1 Empowering communities to help themselves
At its simplest, community empowerment refers to measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way while acting on their own authority. The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2020) breaks down the concept of community empowerment as follows:
- Community empowerment refers to the process of enabling communities to increase control over their lives.
- Communities are groups of people that may or may not be spatially connected, but who share common interests, concerns or identities. These communities could be local, national or international, with specific or broad interests.
- Empowerment refers to the process by which people gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives. It is the process by which they increase their assets and attributes and build capacities to gain access, partners, networks and/or a voice, in order to gain control.
- Enabling implies that people cannot ‘be empowered’ by others; they can only empower themselves by acquiring more of power’s different forms…
While the breakdown given above might seem fairly straightforward, it is far from being a clearly defined concept. As Robin Ersing has pointed out:
Despite the popularity of the term community empowerment, the concept eludes a precise definition. While some disciplines have contributed to defining aspects of community empowerment, these contributions often refer only to a particular viewpoint. For example, the field of public health often defines community empowerment in terms of “wellness” and the ability of local residents to increase health-promoting behaviours. From this definition, a campaign aimed at reducing alcohol or tobacco use would constitute one method for empowering the community through education, leading to a collective change in behaviour.
Activity 1 The meaning of empowerment
What does ‘empowerment’ mean to you? Reflect for a few moments then note down your immediate thoughts and responses.
Some points to consider might include:
- When you think of the term ‘empowerment’, do certain words, images or scenarios come to mind? If so, what are these?
- Who do you think can be empowered – individuals or communities?
It might be tricky to know where to start with this and you might have a range of ideas. The key is to recognise that there are different approaches to empowerment and that different people will understand and engage with empowerment differently depending on the type of involvement they have with the community.