What happened to the power in empowerment?

I’ve just been listening to the latest but one Development Drums podcast, in which Andrea Cornwall and Prue Clarke discuss with Owen Barder where now for the gender movement in development. At one point Andrea Cornwall queries what happened to the power empowerment, accurately critiquing much of what goes by the name of empowerment in development as being almost entirely emasculated of any real shifts of actual power.

Professor Cornwall suggests that the bureaucratic nature of Big Aid is the culprit, that bureaucracies have trouble grappling with such issues. It is certainly in the nature of big bureaucracies to hoard power, but I would be inclined to point the finger elsewhere. Towards the end of the podcast, the discussion veers closer to my diagnosis without ever quite coming out and saying it. As for me, j’accuse the locus of international aid that puts it firmly within the diplomatic sphere.

Back when aid began as a quasi expiation of post-colonial guilt, I imagine it made sense to empower the newly independent governing states just launched. Then in the 1970s and 80s when aid focused a lot on capital inputs, new roads, tractors and power stations to go with those shiny new industrial policies the state to state model would have still been the most appropriate. But in the 21st century, when much western aid focuses instead on softer concerns like governance and participation, and service delivery in sectors such as health and education which aim to boost human capacity, such a model seems utterly out-dated.

Alas, most bilateral aid agencies are either part of the donor country’s foreign ministry or clearly subsidiary to said ministry, whilst the multi-lateral agencies are all ultimately controlled by diplomats. Indeed, donor country governments often justify aid budgets to their electorates in terms of self-interest and improving relations with international partners, i.e. that some quid pro quo may at some point be asked for and given. The US appears only to be one of the most brazen in its demand that every donation be prominently stamped as a gift from the American people, with humanitarian philanthropy apparently a poor second in political motivations for international giving amongst most donor governments. When the act of giving – those high profile pledges of funds – gains far more attention than any actual outcomes of giving, is it any wonder that aid agencies struggle to deliver meaningful development?

Coming back to the challenge of empowerment, the problem, as I see it, is that as soon as you define aid as a government to government transfer, your capacity to achieve any significant transfers of power are almost negligible. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and the prestige of a presidential jet, alas, nearly always appears to be higher priority than the provision of clean drinking water to a developing country’s people.

I suppose there is an argument which says that all the official government aid is a bribe to provide cover to the funding given directly to civil society groups which otherwise are liable to get painted as nefarious agents of foreign powers or other euphemisms of the dictatorati. Working as I do in community conservation, I try to remember – as I lament all the money wasted through largely ineffectual official bilateral and multilateral projects in this sector – that without such colossal greasing of the wheels it is extremely unlikely our small NGO would have ever even got off the ground. But, if that is the case, it would be nice to see rather more honesty about the processes and what they are expected to achieve. Channel money for empowerment and governance initiatives primarily through NGOs and other civil society groups, accept that official state aid will be primarily be spent on salaries and physical assets, and seek to work with that flow rather than against it. Whatever you do, please do not ever pretend that sending some senior officials on the next foreign junket (aka international workshop on governance best practice) is even remotely empowering for anyone who actually needs empowering.

You never know, we might just succeed in empowering the empowerment movement …


3 responses to this post.

  1. Why didn’t I wrote this myself. I share your analysis. Bilateral ODA is indeed, as defined at Busan, mostly about consolidation of power to the governing elites, while we all know that poverty is not only about a lack of money, but also about a lack of power and self-determination.


  2. Posted by David on August 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    An interesting take, and I would agree that diplomatic concerns drive why and how aid is given. The “greasing the wheels” aspect is a nice term, and in many cases this is probably understood – though I’m not sure that it would continue to have that effect if there was, in fact, more honesty around it (because the media and the partner governments actually do read things, the word would get around). Probably better to announce grandiose visions for what exchange visits will do while private expecting many of them to be junkets. That said, more honesty can be built into the process if there is more a political lens taken to planning, with empowerment/inclusion/good governance filtered into various forms of aid.

    Re: Sam’s comment, I’m a bit surprised to see this as a definition of Bilateral ODA. In my experience, for all the strings attached, the bilateral donors do a better job of having realism in their expectations about what’s politically feasible and the role of power in dictating outcomes than do the multilateral institutions, who are often bound by definition to emphasize the government anyway. Beyond that structural issue, though, I’d characterize multilateral aid as much more likely to assume that technical knowledge transfer and funding are the gaps between the present situation and the desired one, while bilateral aid more often targets coalition building, feedback loops, and power shifts (though certainly not to the extent that it should).


    • David I think that is a reasonable point about not being too honest about the “greasing the wheels”, although conversely being more honest may help concentrate some officials’ minds (thinking of those sleazier officials who brazenly do ask what’s in something for them). But what I do think is ridiculous is all the money for empowerment that is channelled through bi- and multi-lateral ODA. ODA should be about budget support and wide-scale subsidisation of service provision by cash-strapped governments. Ref my previous posts about gender mainstreaming; some forms of giving are simply not suitable for achieving certain aims, and supporters of mainstreaming are doing no-one any favours, including their own cause, by insisting that it should be.


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