I banned the use of empower at Counterpart. I took a red pen and deleted any sentences in proposals that read that we empower citizens to take control of their lives. I stood up at a staff retreat and asked the team to stop using this word when we talk about our mission and vision.
This may look like an odd move for an organization that for more than 50 years has been a partner to communities around the world. It may even appear misguided for an organization that is dedicated to amplifying citizen voices so that people define their own destinies, and hold governments to account for providing inclusive and equitable social services.
Empowering is giving authority or power to someone to do something. International development organizations do not have power to give to citizens. And talking about us as an organization empowering people robs them of their agency to take control of their own lives and claim their rights.
This is more than a matter of semantics. In my view, how you talk about empowerment speaks volumes about how you conceive of and implement development programs.
In the past, international NGOs found themselves, or even inserted themselves, in the de facto role of the state, making decisions about public resources or providing so much external support that they eclipsed the capacity of the state and undermined its effectiveness.
Haiti is a good example of where well-intentioned aid programs delivered through international NGOs undermined post-conflict reconstruction. International NGOs delivered so much funding that they indirectly weakened the role of the state by shifting the accountability to foreign donors funding their work rather than state institutions or the communities they serve. Just as in many other post-conflict reconstruction processes, including Sierra Leone after its civil war, the end result was that international NGOs bypassed the state and shifted accountability to international institutions, undermining the credibility of the state at the very time the state was trying to rebuild citizen’s confidence in it.
Empowerment is at the core of the journey if a country is going to lead its own development process with financing and implementing solutions to the challenges it faces. This is such a welcome and important focus: self-reliance places the onus for development squarely where it belongs: the state, working in partnership with its citizens and the private sector. It is that government ownership that will empower citizens since they can hold the state to account in ways they cannot hold international organizations or donors.
I’ve started the campaign to end using “empowering others” at Counterpart. I intend to spread it as far and wide as we can. In this way, we will fully embrace the Sustainable Development Goals by creating the conditions that allow citizens to fully exercise their citizenship rights, and hold governments accountable for service delivery.
Join me next time when I ban the phrase “marginalized women.”