Monday, May 15, 2017

Linking Human Rights Education with Empowerment in Development Cooperation

The word empowerment as it relates to women’s rights has become a popular catchword used by development agencies and organisations in development cooperation in recent years. Commonly defined, empowerment means women taking control of their lives through the development of their own skills, confidence and economic status. In other words ‘empowerment’ essentially means the cultivation of agency, comprising both economic and self -worth. Strategies to support the empowerment of vulnerable groups in society such as for women in particular have been said to assist the latter in realizing their own potential, capacity and worth as agents for both personal and structural change. In terms of women’s rights the term empowerment has therefore been closely linked to change particularly where cultural and gender norms are concerned with promoting self-reliance and self –confidence, encouraging women to act independently and to make their own choices. Within the framework of development co-operation it is often understood that development agencies and organisations are not in a position to empower women per se but merely to support and aid such empowerment. Empowerment bluntly understood is thus contingent on the agency and the ‘enlightenment’ of women themselves who come to the realization mainly through the conduit of human rights education that their rights are being violated.

Ethical concerns may however arise if development institutions support or promote gender equality but in the process are culturally insensitive and impose their own views and interests on the culture concerned in terms of gender relations, all the while taking it upon themselves to define those issues or aspects of culture steeped in strong gender roles that require change. In some instances a lack of recognition is given to the fact that each society has embedded and different views on gender relations and that if in fact change is to be envisaged, women themselves need to be the initiators and drivers of such change.  Recognition thus needs to be given to either the initiated or ongoing efforts of women who already continue to challenge certain harmful cultural values or practices by seeking equality on their own accord. Instead noteworthy or incremental steps undertaken by women in their own particular communities are often overlooked for fear that they do not meet the predetermined standard of what “empowerment” should represent or look like to the outside world, to development organizations themselves, and to the latter’s targeted public sector and relevant sponsors and donors.

Furthermore, cognizance must also be given to the fact that members of these targeted communities in some cases also succumb to the influence, power and money of development aid and mimic or pretend to be empowered for lack of education, money and lack of a better future. The resultant effect of this is that the actual empowerment of women in these targeted communities becomes questionable especially because it is arguably less genuine, thereby making the impact of development work in this area difficult to assess and measure. So in other words, difficulty arises in the assessment of the impact of targeted development strategies especially if ‘empowerment’ comes to be based only on external indicators such as group demonstrations, marches and picketing that aim to outwardly invoke a display of empowerment rather than an inward change or transformation. While on a more personal level and within the immediate and extended social circle or family, a women’s preconceived cultural gender role remains unchanged still preventing her from making or taking the necessary decisions and exercising the choices she deems relevant or life changing. In other words “empowerment” becomes a catchword bereft of any true power or efficacy, and which in many cases might be indicative of an outward show of power rather than a truly inward transformation of power having little or no real impact.         

The value of development agencies and organizations in the effective protection and promotion of human rights can be seen as a pivotal conduit through which the spread of human rights can take place, especially if and when they operate from the bottom up keeping the local and cultural context of the communities in which they work in always in mind. The well-known anthropologist Sally Engle Merry for instance has recognized the value of intermediaries such as development agencies, social movements and NGO’s for the development and promotion of human rights. She believes that such intermediaries may be the most suited in translating ideas from the global arena down to the local level and from the local level up to the global arena because they understand both worlds well enough to serve as intermediaries between distinct social worlds but at the same time she also recognizes that such groups are also vulnerable to manipulation and divided loyalties, such as the pressure put onto them by donors. So while these actors may in some instances be intimately connected to competing interests they nevertheless can still play a valuable part in promoting the rights of the disenfranchised and oppressed. The shift to a rights based approach to development in recent years in Merry’s view, has brought the disciplines of human rights and development closer to one another with the resultant effect that human rights education is seen as key to the empowerment of peoples and therefore hence to development.

Despite the valuable role human rights education holds in the progress of development work, the effectiveness of its spread and acceptance is contingent on the way in which human rights are perceived and translated by both development agencies including those oppressed they seek to assist. As Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and philosopher has noted in his influential work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a work which he dedicated to the disenfranchised and oppressed, education, including human rights education still needs to be internalized. In Freire’s view education should be the practice of freedom. He has contrasted this with education as the practice of domination, commonly known as the Banking Model of Education, where in the latter instance the teacher or educator attempts to control the thinking and actions of his students or educands. Such a relationship envisages that the oppressed adapt to their oppressive conditions through the alienation of the educands from their historical, current and future realities because as the educator dictates, reality is unchangeable. Under such a model those on the receiving end should thus be meek and non-challenging of the education they receive while topics that are taught have no or little connection to the actual realities of such persons. In other words such a method of teaching is integral to maintaining systems of oppression because it inhibits the educand’s creative power and “transforms students into mere receiving objects.”

Paulo Freire
Education as a practice of freedom and as the preferred model on the other hand, according to Freire envisages an equitable relationship where educator and student learn from one another and whereby the primary goal should be conscientization. This would essentially include an awareness or knowledge that the world is interrelated and that a context specific approach taking into account the history and current and future realities is best viable. So students are presented with a type of knowledge on the issues that revolve around their own personal realities of which they have some knowledge about so as to find solutions and respond creatively to. Such an approach is liberating because is seeks to transform society starting not only with the educand but also with the educator in an equal exchange of knowledge. Thus in Freire’s view this is pivotal for a revolutionary type of change to happen, which means that the type of education conveyed has to be adapted to accordingly meet and suit the context involved and has to be done so on the basis of equality.

In closing, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed presents us with ample food for thought and continues to be relevant and revolutionary up until today. In terms of its value to development work it ought to speak to those who strategize on behalf of the oppressed and who do so behind closed doors and from an unacknowledged position of power while keeping no context-specific realities of the oppressed in mind. Should these realities be taken on board it would provide a real opportunity for intermediaries such as development organizations to make a real difference and change. In Freire’s own words:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Wouldn’t it be groundbreaking if the oppressed themselves secure creative solutions that are self-generated and self-funded on the basis of the education that they receive and respond to?  That in itself would be truly freeing and transformative and at best revolutionary and empowering.

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg-Morgan (The opinions expressed here represent the authors own views and not of any affiliated employers or parties)


  1. Interesting blog and I really like your work and must appreciate for your work for the human rights.

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  2. It's you super unique,Ingrid, that you look at human rights as pertains culture. Amany culture view, one clearing his plate, as good manners. Awhile others think of this as being a symbol of not being satisfied, thus rude or ungrateful for the little that has been offered. why allude to this, culture is dynamic as it is diverse.

    This makes your work very relevant and a matter urgency for those of us interested in heritage sites protection and preservation.