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Many NGOs aim to tackle the root causes of poverty and contribute to sustainable, long-term social changes. Influential writers have explained how this depends on local people being 'empowered' to take more control over their lives.
Amartya Sen is one of the most important writers on development. He describes human development as being 'integrally connected with enhancing certain capabilities - the range of things a person can do and be in leading a life. We value the freedom of being able to live as we would like and even the opportunity to choose our own fate.' This is much broader than meeting basic human rights.
Paulo Freire has also been very influential. He emphasised how an outside organisation has to work with local people to reflect on their social situation - and think together about what can be done to change it. Dialogue comes before action. Freire's method is called 'praxis' and involves cycles of reflection and action. Through 'praxis', local people (and outsiders) improve their understanding of social issues and build up the confidence and skills to tackle them at the same time.
Poverty is not just an accident
Freire pointed out that fighting poverty is political - it means fighting injustice. Poverty is not just an accident: it is the result of social structures (including political, cultural and economic factors) that favour the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. Trying to change these social structures means fighting established interests at local, national and global levels.
Implications for NGOs
Building on this work, writers like Robert Chambers and Alan Kaplan emphasise that outsiders cannot 'do' development to local people. Local people have to drive their own development at their own pace, if it is going to have any lasting impact. This makes sense in relation to ourselves - we prefer to make our own decisions about our own lives.
This makes it difficult for NGOs to achieve their goals for three reasons.
Firstly, local realities are "local, complex, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable" - every social situation is different and is always changing. So an NGO's work needs to be adapted to each different place it works (including political, economic, social and cultural factors). NGOs also need to be ready to respond to changes in the local environment, as these other factors change.
Secondly, social change takes time. It relies on individual people changing their views and habits. NGOs need to be committed to the people they are trying to help, working with the same people for many years. There are no short cuts.
- Finally, it is not possible to measure empowerment on a single scale because it is not a concrete thing and it takes a different form in every place.
NGOs have to invest real time and energy in respectful dialogue with local people.
This is the single most important factor in working towards empowerment and lasting social change. It helps local people develop their own understanding and 'voice', as well as helping make sure that an NGO's initiatives are relevant and useful.
These insights are in tune with our everyday experience. We all know that helping people – like the next-door neighbour – is difficult.
Case study 1998 Thailand - a good example of beneficiary empowerment and accountability
Further Reading on Development - a short selection of key books and papers (including the references mentioned on this page).