Opinion: We need structural change to enable self-empowerment — not empowerment by others

A woman submits her ballot on the first day of the national elections in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo by: UN Photo / Albert Gonzalez Farran / CC BY-NC-ND

There can be no question that vulnerable people often require assistance to live the lives they would wish for themselves and their families. What form this assistance should take and how it should be provided, however, are matters where there is much less agreement. A solution that has been increasingly discussed in recent times has been the so-called empowerment of vulnerable populations.

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When decision-makers and people in positions of power report that they are empowering different individuals or groups, we should be very wary about their intentions.

For some decision-makers, the rhetoric of empowering the vulnerable is the fashionable tactic they have adopted for the purpose of self-promotion and perhaps also to secure another term in office. For others, while they might genuinely want vulnerable people to be empowered to live as they would wish, these decision-makers encounter a dilemma because they do not really want to share their power with the vulnerable.

This dilemma is never sustainable because those who give are also those who can take away. People who are in positions to empower are also in positions to disempower at any opportunity. Whether or not empowerment or disempowerment occurs is entirely determined by the benevolence and predilections of whoever occupies decision-making positions.

Actual empowerment will only emerge from a change in the structure of the power dynamic that reconfigures the way in which power is distributed. The problem with the empowerment solution as it is generally presented is that it retains the very same structures and dynamics that produced the power imbalance in the first place. The “empowerer” and the empowered remain in the same relationship with each other, based on the power distribution of the society they inhabit.

Rather than a movement of empowering others, we need to start a radical initiative of depowering relationships through the structures of policies and laws.

What is required for genuine and lasting change is a reorganization of those structures and relationships. When the societal system mandates an equitable and just sharing of power, vulnerable populations will be able to access the resources they need to live lives of their own design.

As long as the control of access to resources is determined by policies and processes that ignore equity, a power imbalance will remain. The extent to which members of vulnerable populations are empowered or disempowered will be determined by the vagaries of the few people, or a particular person, who have the good fortune to be positioned on the upside of the power scale at a certain point in time.

Even if the people in these elevated positions decide to empower the vulnerable people over whom they have dominion, the empowered vulnerable people will still be vulnerable because the empowerer could, at any time or with changing circumstances, decide to disempower.

If employees must rely on the good intentions of their supervisors and managers rather than the equitable policies of their place of employment, they will remain vulnerable. If wives need their husbands to empower them, instead of societal laws and rules that mandate equitable relationships, then they will remain shackled.

Rather than a movement of empowering others, we need to start a radical initiative of depowering relationships through the structures of policies and laws. We need to reimagine our existing policies, procedures, and processes so that equitable access to necessary resources becomes commonplace and unquestioned. When we have reached that place, we will be demonstrating with our deeds that no life matters more than another and no life matters less.

We do not underestimate the enormity of the task we are suggesting, but “enormous” does not mean “impossible.” All great ideas have their time. Outstanding accomplishments often arise from what seemed initially, from a certain perspective, like enormous and unfathomable problems.

In some countries, universal health coverage is still a preposterous idea, yet elsewhere a more equitable organization of access to health services is mandated by law. In the early 20th century, the concept of the weekend and the right to vacations were new and revolutionary ideas. Now, working conditions are bounded by employment laws in many places. In some countries, voting in elections is compulsory.

Significant societal changes that enable more people to self-empower, therefore, have been introduced with laws as legal standards. It is time for equity through self-empowerment. For our race to solve its most urgent problems and become all that it can be, equity must become as unquestionable as the weekend. It must be a standard enshrined in and protected by law.

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As voting citizens, we can educate and advocate so that vast numbers of people vote for politicians who prioritize equity. As a legal mechanism, equity will then be ubiquitously incorporated into guidelines, policies, and procedures. It will be part of our education programs and will mobilize communities.

Once our standards of daily conduct are inundated with the expectation of self-empowerment through equitable access to resources and opportunities, it will become part of the prevailing culture. As a cultural norm, it will be much more impervious to erosion by the remaining few who are unable or unwilling to help themselves by helping others.

For each of us to realize all that living has to offer, we must genuinely help each other through the establishment of systems and structures that enable equitable access to opportunities, freedoms, and resources. When we arrive there, empowerment by others will become an obsolete relic of the past, as people go about the business of uncompromised daily living.

At that time, empowered people will sustain the empowerment they enjoy to live according to their own — rather than someone else’s — wishes, because the structure of society will automatically protect everyone's empowerment as a fundamental necessity of human life.

But never forget: This imperative of human living will be observed only for as long as it is protected. Equitable laws and policies are made so they can be quickly changed if the socially just are not vigilant enough to protect them.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Timothy Carey

    Timothy Carey is a scientist-practitioner Fulbright scholar with a background in clinical psychology. He has over 150 publications including scientific papers, books, and book chapters. His work centers around understanding autonomous control and its importance to well-being and health and social equity.
  • Agnes Binagwaho

    Professor Agnes Binagwaho is the vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, a global university in the rural north of Rwanda focused on changing the way health care is delivered around the world by training the next generation of global health professionals to provide more equitable, quality health services for all. She is a Rwandan pediatrician who has served the health sector in various high-level government positions, first as the executive secretary of Rwanda's National AIDS Control Commission, then as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health, and then for five years as minister of health.