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Empowerment and civil society concepts in Myanmar

For my work in Myanmar I have recently reviewed concepts of empowerment and civil society. Here are some old and new thoughts about it. (Cartoon from The Powercube)


Personal Power

My friend Christine Hogan has written several great, practical, thoughtful books for facilitators, and one is about Facilitating Empowerment. Chris uses personal power as an entry point for empowerment processes. Her book includes a wonderful cards pack with over 60 forms of personal power. The cards were cause for great, deep reflection among participants in the empowerment seminar (see my earlier blogpost). It made people realize that they all have power and can lead on change in a variety of ways. A greater awareness about your powers helps to more consciously lead for change, and develop your leadership qualities.


Power over, with and within

Most of the time when people think about power, they think about one person or a group “dominating”. In work done by IDS / The Power Cube http://www.powercube.net/, and The Barefoot Guide http://www.barefootguide.org/, this form of power is known as ‘power over’. They also distinguish what Christine calls ‘personal power’ as power within. And then they have a third form of power, where people work together to achieve something they cannot do on their own. Here are my food-for-though notes for the community empowerment research (see previous blogpost).

  • POWER OVER: one has influence over the other. When this type of power is abused people feel that it is a bad form of power. However, influence can also be used for the good of the community. In your community, how has influence been used in positive ways: for the good of the community? Has your project helped to build influence of certain people in the community? Who or what do they have “power over” now?
  • POWER WITHIN: one has inner knowledge, skills and confidence that increase the quality of our lives. Human beings want to set goals, to achieve them, and to improve upon what others have done before. This calls for power within. Has your project helped people to develop “power within”? What have they achieved for themselves that they could not do before?
  • POWER WITH: working cooperatively with others. Power with has to do with finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength. It can be out of solidarity with weaker members. Or it can be to gain something that nobody alone can achieve. Has you project helped people to develop “power with”? What have they achieved together that they could not do on their own?

What is governance?

Another group in Myanmar asked if I could help them understand what is governance? Over the years, I have developed simple definitions of complex concepts like this. For me governance is about ensuring that everyone’s’ views and needs are consider when important decisions are made. This is true for “organizations”, communities, as well as a country. Governance is about organizing to hear and balance different interests, and about organizing to make and uphold the rules/laws. Mainstream “Good Governance” often boils down to transparency and accountability in government, which I find very limiting.

To build up my governance definition, I do a quick exercise that starts with the governance of participants’ organization, usually by a board. One of the key roles of the board of an NGO is to bring various perspectives to bear in decision making processes. We brainstorm these perspectives, for instance:

  • The views and needs of the communities we serve, especially women and vulnerable groups
  • The advice of technical experts
  • The interests of donors
  • The views and needs of staff

We do the same “quick and dirty” exercise of identifying interest groups (I prefer this over “stakeholders” which is such a neutral concept…) for governance in a community, and then in the nation. At the country level it gets pretty complex, but by then the group get’s the idea. We have a conversation about inclusive forms of governance and related empowerment strategies.

Civil Society: shift from “claim-making” to creating new values in society

When I was preparing for a short input about civil society, I found a gem in the Barefoot Guide http://www.barefootguide.org/, which made me think differently about empowerment for claim making. It’s a theory developed by Nicolar Perlas , a Philippino activist, about three spheres which make up society, namely civil society, economic society and political society. This three fold society is not new for me, as I usually work with a concept of local governance that similarly distinguishes local government, businesses and people’s organizations. New was that civil society is seen as the place where values are shaped, and where people are socialized for the political and economic spheres. It made me think that claim-making is an action that reinforces the status quo. It is a way of working in the existing system, so that people get a fair share. But it is not about changing that system. It made me rethink the importance of building new values in society. It is from new values that “citizens” will create sustainable business and a political system that cares for each and everyone equally and protects the vulnerable.

One of the participants observed that this means a long road for Myanmar. Indeed, but we knew that all along. The big challenge for civil society in Myanmar is to balance the need for short term fairer share, with longer term work on new values so that societies build more sustainable businesses and equitable political systems. And that values building is exactly what many of the civil society organizations I know in Myanmar are doing. Now let’s hope that the international development community can recognize these indigenous groups and processes as they decide to support civil society in Myanmar. Problem is they’ll be looking for local copies of results oriented international NGO’s, so I expect that they’ll be missing lots…

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