Sustainable Cities and Communities

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Rethinking Empowerment: Seeking Justice, Not Just Sustainability

  • Yanjun CaiEmail author
Living reference work entry


Empowerment is a central element in social policies and programs. There is a long history regarding the concept and practice of empowerment. The term empowerment has been commonly used in different fields in the past few decades, including education, sociology, psychology, geography, management, public health, social work, urban planning, and political science (Hur 2006). It is often associated with particular population groups with fewer advantages, including poor people, women, youth, the elderly, persons with disabilities, indigenous populations, and persons in situations of conflict (Division for Social Policy and Development 2012).

According to the Empowerment Booklet produced by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) of the United Nations Secretariat, empowerment is regarded as “the process of enabling people to increase control over their lives, to gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives, to increase their resources and qualities and to build capacities to gain access” (Division for Social Policy and Development 2012). To extend the boundary of the concept, scholars and practitioners recognize that empowerment is not limited to the dimension of people but their social and geospatial groupings, such as communities and cities.

One of the critical challenges of sustainable development is to achieve global social justice (Læss⊘e 2010). Injustice not only exists in the extreme events of hazards and disasters but also is systematically embedded in the everyday world. A proactive approach is urgently called for to address obstacles at various geospatial levels that occur in the era of urbanization, globalization, and neoliberalism.

In this chapter, empowerment is defined as a multidimensional socioeconomic process and outcome of enabling the capacity of individuals, groups, communities, and states regardless of various backgrounds and conditions to play a more impactful role in building a more inclusive, just, and environmentally friendly society.

There are a great variety of meanings, interpretations, and practices based on different social, environmental, cultural, political, and economic contexts at various scales. Practitioners and scholars become increasingly critical regarding the concept and usage of empowerment due to its vagueness and implication of reinforcing the unjust power structures through repetition in discourse (Chester 2017). Despite variation and criticism, the intellectual incoherence can create opportunities for multidisciplinary dialogues from different actors to address the transformative approach of empowerment for local and global justice.

Introduction: Concepts and Contexts

Empowerment, as one of the most used terms in the social sciences, has been widely applied in a great variety of areas, including tourism development (Ramos and Prideaux 2014), poverty reduction (Cornwall and Brock 2005), community organizing (Speer and Hughey 1995), gender politics (Collins 2002), indigenous wellbeing (Tsey et al. 2007), and sustainable development (Sianipar et al. 2013). Thus, there are various definitions, interpretations, implementations, and objectives of empowerment across different disciplines and geographical regions. Empowerment can be both an outcome and process (Hur 2006). With its extensive usage in various fields, empowerment has also been criticized by numerous scholars for being an indirect and vague concept instead of bringing in effective structural changes in practice (Cornwall and Brock 2005; Moore 2001; Rowlands 1995). Perhaps, the only consensus that scholars and practitioners have agreed on is the lacking of intellectual coherence regarding the theories and practices of empowerment.

According to the World Bank, empowerment is “the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” (2011). However, in practice, empowerment does not necessarily lead to desired actions and outcomes. Instead, empowerment can reinforce the unjust social structures of the current systems. Also, how are desired actions and outcomes defined?

The concept and practice of empowerment emerge distinctively in different socioeconomic and geographical contexts, such as individuals, groups, communities, and states. There is individual empowerment that highlights awareness building, confidence enhancement, and capacity development; and collective empowerment concentrates on improving the abilities of individuals to identify their own needs and generate effective changes through such group activities (Rowlands 1995). For example, empowerment can be referred to as an individual’s belief that he or she has the capacity to influence actions or events toward outcomes that positively affect their interpersonal and organizational conditions (Elmes and Smith 2001). The framework of workplace empowerment is expressed and rooted in one’s spirituality, linking to one’s self-management and continuous learning. It is regarded as community empowerment when sex workers take collective ownership of HIV-related programs to achieve the most effective outcomes for their health and security and address social and structural barriers at various spatial and institutional levels (Kerrigan et al. 2015). Such community empowerment is considered as a local and global process of social and political changes to emphasize stigmas, discrimination, and violence that connect with the occupation, gender, and other socioeconomic conditions. In addition, remote Chinese villagers view it as empowering to establish and develop self-organizing e-commerce ecosystems by using information and communications technology (ICT) (Leong et al. 2016). In this case, new communications tools and technologies advance people’s empowerment through improved access to knowledge, job/income creation, and social networks beyond the geographical boundary.

In development studies, especially in the field of poverty reduction, empowerment has been criticized of becoming a buzzword, indicating the goodness and rightness that scholars and development organizations should embrace, while deliberate definitions are mostly absent (Cornwall and Brock 2005). The potential of being more direct, political, and interventionist is often replaced with the indirect, vague, and sloganizing best practices, ignoring the realities of discrimination, depression, and inequity rooted in the social systems (Moore 2001; Rowlands 1995). Without radically challenging the power structures and social systems, empowerment remains as one of the overused buzzwords with limited usefulness. In this case, the concept and practice of empowerment replicate the old unjust social systems and even fortify such depression and inequity in the new language. To eradicate poverty, empowerment is usually applied to enhance the capacity of the poor to strengthen knowledge, promote participation, and engage with social and political activities. Such common interpretations are often general and lacking specific definitions or implementation systems.

In the context of protected-area management, Pimbert and Pretty (1997) argue that empowerment – “the organized efforts of marginalized groups within civil society to transform patterns of resource allocation and increase their control over material resources and decision-making processes” – usually “necessitates the creation of new forms of socioeconomic or sociopolitical organizations that are more representative and accountable than the traditional ones” (p. 261). Therefore, empowerment is a participatory approach to “ensure that conservation initiatives serve the interests of local people,” addressing inclusion and accountability (p. 261). However, participation does not necessarily bring in positive outcomes or changes to the affected populations and communities. Many participatory approaches remain as a symbol of tokenism. Empowerment should make the resources allocation and decision-making inclusive, accountable, and effective with an emphasis on local populations, which becomes increasingly critical in the context of urbanization and globalization.

In the tourism economy, empowerment refers to the capacity of local communities to exercise actions and have control over resources and decisions, including an agreement for participation and exclusion from activities (Ramos and Prideaux 2014). Thus, empowerment underlines the capacity to both agree and disagree on the participation and decision-making processes. The ability not to participate is sometimes ignored in the literature compared to those that highlight the increasing engagement of participation. The structure, format, and incentive of participation closely link with the power dynamics. The mere focus on increasing participation without addressing power can reinforce the inequality and injustice of current social systems.

Situated within resources management, there are many forms of people’s participation and empowerment to address local-level environmental challenges in the developing world, including the development of indigenous resource management and resistance to destructive external initiatives (Vivian 2014). Empowerment in the context of indigenous studies often emphasizes the alternative approach of epistemology as well as policymaking. Empowerment plays a significant role in fostering sustainable development by promoting diverse forms of knowledge, participation, and leadership among various actors in multiple scales to understand the challenges and opportunities of economic, environmental, and social sustainability and create effective implementation strategies.

Even though empowerment has been applied in different contexts in the past few decades, crosscutting questions continue to be raised: What is power? Who possesses power? Will the powerful need to relinquish a measure of their power for greater parity? Does the usage of empowerment imply the empowering entities assert themselves in a subservient position?

Dimensions of Power and Empowerment

Empowerment has a history of implementing diverse sources for its conceptual development, including self-help manuals, feminist studies, business management, and critical pedagogy (Freire 1973; Moore 2001). By definition, empowerment is rooted in the concept of power, creating the possibilities of gaining, losing, expanding, or changing power dynamics (Hur 2006; Page and Czuba 1999).

Power is one of the most important as well as debatable concepts across the social sciences. Some argue that power is a rigid feature, a status quo or a zero-sum (Weber 1991). Under this light, power is about possession. There are providers that give power to and recipients that receive power from, which implies winners and losers exist. Some indicate that power is a dynamic process. In this way, power can be shared without diminishment (Kreisberg 1992). According to this, power is not about winning or losing. Power can be about relations, beyond possession.

To elaborate the understanding of empowerment and its opportunities, a ladder of empowerment is developed based on circumstances, processes, goals, and power experience with an axis of individuals and communities (Rocha 1997). Atomistic individual, embedded individual, mediated, sociopolitical, and political empowerment are identified as the five major categories (Rocha 1997, p. 34). Such a typology demonstrates that the goal of empowerment is to climb to the top of the ladder, suggesting the power division and struggle between the less powerful and the more powerful. It considers power as a zero-sum concept, failing to recognize a more inclusive and progressive policymaking process to redistribute and mobilize new forms of power dynamics. Friedmann (1992) categorizes that there are social, political, and psychological power facing human beings (p. 33). An alternative development framework is proposed to seek the empowerment of individuals and households in these three kinds of power through their involvement with the social and political activities, emphasizing inclusive democracy (Friedmann 1992). The idea of inclusive democracy is influential in numerous scholarly works, but the practice and implementation of such notion are called for.

The presentations of power differ in a great variety of fields, cultures, and contexts, and evidently at various scales. Some forms of power dynamics are dominantly shown in a more standardized way based on the quantitative data, such as the ratio of women in the elected political positions. In some localities, power dynamics are less quantifiable for demonstration and assessment. Power can be complicatedly internalized and exercised, beyond the clear division of obedience and dominance (Rowlands 1995). For instance, in many less Western regions with a different set of beliefs and norms regarding gender, leadership, and power, females have played a subtle but significant role in local decision-making. While females may not openly participate in the public affairs in these regions through taking official political positions according to the statistical indicators, they are influential in both public and private domains to affect decision-making through mobilizing different forms of social networks and cultural capital in their households, communities, and regions. Therefore, one of the dilemmas lies in whether potential empowering practices should promote a more direct and visible presence for these populations in public affairs, females in this instance.

Furthermore, the term “marginalized populations” is often coupled with empowerment research and practice. It has received contested feedback from both academics and practitioners, especially in the less developed regions. By using the term of marginalized, one implies the existence of the mainstream. When a “mainstream” population is defined, it is likely to preculde marginalized people. One should consider there is a marginalized-majority population in certain geopolitical contexts. Using the term of marginalized may reinforce the marginalization of less advantaged populations and their discourses.

Some populations and geographical regions are distant from the perimeter of scientific interests in the Western world, but their systems of knowledge to the environment and society are critical for both understanding human society as a whole and developing effective policymaking worldwide. Specifically, certain individuals and groups can be socioeconomically disadvantaged according to the statistical analysis. However, these local populations can be affluent with natural resources, social capital, and cultural diversity, while they might not have a certain amount of monetary income and surround themselves with modern infrastructures. They are the leading actor of their population (sub)groups. They may have their own unique cultures and socioeconomic practices rooted in a different set of beliefs and perceptions, distinct from many modern or Western approaches. Such populations are often regarded as the marginalized in the Western academic discourse. However, they should not be viewed as the socially, culturally, and politically powerless. Such populations refuse the categorization of marginalization as they oppose the usage of empowerment on them. Under this light, empowerment seems to be a different concept or practice than the “good” one that many scholars and practitioners initially imagine.

The usage of terminologies and related discourse is a reflection of power relations. The absent discourses from the less advantaged populations mentioned above manifest their less active engagement with global power structures under the current social systems. Empowerment in such less modernized contexts means the opportunities and spaces to present the less visible perspectives of the local lens instead of “providing” or “giving” the power by the external actors. Therefore, empowerment occurs when knowledge, participation, and capacity of populations with fewer socioeconomic resources are presented, understood, recognized, learned, and even shared.

Empowerment is more than increasing access to the decision-making processes; it should enable people to perceive themselves as capable to make critical decisions (Rowlands 1995). Different population groups, even those regarded as more disadvantaged including females and youth, can exhibit the capacity to make choices and act on positive outcomes that affect their lives. These disadvantaged populations may not fully discover and utilize their capacity in the decision-making process. Empowering practices, in this case, should emphasize the tools and approaches to raise awareness, enhance confidence, and mobilize available resources. Moreover, invisible power dynamics for actions and decision-making processes in which these populations actively participate play a vital role. However, these dynamics are rarely revealed by current academic or mainstream policymaking discourses. The practices of empowerment should demonstrate hidden actions and dynamics that are challenging to be quantified but critical to understanding and implementing effective policymaking in both local and global settings.

Currently, the term of empowerment is increasingly regarded as problematic for a growing number of local populations, groups, and organizations. For instance, disadvantaged populations with limited socioeconomic resources may refuse to engage with empowerment programs, rejecting the idea of being a passive recipient of aid or even power by external actors. Women leaders advocated that “don’t empower women” to criticize the subtext of the terminology, recognize the capacity of women, and genuinely address gender equality for achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Chester 2017). Is this the last chapter of empowerment? The capacity of women should be recognized and embedded in the daily professional as well as private domains. In the case mentioned earlier, the pioneering women leaders have possessed and excised certain forms of socioeconomic resources to advocate for the do-not-empower by addressing the power dynamics of using certain terms and transforming the discourse. However, for Rohingya women and children amid the unprecedented health and violence crisis, it is hardly ethical to argue that no one should empower these disadvantaged populations by providing them both materialistic and non-materialistic resources in such humanitarian urgency (Meixler 2018).

The definitions, interpretations, and implementations of empowerment are mostly based on the socioeconomic conditions. Empowerment has been regarded as fluid, changeable, and unpredictable over time and place (Hur 2006). It is not appropriate or possible to form a single fixed definition or interpretation of empowerment. The concept and practice of empowerment should integrate both the quantitative and qualitative data to showcase and analyze particular power dynamics. It also should engage with the individual level of raising awareness as well as the collective layer of social organizing to achieve justice locally and globally.

Toward a Transformative Agenda

Justice is an integrated component of sustainable development as well as the core foundation of civilized humanity. Social justice is served as a coherent element when the concept of sustainable development was perhaps first proposed in the modern time, aiming to reconcile the intergeneration conflict or injustice regarding physical sustainability, need satisfaction, and equal opportunities for developed and less developed regions and their populations (Langhelle 2000). Such a notion recognizes how sustainable development should be integrated with the socio-spatial and generational justice. In the era of urbanization, globalization, and neoliberalism, sustainable development is embedded in the quest for ecological and social justice, the bottom line beyond the tokenism to highlight as well as provide solutions to the most pressing problems facing the world (Manteaw 2008). Based on the environmental, economic, and social pillars of sustainable development, the political and policy frameworks have the potential to emphasize the fundamental socioeconomic and environmental challenges for present and future humanity through making a stronger connection with equity, such as equitable economy to promote opportunities for all (Hopwood et al. 2005; Robert et al. 2005).

However, most practices of sustainable development do not profoundly challenge or change the current socioeconomic systems to address the critical aspects of social justice. To achieve SDGs substantially, this chapter features transformative empowerment in the context of local and global (in)justice.

One of the most central debates regarding power is the intersection of the possession of power and the exercise thereof: defend the status quo or create changes of power (Foucault 1977). Avelino (2017) proposes the typology of power exercise: reinforcive, innovative, and transformative power (p. 508). Reinforcive power is defined as “the capacity of actors to reinforce and reproduce existing structures and institutions” (p. 508). Reinforcive power does not aim to challenge the current social systems. Innovative power is regarded as “the capacity of actors to create new resources” (p. 509). Innovative power generates new resources but does not address changes in a systematic way. Transformative power is viewed as “the capacity of actors to develop new structures and institutions, be it a new legal structure, physical infrastructure, economic paradigm or religious ideology” (p. 509). Such transformative power means the political transformation at the level of structures, significantly challenging the existing institutes and systems by renewing certain critical elements (O’Brien and Sygna 2013). Therefore, the theories and practices of empowerment can be elaborated based on such a typology of power exercise for radical changes of current social systems.

As a concept for social change, empowerment is fundamentally about changing power dynamics, disrupting the perceived norms and embedded realities under the social systems that internalize and sustain inequity (Cornwall 2016). Empowerment is a vital means as well as an essential value for achieving SDGs (Division for Social Policy and Development 2012). As a multidimensional concept and practice, empowerment has been extensively used in development policies and programs to explore economic, environmental, and social aspects of critical issues to people and groups with diverse origins, languages, and cultures. Empowerment is also a crucial component for building sustainable communities and cities through radically challenging the unjust social systems.

However, the agenda for SDGs is criticized for not using stronger language to clearly disrupt and transform the unjust power relations structurally (Esquivel 2016). Instead, unintentionally and deliberately vague statements are widely applied in the policy documents produced by international development organizations and national governmental agencies. In such cases, it is empowerment without addressing power. It is remaining sustainably unequal and unjust without structural changes. Therefore, empowerment, like other commonly used terms in development studies and programs, such as participation, is in danger of being an empty buzzword (Cornwall and Brock 2005). Empowerment without substantially opposing or transforming the unequal power relations is not going to fully promote the economic, social, political, and cultural inclusion of all to achieve SDGs (Esquivel 2016).

A tokenism approach is common in implementation as well. There have been numerous social policy and programs that underline increasing participation and involvement among diverse populations, including the less and least advantaged ones, for empowerment. Most of these policy frameworks and programs do not sufficiently illustrate how they link with the systematic rooted problems. Also, the demonstration of best practices often remains as the promotional campaign for political or program achievements without significantly and sustainably creating positive changes for the affected populations, communities, and regions.

It is also problematic to frame empowerment by rigidly homogenizing the power holders and the less powerful actors. Under this light, empowerment means the simple “giving” and “receipt” of power, dividing populations into winners and losers. Such a rigid division oversimplifies the complexity of power relations. Instead, the transformative elaboration of empowerment is critical to disrupting the social systems, redistributing power through recognizing the nuances of power dynamics as well as highlighting justice. There can be innovative approaches, such as technological applications, which transform the power structure and promote a more inclusive and just system without dividing winners and losers.

Furthermore, the domain of social justice, especially environmental justice movements, is often understood as a local, grass-rooted, and bottom-up approach to tackle depression and inequity, while sustainable development and its policy programs are mostly considered as a national, international, and top-down framework (Agyeman 2005). The domains of environmental justice and sustainable development seem divided but in fact are interrelated theoretically and practically. As a focal point to link these two domains organically, the concept and practice of empowerment have the possibility to integrate the local and global approaches to effect long-lasting changes at various levels, from individuals, communities, cities, nations, to regions.

Situated within the discourse of gender and development, gender justice would not be thoroughly achieved without realizing social justice by addressing the existing unequal global economy and political structures (Esquivel 2016; Sen and Mukherjee 2014). A transformative approach to empowerment lies in building conscious shifts and engaging with rooted inequalities, including beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors (Cornwall 2016). Under these two layers, the process of change is involved with the individual of change as well as systematic change; there are also the formal and informal changes (Cornwall 2016). Cornwall and Rivas (2015) propose a transformative agenda for change to address inequalities and discrimination. Such reframing emphasizes the concepts of accountability, inclusion, and nondiscrimination to achieve local and global justice (Cornwall and Rivas 2015). Under this notion, every actor in the social systems regardless of one’s socioeconomic conditions is responsible for promoting inclusion and rejecting discrimination. Empowerment is not limited to governmental agencies or international organizations to develop programs to enhance access and promote participation in the local and global sphere. Empowerment under this context requires one to not only provide a platform for all to present their voices but also recognize the obligation to make those voices heard.

No actors in the current social systems should be punished due to their more advantaged positions, but every actor should be accountable to contribute to a more inclusive and just power dynamics. Every actor, from individuals to national governments, should act on both the formal and informal changes to develop a transformative set of beliefs, perceptions, and norms.

Future Insights

Empowerment is a multidimensional socioeconomic process and outcome of enabling the capacity of individuals, groups, communities, and states, including those disadvantaged ones, to play a more impactful role in the fluid power structures for a more inclusive, just, and environmentally friendly society. Empowerment can be applied to integrate conceptual frameworks and policymaking at various levels, from local to global sphere.

Genuine empowerment requires every actor in the social systems to be obliged to promote the notion of justice, as one of the fundamental shared values of SDGs. Empowerment addresses economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental aspects that affect societal development. It has been overwhelmingly applied in various fields in different regions, often lacking intellectual coherence. However, the intellectual incoherence also creates an open platform for different actors across multiple scales, such as local communities and governmental agencies, to participate in the discourse from their unique lens as well as engage with the public sphere of power, empowerment, and capacity building, especially in disadvantaged communities.

The discourse reflects the current power dynamics. The prevalent use of certain terms, such as empowerment, can generate both negative and positive effects by strengthening depression, inequality, and injustice of the social systems as well as creating potential positive changes. One has to be cautious with the power of the language as well as the risk of repeating fashionable jargon instead of implementing effective policies and programs.

Scholars have begun unpacking a more profound understanding of the concept and practice of empowerment. Empowerment of what and for whom? One has to first define the term when applying it to particular theoretical and practical settings. The more precise the definition, the greater the potential for effective policymaking and implementations. Thus, it is up to local populations, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to develop their own definitions in order to emphasize certain aspects of social systems and transform the domain of power and empowerment. Also, one has to shift the concept and practice of empowerment from the perspective of international development and capacity building projects to daily routine practices. One has to recognize that the everyday world is problematic as how it is perceived and constructed due to the rooted injustice from the systematic reproduction. Therefore, empowerment should not be limited to program-based outcomes devised by national or international agencies to address dramatic disturbances, such as hazards and disasters. Empowerment should be embedded in the daily beliefs, norms, actions, and events that emphasize inclusion and justice, thereby promoting a transformative approach. Empowerment is a long-term battle of continuity, leading to thorough sustainable development beyond the current generation and geographical location.

Justice is the essential component of humanity. It addresses the moral perspective of being a citizen, beyond the statistical cost-benefit analysis. It is problematic when one only applies quantitative approaches to analyze, assess, and conclude how justice can and should be achieved. After all, what does it mean to be a human being in this transformative world in the face of various opportunities and challenges? Empowerment can serve as a morality-informed theoretical framework for development policies and programs (Friedmann 1992). Empowerment should clearly highlight the political agenda of realizing justice locally and globally. Disrupting the unjust power dynamics for a more just and inclusive world is the core value of all humankind to collectively tackle unpredictable socioeconomic and environmental challenges, such as global climate change. The disruption might hinder or damage the established benefits of certain populations. Conflicts are possible. Resistance is anticipated. Recognizing this foundation as well as nuances, achieving SDGs is a reflection of embracing human potential, seeking local and global justice, and creating a more inclusive future for all.

In addition, the more widespread presence of different perspectives from diverse populations regarding empowerment helps all involved actors gain a more comprehensive understanding of power dynamics. An alternative epistemology of power and empowerment from different populations and regions should be encouraged, revealed, and learned. Empowerment occurs when the shared value of seeking justice as well as the capacity of individuals, groups, and communities can be thoroughly understood, recognized, and mobilized.

Empowerment, embedded in the context of boundaries, limitations, and contentious debates, demonstrates the potential to emphasize and even disrupt unequal power structures. Attention to this critical insight and precision and contextualization of its definition should occur in both academic and policymaking discussions. Actors from different socioeconomic backgrounds would better inform the discourse and potentially transform the dynamics of power for a more just, diverse, and inclusive society, in the face of uncertain challenges in both local and global contexts.




In addition to Elisa Conticelli’s thorough editorial review, a sincere thank you to Scott Drinkall and Shahin Rahman for their valuable insights that significantly improved the manuscript


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia Partnership, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public PolicyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Elisa Conticelli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BolognaBolognaItaly