Empowerment, what is it really?

Empowerment. Some say it’s a buzz word, but I (and so many others I know) have been using it for almost a decade, so perhaps it’s here to stay. 

I have a weird relationship with the word. I used to say ‘I empower people. I empower staff. I empower communities’. And people loved it. It egged me on. It made me feel good. Until one day, someone who was much wiser than myself said to me ‘Sally, you don’t empower people. You create an empowering environment.’ And that stuck with me. It changed the way I spoke about my work (which to be honest, for someone who speaks out about ‘white saviourism’, it sounded quite ‘white savioury’), and began to try influence others to see it the same way. 

For those of you who don’t know my story, it’s like this.

I moved to Cambodia when I was 25, and though I could save the world. That the future of Cambodia was in my hands. That it was I alone who could make a change.

I was working at a school for former street children, where I was managing short-term foreign volunteers, who are otherwise known as voluntourists.

I had thought I was empowering communities through my work. But as it turns out, I was disempowering them.

I witnessed local staff who became complacent and disempowered after having foreign volunteers, mostly with no experience, taking over their jobs. I sat by as children developed attachment issues due to the revolving door of volunteers. I organised activities for groups of rich philanthropists to come and play with the children for an afternoon, in the hope we could source funds to keep the organisation running the next few months.

I started to question my work and impact of it. The ethics of it. The consequences of it.

So I decided to make a change. I was introduced to a nightly English school called Human and Hope Association, that was run by Cambodian volunteers at a pagoda. This handful of volunteers opened their school for two hours an evening, teaching English and Buddhist morality for 50 cents to $1 a month. The fact that this school had been founded by Cambodians really spoke to me. They were in charge of developing their community and their people. They had the drive; they just needed the resources.

So, I collaborated with this volunteer team, and we agreed that I would join them to develop the school into a registered and reputable NGO. But there were two conditions.

  1. We had to stop the foreign volunteer program
  2. I had to eventually make myself redundant, and leave the organisation to be entirely run and driven by the local team.

I had realised that for organisations to be sustainable, they needed to be run by local staff. And for local staff to run organisations, they needed to be empowered.

Or did they really need to be empowered?

Let’s look at the definition of empowerment.

These key words of give and make put the power in someone’s hands. By this definition, people need to receive permission or authority from another person to do something. But in the case of development, that shouldn’t be how it happens. Local staff members shouldn’t need to wait for permission from a foreign staff member to be ’empowered’ to help their community members, or initiate new projects. Instead, they need to have access to an environment that encourages them to take the initiative themselves, since local people are the subject matter experts, know the community and the culture best, and are there for the long-term.

And just how is an empowering environment created?

To create an empowering environment, experience shows me that it is a team effort. The ‘power’ shouldn’t be held by one person. Here are my thoughts:

  • Get out of the way. Given that the goal was always that I, the only foreign staff member at HHA Cambodia, should be made redundant, it was important that I step back and let other’s take charge. Even if I thought mistakes were going to be made, that was for the local staff to learn and develop from. (Plus, it’s not like I haven’t made plenty of mistakes myself).
  • Ensure the team are on board with the values of the organisation. For us, that meant including our values in team meetings, catch ups, performance reviews and external communications. Also constantly discussing the ‘why’ behind our values.
  • Encourage constructive feedback. People are often hesitant to provide feedback in Cambodia due to the cultural complication of ‘losing face’. It took months (and sometimes years) for the team to understand the benefits of constructive feedback. And this understanding came through a drive from the local managers who understood the cultural considerations.
  • Involve the team in every step of the way. If you want change to be permanent, there needs to be buy-in from the team. Their opinions on program development are crucial for success.

What were the results of an empowering environment?

I never even realised that it was an empowering we were creating this whole time. It sort of happened organically, since we were so adamant on our values. Looking back, we had some amazing outcomes:

  • When two key staff members resigned at the same time (turns out they felt so ’empowered’ that they left to set up their own school), it was business as usual as we were able to promote two internal staff members. This is because we were committed to weekly staff workshops, university scholarships and external training programs for the staff, in addition to the points listed above.
  • HHA Cambodia has an incredibly low rate of staff turnover. The only reason that staff members have left in the past five years is because they married and/or moved to another province. When they see the results of their programs, they say ‘that is us…we achieved that as a team’, which has occurred due to the empowering environment.
  • Two of HHA Cambodia’s staff members, Phalla Yorn and Salin Loeum, have received Diana Awards for their work. Both staff members grew up in poverty, and have overcome unimaginable obstacles to get to where they are today.
  • I was made redundant in July 2016. I was no longer needed, as the local team had developed the skills, knowledge and confidence to run their organisation without foreign input. Our goal was achieved!

Should we still use the word empowered?

I still will. It’s a word that most are familiar with, and it resonates with people, creating a quick understanding of the message you are trying to get across. But if you really are serious about people having the confidence to take ownership of their lives, I suggest following up with how creating an empowering environment is in fact the key to people being ’empowered’. And to challenge the actual meaning of the word empowerment, because we aren’t actually ‘giving’ people power. They are claiming it themselves, through having access to an environment that demonstrates what they are capable of, and helps them with the tools to achieve their goals.

Want to know more? Purchase a copy of my book, ‘It’s Not About Me’.