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Food for mobilizing around a thought


Human Rights Reader 353


  1. In this Reader, let me add some key ideas about empowerment, i.e., about people gaining mastery over their lives, community members assuming greater power or expanding their existing power from within so as to forcefully demand and achieve the changes they desire.


  1. Empowerment entails enhancing the capacity and the ability of communities to identify, to mobilize-around and to address their burning problems; it aims at community members participating actively in their community life gaining leadership skills, setting up tight social networks and, as a result, amassing social and political power.


  1. We are talking here about engaging community members as equals, about developing their leadership skills, about increasing their knowledge of what empowerment strategies work and about how they actually can access the resources needed through their active involvement.


  1. To be relevant, community organizing and empowerment have to start from where the people are, with community members setting their own agenda based on their very felt needs. In such a process, as they move along, they are to achieve greater awareness and power, as well as gain control over the resources accessed.


  1. In their selection of the priority issues to address, they will first (not too ambitiously) identify the more immediate, specific and realizable targets for change that, after some small victories, will further unite them thus adding more and more community strength. All community members will be given the chance to participate in identifying issues and targets will be jointly selected as part of adopting a shared human rights-based strategy.


  1. Slowly, a shared critical consciousness will emerge, particularly an awareness of the social, political and economic forces responsible for the many accumulated social problems they face.* At this point, community members discuss what really are the root causes of their problems and plan commensurate actions to address them.

*: For example, quoting WHO: Advancing health as a human right (HR) means making people conscious of both their challenges and the concrete possibilities for change.


  1. These, then, are the guts of the process of empowerment –empowerment basically to build counter-power to face the powers that be. …And which are these?


Types of power  


Visible power: This level includes the visible and definable aspects of political power –the formal rules, structures, authorities, institutions and procedures of decision-making. (Strategies that target this level usually try to change the ‘who, how and what’ of policymaking so that the policy process is rendered more democratic and accountable so as to serve the needs and the HR of people, as well as the survival of the planet).

Hidden power: Certain powerful people and institutions maintain their influence by controlling who gets to the decision-making table and what gets on the agenda. These dynamics operate on many levels to exclude and devalue the concerns and representation of other less powerful groups. (Empowering strategies that focus on strengthening organizations and movements of those rendered poor can and do build the collective power in terms of numbers and of new leadership that will influence the way the political agenda is shaped, on top of increasing the visibility and legitimacy of their issues, their voice, their influence and their demands).

Invisible power: Probably the most insidious of the three dimensions of power, invisible power shapes the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Significant problems and issues are not only kept from the decision-making table, but also from the minds and consciousness of the different players involved, even those directly affected by the problem. By influencing how individuals think about their place in the world, this level of power shapes people’s beliefs and people’s sense of self and of acceptance of the status quo –even of their own sense of superiority or inferiority. Processes of socialization, culture and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequality by defining what is normal, acceptable and safe. (Change strategies in this area must target the prevailing social and political culture or system, as well as address the individuals’ consciousness so as to transform the way people perceive themselves and those around them, and how they envisage their future possibilities and alternatives. (Veneklasen and Miller).


Empowered people need to progress from individual to collective and from local to global action. (K. Glanz)


It is power differentials between the actors in global governance that have invariably led (and lead) to the imposition of development agendas. I fear that post 2015 will be more of the same.


  1. If we want to unite a block of countries behind a global HR strategy, it is essential to mobilize social movements to build counter-power within each country first.** Therefore, consolidating a strong, independent social movement for HR must be the priority for all of us. Why? Because our objective has to firmly be to apply pressure from the base of each of these social movements. That is and will be decisive in our struggle for HR. For the time being, we cannot see any grouping of countries cohesively and collectively confronting the major HR issues of the reigning neoliberal ideology; we can only find a few countries that, mostly independently, support certain demands emanating from the HR framework. Much is to be done here still. (La Via Campesina)

**: Counter-power does not, by itself, automatically lead to the best solutions. Context and some technical knowhow do play a role. Undisputable progression towards the realization of HR is always to be the horizon to aim-for though.


  1. The accident of birth is the principal source of inequality for most people. While we celebrate equality of opportunity, we live in a society in which birth is most of the times fate. This powerful impact of birth on life chances is bad for individuals born into disadvantage. And it is bad for society. But it does not have to be this way. We cannot ignore failing social institutions that condone and take as a fait accompli poor children’s disadvantage and the violation of their HR. On these issues, outside interventions too often impose rich-country, middle-class norms. We have to denounce these. Ergo, we must empower people to be what they want to be. (J.J. Heckman)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-When we see a giant, we have to look carefully at the position of the sun; it could well be that the giant is nothing more than the shadow of a dwarf. (Novalis)

– Slow progress is progress.


Most HR Readers can be found in under No. 69


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