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Blogs by Ambassador Ray

What is Empowerment ?

April 11, 2010
Ambassador Charles A. Ray (Photo: Dept of State)

Ambassador Charles A. Ray

By Charles A. Ray

Some people use the word empowerment without ever actually explaining what they mean or, I suspect, without understanding what it really means.  Employers ‘empower’ their staff; politicians ‘empower’ the people.  But, what does it actually mean?

The dictionary defines the verb ‘empower’ as:

  • To give official authority or legal power to
  • To promote the self-actualization or influence of

So, when we hear this word empower used, what does it mean.  The first definition is relatively clear.  A statement, “I empower you to act on my behalf in the matter” is rather obvious from the context.  It is, therefore, the second with which we concern ourselves.  How do you go about ‘promoting self-actualization or influence”?

Perhaps it would be useful to employ a reverse form of reasoning, and discuss what is not empowering, and thereby arrive at a better understanding of what empowerment is.

Quite often, the word is used in connection with giving someone something.  A promotion, property, or a position is labeled as ‘empowerment.’  When this is done for someone who has little or nothing, while it is laudable in some instances (not, by any means, in all), does it actually empower that person?  When I worked at the University of Houston, an organization built a nice, big house for a low income family.  There was a raft of press coverage and this was hailed as an empowering move.  Within a year, though, the family found itself unable to keep up with tax, insurance and maintenance costs and had to give the house up.  Was that family empowered?  I think if you asked them, the answer would be a resounding “NO!”

If a person is already well off, giving them something is enriching, but is it empowering?  Again, you have to ask whether or not it has lead to self-actualization.  In most cases, when people acquire something without any effort on their part, there is deep down inside some resentment and self-doubt.  That which we do not earn by our own efforts is seldom truly appreciated.

There is, of course, an exception to this.  There are some, at both ends of the economic scale, who want to get things without effort.  At one end, we call them thieves; they take what does not belong to them.  On the other end, greedy businesspeople and politicians see their positions as routes to self-aggrandizement rather than the common good.  Theft is clearly illegal.  On the upper end of the scale, the actions are not always illegal, but they are unethical and immoral.  For people who fall into this category, this discussion does not apply.  It is the role of government to mitigate their impact upon society – not to abet it.

For the rest of us, however, do we want to go through life having things handed to us?  Most of get beyond that stage when we learn to feed ourselves.  Self-actualization goes hand in hand with self respect, and when you’re made to feel that you must exist on handouts, how can you have self respect?

Empowerment, therefore, is not, I submit, achieved through giving people things.  It is achieved through creating an environment where people can earn things for themselves.

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Ray is U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe
April 11, 2010
The Standard