The Contradictions of Empowerment Promotion through Social Engineering


Choosing a title for my PhD was probably one of the most challenging attempts of making a synthesis I ever experienced… After many changes, I found that the one above finally captured the essence of what I was trying to say in 100.000  words. In this post I’m giving myself a little bit more space to explain what is behind this title — or, basically, what was my PhD about, hoping it may be of interest to some of you!

But first, the basic question: why empowerment? When I wrote my PhD project proposal, my intention was to understand what kinds of changes peace brings to the ordinary people, those who are the main victims of violent conflict and who, more often than not, are excluded from the negotiations that lead to a peace agreement, as well as from the processes that lead to the redesign of the institutions of the state where they live. In particular, I was (and still am) interested in the extent to which power distribution changes (or not) once a violent conflict ends and if this change benefits the ordinary people, especially in the long term. Empowerment was, thus, a means for me to understand peace change (and power change) in the long run from the perspective of everyday people.

Looking at the existing literature on empowerment I found three aspects that, in my understanding, needed to be reviewed so that this concept could become a better analytical tool in the case of peace and development. First, there was an issue related to the level of analysis prevalent in this literature. On the one hand, the policy literature focused predominantly at the micro-level, ignoring or minimising the role of systemic factors. On the other hand, there was a significant body of literature discussing empowerment as a discursive global Western instrument that, ultimately, does not really aim at empowering the ‘disempowered’. While both approaches are relevant in their own way, I found that a more comprehensive and holistic framework, that included different levels of analysis simultaneously could offer a more neutral space for analysis as it would not define a priori which level was more important — and thus risking minimising other factors that, in particular cases, could actually be more influential in determining outcomes.

Second, even though there were important discussions about power in the empowerment literature, I found that, mostly, they focused either on the idea of ‘power-over’ (domination) or ‘power-to’ (capacity). My preference in this case was to focus on a dialectical approach that included both aspects of power manifesting at the same time across the different levels of analysis. That is, I considered power-to and power-over as two intrinsic and complementary aspects of power.

Third, despite the obvious acknowledgment in the literature that the voices of the local subjects need to be heard, I found that the matter needed to be further problematized. In this regard, I used the concept of ‘subjectivities’ in order to grasp not only what subjects say they want, but also what are the conditions that inform the way they think — that is, how subjects see themselves and the power they have in the context where they live.

Having come to terms with a framework of empowerment, I needed a setting that could offer a long-term scenario where to assess empowerment in the context of peace. For long considered an example of successful peacebuilding story, Mozambique was just the right choice. The challenge was to find a specific case study where I could navigate through multiple levels of analysis while retaining enough space to discuss the local level.

The choice of my case study was, in this regard, a bit unconventional. Instead of looking at a donor’s project, or at the relationship between internationals and Mozambicans in determining post-war institutional reform or other policies, I picked a national initiative called the District Development Fund, more popularly known as the ‘7 Million’. This is a fund provided by the central government to all districts in Mozambique to be used for credit to the poorest strata of the economically active population. What is interesting about this policy is that it is embedded in a series of important reforms that took place in the country since the Peace Accords, in particular in the domain of decentralisation. Another important feature of this initiative is its direct link with the local councils, which justifies its strong empowering appeal.

These features allowed me to navigate through multiple levels of analysis, and look at this policy not only by assessing its expected achievements and limitations, but also by relating it to all these other domains of change and to peace itself. I did this by engaging, first, with the discourse underlying the policy (in particular its empowering appeal) and, second, by speaking to a large number of actors at different levels of the policy spectrum (e.g., Ministers, civil servants at the central/provincial/district governments, international advisers, members of civil society organisations, people from the community, members of local councils, etc.).

At the end, the big challenge was to answer what was probably a not so well formulated research question… (and I’m thinking this just now, on hindsight…) — ‘what were the effects of the ‘7 million’ on people’s empowerment?’ (to be fair, this was one of three questions). And the reason I think this was probably not a good question is because such formulation leads to the understanding that there is an end-point or a ‘specific way to measure empowerment’ (i.e., it means I have to clearly define what ‘people’s empowerment’ stands for so I can measure it). Perhaps a better question would have been: to which extent has the ‘7 million’ contributed to power change in Mozambique?’ This would be much more in tune with I what actually did by using a dialectical approach to power.

And this leads me back to the title of this post. The contradiction I’m referring to is between the way empowerment policies are planned (social engineering) and the way societies — and power in society — operate (dialectically). Current mainstream social engineering in the case of empowerment policies is based on a technical approach to events, formulas, and linearity. In other words, it is (pretentiously) problem-solving. And to a large extent, this is so because policy-making in this case is still top-down, even when it is portrayed as bottom-up. Ultimately, this exercise in social engineering minimizes the dimension conflict that exists in society; something that could be avoided if a dialectical perspective of power was embraced and if more attention was paid to the very different subjectivities out there. This is even more so in the case of post-war scenarios, were conflict has already led to extreme violence in the past.

By looking at multiple levels of analysis, we see that conflict is present in so many layers (including in the domain of policy formulation and implementation) that reflecting on it should be the obvious strategy. I guess placing ‘conflict’ next to ‘empowerment’ would probably sound unappealing, especially in the case of policy making as, for some reason, the word ‘conflict’ seems to have an exclusive social negative connotation. Yet, and let me conclude with a mention to leading peace practitioner John Paul Lederach: “conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change”, thus the central issue is how may we transform the way we deal with it. Bringing conflict more openly into the analysis of empowerment may actually lead to a better job than pretending conflict is not there.


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