Can states empower poor people? Your thoughts please

I’m currently writing a paper on how governments can promote the empowerment of poor people. Nice and specific then. It’sempowerment ambitious/brave/bonkers depending on your point of view, and I would love some help from readers.

First things first. This is about governments and state action. So not aid agencies, multilaterals or (blessed relief) NGOs, except as bit players. And not state-as-problem: here I’m looking at where state action has achieved positive impacts. The idea is to collect examples of success and failure in state action, as well as build some kind of overall narrative about what works, when and why.

Here’s where I’m currently at:

Empowerment happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations of power that have been keeping them in poverty.

The current literature suggests a neat fit with a ‘three powers’ model first proposed by our own Jo Rowlands (I think). According to this reading, power for excluded groups and individuals can be disaggregated into three basic forms:

  • power within (a sense of rights, dignity and voice, along with basic capabilities). This individual level of empowerment is an essential precondition for collective action. For governments, reshaping the social norms that perpetuate the exclusion of groups and individuals is a crucial aspect of empowerment.
  • power with (ability to organize, express views). Poor people come together to express their views and demand their rights. Governments need to facilitate (and not oppose or seek to coopt) such organization.
  • power to (ability to influence decision makers, whether the state, economic power holders or other). Poor people’s voices are effective in influencing those in power. Governments need to create and maintain channels for such influencing, and facilitate access to them by excluded groups and individuals.

In addition, states play an important role in curtailing ‘bad power’, in the shape of excessive concentration of power and influence, and its use against the interests of excluded groups and individuals.

Legal empowerment, a key weapon in the state’s armoury, cuts across all these categories.

So what can governments do? Using the 3 powers model to organize things a bit:

Power Within

  • Registration of excluded groups of excluded groups and individuals, including lower castes, indigenous, the elderly and disabled, migrants
  • Promoting pro-poor norms and values (eg gender rights; preventing discrimination against excluded groups)
  • Equitable access to assets for poor people eg via progressive taxation systems, land rights, housing and decent jobs

unity is strength cartoonPower With

  • Guarantee Freedom of Association
  • Support the emergence/sustainability of interest and identity-based organizations among excluded groups and channels for them to represent their interests and participate in decision-making
  • Positive discrimination, eg on women’s representation in local and national government

Power To

  • Being responsive to views of poor people and their organizations
  • Opening up public policy and service delivery processes through enhanced transparency and accountability
  • Encouraging the co-production of public services

Curbing Bad Power

  • Limiting corruption by state officials
  • Correcting anti-poor market failures such as excessive market concentration
  • Bringing down excessive levels of inequality through redistribution (taxation, assets, opportunities)

Legal Empowerment

  • Using the legal system to promote rights enhancement, awareness, enablement and enforcement for excluded groups and individuals

Of course in many cases, as recent developments in North Africa, Turkey and Brazil have shown, states are not in total control. There are numerous other players on the domestic scene (social movements, trade unions, political activists and opposition groups, faith leaders), and some degree of external influence that supports/constrains their actions.

States therefore are unlikely to succeed simply by setting out, in advance, a blueprint for empowerment and then implementing the plan. Instead, what matters is developing an ‘empowering approach’ that

  1. Creates the enabling conditions required by excluded groups and individuals to empower themselves. This combines access to information, inclusion/participation, accountability and building local organizational capacity.
  2. Learn to ride waves of empowerment-related change, developing a process through which all parties come together to search for solutions to collective action problems, for example testing different options and discarding the least successful options. Matt Andrews calls this approach ‘Problem-driven iterative adaptation’ or (more memorably) ‘purposive muddling’.
  3. Recognize that change is likely to be discontinuous, and respond to the importance of ‘critical junctures’, such as economic and political shocks, that are likely to create particularly fertile conditions for both empowerment and disempowerment.

All comments welcome, but what I’d really appreciate is your suggestions for case studies (with links or references) and where they fit within this framework. In particular, because it seems to be the least well-documented, examples of where governments have built ‘power within’.

Over to you.

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32 Responses to “Can states empower poor people? Your thoughts please”
  1. Alice

    Finding out how governments can empower people presumes that governments would chose to do so if only they knew how.

    But how many governments actually want to empower citizens (in terms of association, accountability etc.) yet are not doing so due to this information deficit?

    A bigger question for me is slightly different, under what circumstances do governments want to cede (various sorts of) power to the people? And how can those circumstances be fostered?

    Unless we answer the second question, surely the first is of limited practical use?

    Moreover, the answers that you get to the first question are likely to reflect the background politics relating to the second.

    • Duncan

      Agree, I’m having to assume a very large tin opener here. But actually, it makes an interesting change to try and ‘see like a state’, i.e. put yourself in state decision-makers shoes and ask ‘what works in terms of empowerment?’

  2. Rosemary Cairns

    Duncan – you might want to look at the Zwelethemba model, from South Africa, and the theory of nodal governance (Burris, Drahos and Shearing – see
    In essence, this posits that governance is not an activity that is privileged to state governments only but that there are many nodes of governance at every level, and governance is thus a shared process.
    The Zwelethemba model grew out of their exploration of what happened when people in townships empowered themselves to solve problems in their community. By doing so, they created a new ‘node’ of governance, which then began to exercise at the community level some of the powers that conventionally had been held by the state.
    I see this as part of the process of ‘thickening democracy’. It also may fit well with the idea of government as ‘platform’.

  3. Rachel

    Sort of power within – Mozambique’s 1997 Land Law – allowed for the registration of ‘community land’
    – in particular, allowed communities to register the full extent of their land claims, including land not in cultivation
    – Law has been reasonably successfully used by NGOs including ORAM and Campanha Terra to put ‘marks in the sand’.
    – once the radical nature of the law was truly realised, attempts made to roll it back a bit, but the marks in the sand have made that much harder

  4. P Baker

    I agree with Alice (the one from ODI? Now she’s smart!) – why on Earth would governments want to give their people more power? Most are scared of their own citizens and are rather keen on controlling and watching them (hi there NSA & GCHQ!).

    This perpetual dev-wonkery on power sometimes drives me nuts – long discussions about power asymmetries – studies that conclude that poor people are lacking power!

    Read Cassandra and Dmitry Orlov [] – isn’t what we should be doing to help people adapt to conditions of zero-power rather than dreaming of so many impossible things?

    Can we have a clear exposition of Oxfam’s position on this? Do they really think they can change governments? Give power to the people? Otherwise much of this just seems like convoluted OCD hand-wringing.

    • Duncan

      There are loads of examples where governments do exactly that. Drivers include political transitions (eg democratization in South Africa or Brazil), responses to corruption scandals and financial crises, pressure from civil society organizations, aid donors or global markets. Other? The interesting Q for me at least is to try and understand better why and when such steps occur, not to have a theological debate along lines of ‘I can see it works in practice, but does it work in theory?’!

  5. Just a small point: In my experience use of the phrase ‘positive discrimination’ tends to lead to poor quality discussion; ‘affirmative action’ stimulates a better quality debate. I’d hope my former employers Minority Rights Group International might have some helpful case studies of state action to empower disadvantaged groups and communities.

  6. With my Publish What You Pay hat on: The global extractive industry transparency movement aims to make states accountable to their citizens for natural resource revenues. It’s early days for case studies, as the EITI has not yet proved its ability to bring about change, and mandatory country-by-country reporting by companies is only just beginning – in the US in 2014. But more countries are now publishing oil and mining contracts online, eg Guinea at

  7. You know, I would also look at what has been done well at home: the Citizens Advice Bureau, set up by the UK govt in 1938 and now with 3,500 offices open to the public, and excellent website manages to assist over 7 million each year with legal, financial and especially access to social welfare issues. They also effectively use the information gained in their work to advocate changes in government policy that adversely effect their clients.
    Yet, it is still largely funded by government, in it’s varied forms (mainly local govt, but also Ministries). It is ’empowering’ since it not only gives advice, but the advisors are largely local people trained by the CAB to understand their rights and how to help others. In itself, this training program is hugely effective.
    In many ’emerging’ countries, such as Myanmar where we work, CAB is a model that fits very well with the tradition of voluntary community service, as well as helping to forge unity through its nationwide, inclusive coverage.

  8. P Baker

    Democratization in Brazil & SA? The poor feel empowered there?

    Ask how empowered the poor in UK feel – whomsoever they elect belong to the same narrow Oxbridge elite – a political neocon cast system that is smothering us.

    • Duncan

      Are you seriously arguing that nothing has changed in Brazil wrt empowerment of poor people as a result of govt decentralization, participatory processes, social protection etc, or that progress on health, poverty, hunger is unrelated to that?

  9. Teresa

    You might want to have a look at communal area conservancies in Namibia, which have not only had a positive impact in terms of conservation (which gets most of the coverage), but also in terms of development, and economic and political empowerment.

  10. Ed

    Whilst I strongly resent the idea of P Baker’s that we ought not to be eradicating poverty but rather helping poor people adapt to it; I disagree with Duncan’s claim that democratization in S. Africa empowered poor people. Yes it enfranchised them but poverty reduction post-Mandela was minimal, with many claiming it actually got worse owing to Mbeki’s disastrous economic policies. Since 1990 the average life expectancy for South Africa has dropped 13 years.

  11. Very interesting question Duncan. I can think of one example from India where State action has actually empowered citizens in a significant way.

    The falls in the “Power With” space. I am referring to reservations for women in local self governance institutions.

    Proposed and implemented first time around 1992, it has gone through its usual ups and downs. A few years ago, Esther Duflo from the Poverty Action Lab did an evaluation of the impact. Some of the key findings include

    1. Improved acceptance of women as leaders in the political and then other spaces.
    2. No significant impact on quality of decision making just because inexperienced politicians are in charge.
    3. Significant change in the way i n which public goods are allocated and used.
    4. Impacts on female literacy and fertility rates.

    You can find the paper here

  12. Heather

    My local community (not First Nation) has just screened at our local community centre the first 3 of 4 films commissioned by the Grand Council of the Crees (you can access the first two here

    Together, the films are a remarkable history of the very long struggle (1970s to present – the third film ends at 2000) by the Cree nation against the Quebec and Canadian governments to assert treaty rights over huge geographic territory in northern Quebec (and vast natural resources). Key lessons: REALLY understand your rights (and have deep pockets for lawyers) and have strong leadership who think outside the box. The Cree have successfully asserted treaty rights on social and economic development in their territory.

    The films are in 3 languages (French, Cree and English – you’ll need some fluency in French to watch) – in the context of threats to aboriginal languages, that the film is substantially in Cree is pretty significant. Significant too is reason they have been screened in my community: the predominantly non-native, affluent population has been hugely impressed and inspired by a small group of Cree youth (the Nishiyuu walkers) who walked from the far north (James Bay) to Ottawa in the dead of winter, as part of the Idle No More movement.

  13. Pa\ul O'Brien

    The genius of Afghanistan’s national solidarity program, which gave away state control of resource decision making to more than 22,000 villages in block grants, (who could pick from a menu) is that it understood the internal battle for power within the state. It got the political economy analysis right.

    There is a constant battle going on in every state between those policy makers (mostly technocrats who we like) who gain political power by empowering constituents and providing services, and those policy makers (think former warlords) who have little interest in the empowerment agenda. Who do we want controlling resources?

    Also, and you know I’ve said this to you before, your power taxonomy risks sterilizing a really sexy conversation, and dances around the most important form of power–the control of resource allocation. The interesting question for me, is when and why states are willing to give away some of that control.

    That’s why the passive aggressiveness of the transparency agenda is so beautiful. Some states don’t even know they are giving away all this control.

  14. Nick Metherall

    Hello Duncan, this is pretty much the topic of my thesis (my supervisor is Chris Roche from Oxfam)… So if you would like to collaborate or have a look at my case study – feel free to do so and I will probably be able to learn from your insights…

    My case study is the National Program for Community Empowerment in Indonesia (PNPM-Mandiri) –

    Here are some links for your interest:

    The second link is an AusAID document but my research is also concerned with the role of the Indonesian government in running this program. In particular, I am interested in whether there is a trade-off between breadth and depth in trying to scale up local CDD / Community Empowerment projects to a nationwide level.

    Also feel free to contact me via email for further info or to discuss collaboration or if you can offer me any advice:


  15. Masood

    A number of interesting examples in Pakistan. The Rural Support Programmes are non profits set up to work with communities. There are over ten of these working with thousands of community organisations. Many of them have been able to get endowments from government which have addressed their long terms issues of sustainability. The government sits on their board of directors but as a minority. Policy is made by the boards of these organisations and management is appointed by them. But the government does not control them. While philosophically they are very committed to working with government, they have none the less preserved their independence and have survived many battles to control them. This is an interesting example of government funds being used to empower people without the government controlling the institutions that do so.
    The second point I would like to make is that one way of empowering communities is to ensure that the State does not control everything. When communities had set up community run micro hydro units running in 180 villages reaching over eighteen thousand people, i got an interesting comment from an American tourist whether they had got permission from the government to do so. Luckily they did not have to do so because the government did not have that reach. All the villages in the valley which were supplied by government run power houses were in darkness because they did not function or were inefficient and those run by the communities had light. I shudder to think what would happen if the government tried to reach them. Its better for an incompetent government to keep away from the people than reaching them

  16. Glenys Kinnock

    Not enough emphasis on Parliamentary engagement -the focus is on governments . Reality is that parliaments must be able to hold governments to account and to ,for instance, scrutinise budgets .

  17. Milford Bateman

    So much of the ’empowerment’ debate is entirely false and really about DIS-empowering the poor through handing them some control over public services that have had their budgets slashed in order to cut taxes. However, one excellent way to really empower the poor is to actually provide them with resources directly through community ownership of successful and growing local businesses. Here in Colombia (as in many other Latin American countries) local governments very often own and efficiently manage one or more local firms which they use to fund local services. Rather than try and extract tax from the local elites, which is enormously difficult as the figures and experience show, the community simply owns a successful company and pockets the dividends and profits for use by the community and its citizens. In this way, it is possible to fund important services and promote local development which the poor can then influence in many important ways. These funds can be used to stimulate development through a variety of enterprise development initiatives for example. A good example might be Medellin, a city which I think you know quite well. The city owns the local utility provider (EPM), quite un-problematically manages it, and channels 30% of its surplus into local budgets, thus affording the poor real power (money) to do things the community thinks are important, such as social programs, enterprise development, etc. Of course local elites resent this genuine form of empowerment, thinking that if big profits are made locally, then local entrepreneurs should pocket them as is the norm. Accordingly, very recently 20% of EPM was privatised by the new Mayor, who was apparently under pressure to dismantle a successful model of empowerment and entrepreneurial DIS-empowerment, and return control of a successful business to private business elite control. The ‘threat of a good example’ as Chomsky would say. So in spite of its recent partial reversal, I would say the Medellin model offers, among other things, a very important pointer to what could become a very genuine form of (local) state-driven empowerment through creative community ownership of cash-generating businesses.

  18. Hi Duncan,

    The category that you refer to is the fourth dimension – “power to empower”. In the cases of democratic decentralisation, most famously in Porto Alegre (Brazil) and Kerala (India), there were specific steps that the governments in power took to “hand-over the stick”. In recent years, the central government and multiple state governments in India have enacted Right to Information and Right to Services – all of which are opportunities for citizens to hold the state accountable.

  19. Hi Duncan, It is a couple of years old (but probably still highly relevant), but might be worth looking back at the work of the UNDP’s Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, which will probably also include some case studies (

    The Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment – Minimum Standards will further spell out the dimensions of the essential political rights and freedoms that are key to ensuring space for CSOs, and the latest State of Civil Society Report 2013 by CIVICUS will give some practical examples of where some countries are moving forward on this.

  20. Rebekah Seidel

    The overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979 resulted in a national social project which is a wonderful example of people empowerment. The new Sandinista government of 1979 was made up of not only various political parties, but also representatives of the social movement/sector and neighbourhood groups. The government recognized that community involvement in governing was vital,and that the grassroots needed to have a voice in national decision making. There was lots written on this during the time, showing it as an example of a pluralistic, grassroots oriented governance structure built on principles of empowerment and self determination. Unfortunately the United States-supported Contras of the day (who were externally created and supported with the sole purpose of destroying the Nicaraguan ‘home grown’ revolution) wreaked havoc in Nicaragua, forcing the Sandinistas to invest in an army, ultimately redirecting resources from nation building to defending communities. As a result, we will never know what the long term outcomes of this example of “governing from below” might have been if it had been able to continue without outside interference.

  21. Sophia Murphy

    Another example might be the struggles over districting and voting laws. Mark Ritchie has been very involved in this as Secretary of state in Minnesota. It’s a real – if depressing – political fight at the moment in the US, with some state governments fighting to make it easier to vote, and others actively passing laws to restrict the franchise, to exclude minorities and the poor. The politics are mixed, but the ruling government is here sometimes on the right side of the fight from an empowerment point of view. An example to illustrate that the state is not a monolith. Note, the Supreme Court is not helping.

  22. Ken Smith

    Are there historical examples in the development of currently wealthy countries – did those states empower poor people in their path from the Middle Ages to now ? and if so how did they do it ? or was every advance of the poor forced unwillingly out of the status quo.

  23. P Baker

    “Are you seriously arguing that nothing has changed in Brazil wrt empowerment of poor people as a result of govt decentralization, participatory processes, social protection etc, or that progress on health, poverty, hunger is unrelated to that?”

    No – I’m sure that things have got better for many. As they have for China – so that’s an argument for central control and oppression. As well for us in the West – but much of this is due to massive exploitation of natural resources, cheap oil etc. which is unsustainable. As resources become increasingly restricted, so will personal freedom – ask around, how many people feel empowered and how they think things will change in the future.

    It’s going to be a really tough sell for Oxfam to tell countries to empower their people – how are you doing in China (MDG poster-child) and Tibet for instance?

  24. Brendan Halloran

    It seems to me that we need to focus our attention on the political dimensions of the role of states in supporting conditions for empowerment. My gut tells me that when state action results from a political project oriented towards empowering the poor, results will differ than other scenarios.

    For example, the Worker’s Party in Brazil has deep roots in social struggles in that country. When the PT governments were elected at the local level they often experimented with participatory budgeting that (I believe) authentically sought to empower poorer sectors of society.

    Does that contrast with other examples of state attempts to foster empowerment that were driven by governments without such an orientation? This comes back to the idea of seeing like a state: how do state’s understand empowerment? what is their ‘interest’ in promoting empowerment?

    Also, I’ve always liked Deepa Narayan’s conceptualization of empowerment as individual/collective resources on the one hand, and opportunity structure/institutional framework on the other.

  25. Gerry

    I would have thought that universal free high quality education is empowering of poor people and really can only be achieved by government. There must be plenty of case studies from the already developed economies…

  26. Robin

    I couldn’t read all the messages above, but would like to briefly mention that I believe states can empower poor people by (i) giving and respecting their rights (not least rights over access to resources). Also important is (ii) access to information and all (iii) governance related principles/criteria. Last but not least,… securing good (iv)education. This is just a short list, that first came to my mind after reading your question.

  27. A one trick pony I may be (institutions), still, my practical advice would be to pay careful attention to the definition/perception of institutions the different studies you’ll look at apply (explicitly or more likely, implicitly). And do yourself the favour of being very conscious about your own.

    It’ll matter tremendously for the findings.

    For the above reason, I’d normally be hesitant to refer someone to the Real Utopias Project, but, I think I’ll be of interest – if you aren’t already familiar with it.

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