Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Empowerment is a good thing, so what am I not happy about? You can't get away from empowerment. There are conferences and workshops and training going on all over the place. I'm not signed-up to many lists, but my mailbox is peppered with invitations and blurb about empowering citizens / communities / residents, in relation to housing / health / safety / environment / education / motherhood / apple pie. Fifteen years ago we wouldn't have believed it could happen, ten years ago we might have aspired towards it. Now empowerment is fashionable. I think there's an industry self-generating a lot of activity and I'm suspicious. This is not to denigrate the work of many who are delivering from experience lots of sound learning points to people who appear to need them; nor specific policy events which in themselves may be wholly valid. But a culture accumulates; and there is a precedent. Round about 2003, the field of social inclusion and new technology became counter-productively transformed when government started putting up huge chunks of funding without much thought about what was needed in local situations, thus attracting many who were willing to spend it for them without the burden of values or the inconvenience of insights into the nature of exclusion. I've been outspoken about that before, once or twice. Part of the difficulty is that many London-based suits don't speak to people who have the dirt of estate life under their fingernails, unless for a photoshoot and through an interpreter. They meet together in London events to problematise the issue as 'out there', thus ensuring that they do not see themselves as part of it. One of the consequences is that any action to be taken becomes the subject of organisational management (control) rather than local networked response. There's also an increased risk of professionalisation, leading to the situation where some designated people can 'do empowerment' and the rest of us can't, which makes no sense. Perhaps I'm getting too cranky in my old age, but I can't help suspecting that the processes that I identified the other day, which assimilate, appropriate language, insist on consensus and manage dissent, could in due course absorb the theme of empowerment itself. Now there's a perverse irony. What words would we feel able use for empowerment if its meaning were confiscated?

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