When you volunteer with a left-leaning organization that requires forty-two hours of training on social justice and examining your own privilege and sensitivity, one of the first things you are taught is that empowerment is a silly word. Empowering, by definition, involves giving someone your power, which is, by this understanding of power, impossible. The idea is that we each have privilege and power that we didn’t necessarily earn, by way of our gender, skin color, or height, for example, and as we can’t give those things to another person; we can’t actually “empower” them.
The distinction seems like semantics, but it actually creates a very different outlook in social justice terms. There is a difference between trying to give someone your power–which is patriarchal in addition to futile–and creating an environment in which more people have access to power.
Hence, when I saw the title of Esther Duflo’s latest NBER working paper, I cringed a bit in anticipation of what might lie within. She and Abhijit Banerjee also sprinkle the term throughout their recent book Poor Economics, which I’ve recently finished, enjoyed, am excited to hear my students’ reactions. But I’m a proponent of presenting and discussing Duflo’s work, even if not always a proponent of the work itself, so I was willing to give it a try, hoping it was just a vocabulary issue.
Though I still think the term should be used more carefully, Duflo largely seems to be addressing issues of equality of treatment, investment, education, and salary in the developing world. It is a literature review, and a rather comprehensive one at that, covering the status of women all over the world and a number of experiments and papers that have sought to tease out the directionality of the relationship between gender equality and development.
For anyone interested in the state of women in the developing world and the relationship between equality and development, it’s a must-read.