Origin and terminology
The concept of empowerment was first described in 1976 by Barbara Solomon in the U.S. It is based on the experiences of the black civil rights movements and (their) political work in the community. Solomon elevates the processes of self-empowerment of these movements to an emancipatory principle and derives from it a new understanding for the professions in the psychosocial field.
The definition of 'empowerment' is open to interpretation and is nonspecific. As yet there is no single and universally accepted definition. Generally there is consensus seeing empowerment as a learning process which creates new room for manoeuvre and so leads to greater self-determination of lifestyle. In such a process people discover or develop individual and collective resources and thereby gain access to new experiences and skills. The focus is on strengths, resources, skills and on practical knowledge. Empowerment therefore represents a clear rejection of a deficit-oriented perspective.
The term is now used in many different fields and contexts: in politics, in management, in the self-help movement and in the professional settings of social work and health promotion. Even in a professional setting such as health promotion the term has different meanings and values. Some define empowerment as a professional attitude, others understand it as being the goal of interventions. Empowerment, unfortunately often used as an attractive but empty word and a fashionable concept, is difficult, highly complex to implement and requires much reflection.
In health promotion empowerment as a principle is enshrined in the Ottawa Charter. The action strategy "Enable and Empower" is intended to give people the chance to take control of those things which determine their health and to achieve their fullest health potential. Empowerment is divided into individual and community empowerment.
- Individual empowerment refers to the ability of individuals to make decisions that increase their control over their personal lives.
- Community-related empowerment refers to groups (citizens groups, support groups) who want to gain more influence over their joint actions and more control of their health and quality of life.
Methods for the initiation of empowerment processes are, among others, health conferences, future ideas workshops and health circles. These are methods which promote and are conducive to active involvement of the intended target group (cf. Participation).
Currently, there exist few models illustrating the empowerment process all the way through from the necessary conditions to the effects - even though this is particularly needed for making operational a term still so lacking in definition. With the collaboration of experts, Gesundheit Berlin, the agency for health promotion, has developed such a model. It describes empowerment approaches for the professional sector and the effects of empowerment processes for the target groups. Empowerment approaches contain elements of strategy and methodology as well as some basic competencies necessary for implementation. On the effects side, there is a list of possible indicators for competence acquisition and resource expansion. This model is a good and useful basis for actually putting empowerment into operation, as well as for reflecting on and checking on it (Fig. Empowerment).
- WHO Regional Office for Europe’s Health Evidence Network (HEN)(2006). What is the evidence on effectiveness of empowerment to improve health?
- Labonte, R.; Laverack G. (2008) Health Promotion in Action: From Local to Global Empowerment. London. Palgrave Macmillan. Chapters 3 and 4.
- Laverack, G. (2007) Health Promotion Practice: Building Empowered Communities. London. McGraw-Hill.
- Laverack G. (2004) Health Promotion Practice: Power & Empowerment. London. Sage Publications
- Rissel, C. (1994) Empowerment: the holy grail of Health Promotion? Health Promotion International 9(1): 39-47.
- Wallerstein, N. (1992) Powerlessness, empowerment and health. Implications for health promotion programs. American Journal of Health Promotion 6(3): 197-205.
Why you would disregard these aspects
- You shy away from possible conflicts of interest between the client, the institution responsible for the project and the project management. Implementation of empowerment requires time and open processes.
- You give greater weight to expert knowledge and consider empowerment processes as little effective.
- Knowledge of methods and experience for such processes is lacking.
What you have to gain
- You increase the chance of attaining sustainable results, i.e. reaching and activating more people.
- A mutual learning process initiated by you (client / project management / target group) has a productive influence on the project and its results.
What you can actually do
- Do not use empowerment as a slogan, but try to gain a better understanding of the issue.
- Set goals regarding empowerment, select appropriate methods and check the results.
Questions for critical reflection
- Is the project based on a uniform understanding of empowerment? Has empowerment actually been implemented in accordance with this understanding?
- Were the possible methods for the implementation of empowerment considered/ selected?
- Which resources should be encouraged or promoted, i.e. were encouraged and promoted (human, social)?