Empowerment shouldn’t be a buzzword anymore. It’s 2018’s version of saying “beneficiary” to mean all the people who an organization aims to serve, even if the people didn’t benefit.
Any time someone in power offers to empower somebody else, they are not ceding power. They’re loaning it out. They retain the power to take it away at any time. Let me illustrate the difference.
A very similar dynamic prevents the aid and foundation world from truly being part of movements, or sustaining the change in which they invest. Like “Empowerment”, “Shift the power” and “share power” are problematic ideas too. They remain structured around retaining control.
In contrast, Open Source software doesn’t “share” code – it releases code completely too all and relies on self-regulating mechanisms to ensure that code gets better. Most of what you like about computers has Open Source software at its core (MacOS and web servers).
In that empowerment illustration above, I’d say grants and traditional aid are like giving someone a toaster oven or fan that still needs to be plugged into the wall. The funder retains control of the electricity. Social programs don’t work in perpetuity – otherwise they’re business ideas. We need to move to models where the “money” and the “local expertise” are in the same hands.
Many movements go “off grid” because they must. They follow their members and carry their agenda forward.
On the other hand, foundations build their own power grids and plug their grantees in, but they never give up control. Some rare exceptions are when they plant other sustainable enterprises, or create a revolving fund, or create a self-governing funding body for a community to run. A few local organizations give the community complete control over money. These are rare.
This illustrates why Peace Corps (as a model) is powerful. It is the “be proximate” philosophy and the “cede power” part comes in the form of knowledge and experience exchanged. I have Byran Stevenson to thank for spreading this “be proximate” message, and Jennifer Lentfer for opening my eyes to the problems with “empowerment.”

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