Shifting from power to empowerment

powerIn support of the work of the Commission for Social Development to move forward the social development agenda, the UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development is working on a paradigm shift from powerlessness to empowerment. On 10-11 September at UN Headquarters in New York, the Division convened an Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on “Policies and strategies to promote empowerment of people in achieving poverty eradication, social integration and full employment and decent work for all”.

In welcoming the experts and participants to the meeting, Daniela Bas, Director of UNDESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development noted that the empowerment of people played a key role in social development, as it promoted a people-centred approach to development through enabling their full participation in all aspects of political, economic and social life.  She further noted that promoting the empowerment of people requires an enabling environment that supports policies, strategies, and an attitude change to permit all people of all abilities across the lifecycle to participate meaningfully in decision-making processes, especially in the design and implementation of policies that affect their lives.

Empowering social groups

The meeting focused its discussion on ways to create an enabling environment for the empowerment of people through participation and capability-strengthening. Experts examined pathways to empowering social groups such as women, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, older persons, and youth.

The unique perspectives of various social groups, including people living in poverty, women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, older persons and youth, were highlighted at the meeting. The myriad of narratives at the EGM displayed what Savitri Goonesekere called “…the international human rights system’s increasing recognition for the voice of civil society in international fora”. As expert Duncan Green, author of From Poverty to Power, stated “…building the ‘power within’ among poor and excluded people is the essential first-step in any sustained process of empowerment”.

The experts examined successful examples from case studies in various regions, and discussed whether lessons learned from strategies to empower women can be replicated for the empowerment of other social groups.

Unlocking the full potential of all people

In search of a way to promote empowerment, the experts noted that, while it is neither possible nor desirable to formulate a single/universal set of policies and strategies to promote empowerment across all countries or contexts, Governments can adopt an “empowerment approach” to policy making and policy implementation. The approach enables a more holistic, coherent, and integrated policy making, at all levels – individual, communal (social groups and community), and institutional. This will include aligning economic, social and other sectoral policies towards unlocking the full potential of all people to lead a better life with dignity.

To tackle these tasks the “empowerment approach” highlights the importance of creating a policy space to allow strategic partnerships and coalitions among various stakeholders, including public institutions, the private sector, and civil society organizations, to emerge. Sarah Cook, the director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) noted that there was a need for expanding the “empowerment approach” evidence-base. This meant elucidating what works and what does not, so that the formulation and implementation of empowerment policies would be based on careful social analysis and impact assessment.

Causes of disempowerment

The meeting also helped define “empowerment strategies” as methods that focus on long-term transformation, rather than short-term gains. Such strategies aimed to achieve sustainable impact by addressing structural causes of disempowerment, including weak governance, non-transparent and ineffective institutions, narrow macroeconomic policies, lack of employment or social protection, discrimination, and insufficient investment in human capital.

Political will is key to promoting and ensuring the empowerment of people. In the words of Patience Stephens, Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division of UN Women, “… the pathway to empowerment requires strong, sustained intergovernmental initiative, action, and leadership”. In pursuit of this, the conclusions and recommendations of this EGM will provide input to a report of the Secretary-General to be submitted to the Commission for Social Development at its 52nd session in February 2014, where the priority theme is “Empowerment of people in achieving poverty eradication, social integration and full employment and decent work for all”.

The meeting was attended by 22 experts from academia, Governments, civil society organizations, international development agencies, and UN agencies, including the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Women, the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank.


Information on the Expert Group Meeting can be accessed at: