Empowerment, Participation and the Poor

2002 Occasional Paper
By Streeten, Paul

NGOs, governments, the international financial institutions and bilateral donors have recently placed much emphasis on participation and empowerment of poor people. The direct purpose of a programme may be improvements in health or literacy or agriculture or credit, but NGOs are often more concerned with how much these projects enhance people's power, articulate their voice and meet their felt needs. They have been particularly determined to empower the poor, the weak, and the marginalized, to encourage people to take decisions themselves, to become agents, rather than being treated as "target groups" or passive recipients of benefits. Frequently, there has been a tension between the desire to deliver services and to encourage participation. The former is short-run, visible and quantifiable, the latter takes longer, cannot be quantified or subjected to cost-benefit analysis. Donors tend to encourage the former, the best NGOs the latter. We now understand much better the multidimensional nature of poverty. We know that the poor suffer not only from low incomes but also from a sense of social exclusion, that they have no power, nor access to power, no voice and no security. A discussion of empowerment and participation is therefore in order.