Economic and Political Empowerment

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this link to a story at the Washington Post. Here’s the gist. A lot of international organizations focus on women’s empowerment. But a lot of those organizations think of empowerment in terms of the ability to make a livelihood. They give women chicken or goats, or microloans to start a small shop in their home, or a sewing machine. Now empowering women is good, but the ability to make a living is good. But women aren’t suffering just because they can’t make money. Women are suffering because they don’t have political power. And organizations tend not to focus on that.

So women end up receiving financial or material help that doesn’t lead to longterm economic gains. And women still end up being denied the political power that they could use to change the systems that are keeping them — and their communities — in the ways that would lead to longterm economic and social improvement.

As the article puts it:

This narrow definition ignores something important: Women suffer not just because they don’t have a form of income. Women are part of a system that fundamentally doesn’t favor them, that makes it hard for them to obtain and stay in power. To change that, the report says, these women need political power. As one of the report’s co-authors, Rafia Zakaria, wrote in the New York Times: “Without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable.”

Many of us in the West — especially, maybe, charity skeptics — tend to have a narrow view of empowerment that is focused on providing people with the tools to find economic livelihoods. Job training, soft-skills education, and other employment programs become the beginning and end of empowerment. Often, that means taking on work that serves the interests of the relatively wealthy more than it does those of people experiencing poverty.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work on economic empowerment. But any economic empowerment project needs to be paired with political empowerment projects. People living in poverty need to have a substantial voice in the issues that affect them, from minimum wages and universal basic incomes to health care and criminal justice reform. Economic empowerment by itself can only help people survive in the system as it is; political empowerment can change the system so that it is more egalitarian and more likely to actually benefit people experiencing poverty.