First let’s look at some definitions of community empowerment:
‘Community Empowerment’ is the giving of confidence, skills and power to communities to shape and influence what public bodies do for or with them.
An Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success – October 2007
Community Empowerment is about people and government, working together to make life better. It involves more people being able to influence decisions about their communities, and more people taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to.
The idea is that government can’t solve everything by itself, and nor can the community: it’s better when we work together.
The Scarman Trust Forum Lecture by David Blunkett – December 2004
Helping citizens and communities to acquire the confidence, skills and power to enable them to shape and influence their local place and services, alongside providing support to national and local government agencies to develop, promote and deliver effective engagement and empowerment opportunities.
David Rossington, Director, Local Democracy and Empowerment Directorate, Department for Communities and Local Government
Community empowerment is the process of enabling people to shape and choose the services they use on a personal basis, so that they can influence the way those services are delivered. It is often used in the same context as community engagement, which refers to the practical techniques of involving local people in local decisions and especially reaching out to those who feel distanced from public decisions.
Communities and Local Government Website – August 2008
So it is about giving individuals and communities confidence, skills and power. But to do what?
…to shape and influence what public bodies do for or with them…
…to influence decisions about their communities…
…taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to…
…to shape and influence their local place and services…
…providing support to national and local government agencies to develop, promote and deliver effective engagement and empowerment opportunities…
…to shape and choose the services they use on a personal basis, so that they can influence the way those services are delivered…
One of the first lessons that we have to learn is that if we can empower people it is follow their own agenda – to pursue their own self interest.
Not to engage in the government’s agenda or the reform of public services, or local decision making.
I don’t know too many people who are champing at the bit to ‘shape public services’ and to ‘influence local decisions’. Self interest, if defined at all, is rarely defined in these terms.
If we really want to empower communities (rather than just tap into them for ideas to save a few quid) then we have to start from a very different premise. And I would argue that it is a premise that puts the individual first. We have to use informal education processes to make the pursuit of self interest and power both legitimate and effective.
‘Community’ is a by-product of individuals actively pursuing their own self interest with power and confidence. Such ‘enterprising’ people quickly realise that there is power in association. That negotiation matters. That learning how to help and be helped are critical to making progress. That shaping infrastructure and the environment matter – because they influence the extent to which any of us can pursue our self interest. Without good schools, transport and housing how are we to pursue our interests?
So the starting point needs to be not ’empowering communities’ but empowering individuals. And this is done by helping them to clarify and refine what is in their best self interest – not the community’s or the government’s or anyone else’s. Self interest needs to be properly negotiated with the self interests of others. It should not be confused with selfishness.
And in parallel to the development of self interest there have to be systems to help people to develop their power to pursue it. Processes to build confidence, skills and the ability to organise people and resources to make real progress.
So let’s worry less about empowering communities and more about helping individuals to clarify and pursue their own self interest with power and vigour.
Let’s invest time and money in helping individuals learn how to negotiate their self interest in the modern world.
Let’s invest in person centred processes of informal education.
Let’s re-shape formal education to focus more on helping people to become effective negotiators of their own self interest – rather than passive consumers of a curriculum.
And as a by-product we will develop much healthier, more harmonious and politically engaged communities.
Hat tip to Julian Dobson’s post ‘The Great Community Empowerment Heist‘
which planted the seeds….
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