Friday, April 23, 2004

Monitoring empowerment: A contradiction in terms?

A colleague of mine has been doing some work for a major multilateral. They want him to help them identify some indicators of empowerment, which can be included in a national survey instrument. This has always struck me as a particularly paradoxical type of objective. The survey is trying to measure when someone else is empowered. But it will be the survey designer who will define what empowerment is. What if the respondents disagree that a particular development in their lives constitutes empowerment? Is this to be interpreted as "false consciousness" or is this actually an expression of empowerment itself (but probably unlikely to be recorded and analysed as a response)? 

My advice to him was to treat diversity as an indication of empowerment. The rationale for this is spelled out in a conference paper I wrote in 2000, called "Does empowerment start at home? And if so how will we recognise it?". So for any given question about the attitudes or behaviour of the respondents, the survey analyst should examine the range of responses that were given (the SD to be more specific). Not the average response. Here is a quote from that paper: 
  At the population level, diversity of behaviour can be seen as a gross indicator of agency (of the ability to make choices), relative to homogenous behaviour by the same set of people. Diversity of behaviour suggests there is a range of possibilities that individuals can pursue. At the other extreme is standardisation of behaviour, which we often associate with limited choice. The most notable example being perhaps that of an army. An army is a highly organised structure where individuality is not encouraged, and where standardised and predictable behaviour is very important. 

 There was an associated footnote, which read: 
   As noted by some workshop participants, diversity in the behaviour of a set of individuals does not necessarily mean that all have equal choice. Inequalities of power (defined as choice) may still exist. Where we do find diversity in the set as a whole we could then do a more-micro-level analysis and examine the amount of diversity in the behaviour of one individual compared to another. 
So, going back to the survey instrument being designed by the multilateral. As well as examining the range of responses to a given question, the researcher should also compare questions in terms of the range of responses to those questions Where is the most and least diversity of responses? Attention might then focus in on the questions with the least range of response. That is where further investigation would be potentially useful, to identify the nature of any common constraints limiting the choices people are making. And if anything can be done to address those common constraints. 

 What if all the respondents were sending their children to school, does that mean they are not empowered, within this diversity definition of empowerment? That could actually be the case, if there are legal sanctions against not sending children to school. It might also be true that most parents have little real choice about whether to send their children to school. In many developed economies parents are well aware that there are few livelihood options for adults without formal education. This apparently contrary example has some value. Not all forms of lack of empowerment will be of concern to those researching empowerment