? Surely feeling less scared, more defiant is itself a form of empowerment, and enhanced wellbeing, even if nothing else follows in its wake? We talk about ‘power within’ largely in terms of it being a necessary first step to public action, but shouldn’t we accept it as an end in itself, and think harder about the role of secrecy and resistance?

Amartya Sen described development as the expansion of the freedoms to be and to do – a broad concept that would definitely include changes in the private world inside people’s heads. I think we need to make our understanding of empowerment equally comprehensive.

I’m even more confused about what all this means for our understanding of accountability. From Egypt we heard of nurses arguing effectively that E&A are in opposition: demanding accountability of doctors and patients in cases of sexual harassment of nurses would, in their view, undo efforts to establish nursing as a reputable job in the public eye.

John Gaventa listed the theories of accountability as covering access to Information; the rule of law; voting and the social contract between states and citizens. None of those relate to private spaces, so does that mean we should separate empowerment and accountability altogether? Or think harder about private sphere accountability, eg in the household, or in the mind (am I being true to my values in thought and action?)

Discussions then touched on the potential downsides to a shift in this direction: is talking about the value of self reliance merely romanticising/accepting a survival strategy born of a lack of options? Accepting a status quo that is already full of inequality and violence? Is humour really liberating, or does it merely release the pressure for change through the kind of gallows humour that always flourishes under repression?

Not sure if this makes much sense, but I clearly have some processing to do – any advice appreciated!

And here’s a Refila Boy video as a reward for getting this far: