A focus on empowerment

Photo by RSCJ India

Empowerment of people is at the root of social development
 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Poverty eradication, social inclusion, and full employment and decent work for all are key items on the international development agenda. At the World Summit for Social Development in March 1995 (held in Copenhagen, Denmark) world leaders adopted the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action, which put people at the center of development. Five years later, the Millennium Summit of 2000 also adopted a people-centered model of development in the Millennium Declaration, the parent document of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs are solemn promises by all countries in the world to significantly reduce extreme poverty, hunger, child and maternal mortality as well as other major diseases, among other goals. Much progress has been made towards achieving the MDGs – for example, more than 600 million people have climbed out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2008. Nonetheless, it is expected that the world will still count 1 billion people living in extreme poverty by 2015, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. Inequalities in the political, economic and social spheres will significantly slow down any nation’s development, unless the empowerment of all peoples is taken seriously.

The Commission for Social Development 2013
In February 2013, empowerment was the theme of the 51st session of the Commission for Social Development, one of the functional commissions of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In his report to the Commission for Social Development 2013, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described empowerment as “a key driver of pro-poor growth, which contributes to improvements in health, education and productive employment and decent work for all.” (Report of the Secretary General entitled Promoting empowerment of people in achieving poverty eradication, social inclusion and full employment and decent work, E/CN.5/2013/3, paragraph 22).

As RSCJ and members of the Sacred Heart family, our diverse JPIC works attest to our commitment to empower the vulnerable and marginalized. But what does the UN mean when it speaks of ‘empowerment’? Secretary General Ban Ki-moon states:

The present report proposes that empowerment be considered as the effective participation of members of society, individuals and groups in decisions about their lives. It also encompasses the notion of creating legal entitlements or social protection guarantees that ensure that beneficiaries are empowered and become rights-holders ... Empowerment is primarily a means of achieving other objectives. For empowerment to occur, there must be an enabling environment that will permit people to participate in effective decision-making.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    Report of the Secretary General, paragraph 10.

On the opening day of the Commission for Social Development, NGOs presented their Civil Society Declaration to the assembled governments, using the following definition of empowerment: “Empowerment is the expansion of the capacity, volition and vision necessary for people to become effective agents of human well-being.” The declaration explains that “Empowerment means effective participation of individuals and groups in decisions that affect the social, legal, political and economic dimensions of their lives. It is integrally linked to the eradication of poverty, decent work and social integration.

The declaration further addressed topics such as Participation; Social Protection Floors; Poverty Eradication in a Post 2015 world; Education; Resources for Human Development; and Alternatives to GDP. It concludes by stating that

In a socially integrated society whose core values are human rights, equality and sustainability, people are at the center, the common good is honored and citizens are empowered. Citizens contribute to constructing a society that respects the dignity and worth of all. Poverty eradication is seriously addressed, decent work is provided for all citizens, funding is made available to provide basic services for all, especially the most vulnerable.

The declaration closes with ten concrete recommendations for governments. This is followed by descriptions of five projects illustrating effective practices for empowerment.

The international development agenda after 2015
We are rapidly approaching 2015, the year in which the MDGs should be achieved. Some goals will likely be reached at the global level but not in each and every single country; other goals will even globally fall short because the MDGs were not specific enough or due to the lack of political will by some governments.

Today, the world is discussing the sequel to the MDGs – what new development goals do we need? How do we articulate them? What should be some of the targets to strive for? Unlike the birth of the MDGs in 2000, all peoples of the world are now invited to give their input on the nature and content of the international development agenda post 2015. Are you ready to participate in online consultations and other opportunities for contributions from the field? I recommend two particular ways:

1)  explore the website of The World We Want – sign up for e-alerts – contribute to the conversation. The more input from the grass-roots we can give to articulate the development agenda after 2015, the better.

2)  go to My World: The United Nations Global Survey for a Better World and vote on the top six priorities of your choice to be included in the post-2015 development agenda. This user-friendly and straightforward survey is an opportunity to make your individual voice heard and counted!

Wanting to receive responses from around the world, the organizers of the MY World survey have made their website available in 15 languages. Isn’t this an invitation to all of us to cast our nets truly wide? Shouldn’t the voices of persons living in poverty and in the margins be a critical part of input from the grassroots? In which ways can we empower them so they can participate in the MY World survey as well?

Cecile Meijer, rscj
April 2013