The Blog

view all

290. Em [power] ment

2012-08-01 Comments Off on 290. Em [power] ment

Empowerment is a popular term in the fields of international development and Fair Trade.  It has been mentioned many times in the current debate over changes to the Fair Trade system — including several times on this blog — by people who are both for FT4All and against it:

  • Ed Canty buys Fair Trade Certified coffee for Green Mountain, the world’s biggest buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffee and a participant in the FT4All pilots.  He raised the issue in his guest post on this blog last month.
  • Rodney North heads up communications for Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade pioneer and vocal opponent of FT4All.  He and I discussed it during this FTRN webinar after I gave this presentation.
  • And it has been frequently cited by Fair Trade USA as the goal of its FT4All pilot projects on coffee estates and with independent smallholder farmers.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the future of Fair Trade may hinge on the degree to which FT4All is perceived to have fostered empowerment among farmers and farmworkers.  Here is the problem: empowerment is a complex concept.  Notoriously hard to define.  Even harder to measure.

Don’t take my word for it.  Here are two citations that jumped out at me from some of the scholarly articles I have been reading about the issue as we try to measure the impact of one Fair Trade for All pilot in Colombia:

  • “Despite empowerment having become a widely used term…there is no accepted method for measuring and tracking changes.”
  • “Not everyone accepts that empowerment can be clearly defined, let alone measured.”

Most definitions of empowerment focus on the sources, distribution and use of power — another contested concept that is embedded, quite literally, in the concept of empowerment.  But not all definitions are power-centric.  Another leading school of thought, led by the eminent development economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, focus instead on the capabilities of an individual — what someone can reasonably aspire to do and be in the world.

When the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was challenged to define hard-core pornography in 1964, he couldn’t.  But, he said famously, “I know it when I see it.”

In this contested terrain, there may be some appeal in the idea of applying Stewart’s wisdom to the issue of empowerment.  While each of us may have an idea of what empowerment looks like, it will be awfully hard to measure it or talk about it in any widely accepted way until there is some general agreement around a shared and rigorous definition.