Community Empowerment

Community Empowerment

Community empowerment refers to the process of enabling communities to increase control over their lives. "Communities" are groups of people that may or may not be spatially connected, but who share common interests, concerns or identities. These communities could be local, national or international, with specific or broad interests. 'Empowerment' refers to the process by which people gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives. It is the process by which they increase their assets and attributes and build capacities to gain access, partners, networks and/or a voice, in order to gain control. "Enabling" implies that people cannot "be empowered" by others; they can only empower themselves by acquiring more of power's different forms (Laverack, 2008). It assumes that people are their own assets, and the role of the external agent is to catalyze, facilitate or "accompany" the community in acquiring power.

Empowerment takes place at three levels: the individual, the organization or group, and the community. Empowerment at one level can influence empowerment at the other levels. Furthermore, empowerment is multidimensional, taking place in sociological, psychological, economic, political, and other dimensions (Fawcett et al., 1995; Hur, 2006; Maton, 2008; Rich et al., 1995). Community-level empowerment “challenges professional relationships to communities, emphasizing partnership and collaboration rather than a top-down approach” (Wallerstein, 2002, p. 74).

Community empowerment, therefore, is more than the involvement, participation or engagement of communities. It implies community ownership and action that explicitly aims at social and political change. Community empowerment is a process of re-negotiating power in order to gain more control. It recognizes that if some people are going to be empowered, then others will be sharing their existing power and giving some of it up (Baum, 2008). Power is a central concept in community empowerment and health promotion invariably operates within the arena of a power struggle.

Community empowerment necessarily addresses the social, cultural, political and economic determinants that underpin health, and seeks to build partnerships with other sectors in finding solutions.
Globalization adds another dimension to the process of community empowerment. In today’s world, the local and global are inextricably linked. Action on one cannot ignore the influence of or impact on the other. Community empowerment recognizes and strategically acts upon this inter-linkage and ensures that power is shared at both local and global levels.

Community empowerment consists of two concepts: `community` and `empowerment`. Communities are groups of people that may or may not be spatially connected, but who share common interests, concerns or identities. Communities may be local, national, international or even global in nature and may have either specific or broad interests (Laverack, 2007). Empowerment in the broadest sense is ‘...the process by which disadvantaged people work together to increase control over events that determine their lives’ (Werner, 1988). Most definitions of empowerment give the term a positive value (improves peoples circumstances) and embody the notion that it must come from within an individual or group and cannot be given to an individual or group.

Community empowerment includes personal (psychological) empowerment, organizational empowerment and broader social and political actions. Community empowerment is therefore both an individual and a group phenomenon. The conceptual roots of community empowerment come primarily from international development work (poor communities needed to become more powerful), the women’s health movement (which challenged the prerogative of others to define women’s health concerns and remedies) and community mental health activists (who stressed that people with mental disease deserved similar rights to others and ought to be treated in ‘empowering’ rather than controlling ways). Community empowerment is most consistently viewed as a process in the literature (something used to accomplish a particular goal or objective), for example, ‘...a social-action process that promotes participation of people, organizations and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of life and social justice’ (Wallerstein, 1992). However, it can also be viewed as an outcome (in which empowerment is the goal or objective itself) and is specific to the individual, group or community involved. The outcomes of community empowerment can have a very long time frame, often taking several years to begin to show results. This should be an important consideration for the design of health promotion programmes.

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