There’s a question I ask myself every day at work: “Am I really helping people? Or am I doing more harm than good?”. In the world of development, we talk a lot about empowerment but how do we really define it and how can we measure it?

“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.”
— — World Bank

There are so many different ways we can interpret empowerment in different contexts. In the field of development, generally, it is understood as helping people by giving them the tools, resources, and opportunities to make their own decisions, to improve their lives and their communities. The process of empowerment is hard to see over a short-term period as it takes years, sometimes generations to really change the way people live and think. However, do people really want to change? Are we imposing changes on them the way we think is good and better? Is the change making a positive impact on their lives?

The process of empowerment is hard to see over a short-term period as it takes years, sometimes generations to really change the way people live and think. However, do people really want to change? Are we imposing changes on them the way we think is good and better? Is the change making a positive impact on their lives?

We live in a turmoil world manipulated by big corporations, politics, money, financial institutions, all controlled by a group of elites, rich and powerful individuals who make up for only 1% of the world population but own as much wealth as the other 99%. Even big development organizations such as the UN or World Bank also get tangled and corrupted in the power and money game.

Criticism of the UN is nothing new. However, recently, there have been more and more people speaking up and criticizing the UN and its affiliated bodies. The latest scandal involved so-called peacekeepers who reportedly have committed rapes and sexual abuses in Africa. Many people, including former UN staff, have voiced their opinions and concerns about bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency of the UN system.

The World Bank is one of the biggest development lenders in the world. The World Bank Group funds hundreds of thousands of projects around the world. Are people really benefiting from these projects? The Huffington Post partnering with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has run a global investigation and they estimate that 3.4 million people have been physically or economically displaced by World Bank-backed projects since 2004.

Most recently, the biggest leak in the history of journalism, the Panama Papers have revealed a global-scale scandal of corruption, money laundering, tax avoidance committed by mega-rich, most powerful and influential people in the world. It was all made possible through offshore companies in tax heavens, which mostly are poverty-stricken countries.

Something is really wrong here. Every day, we can hear so many tragic news of wars, conflicts, murders, rapes, kidnaps, etc. But those people are peacekeepers, world leaders, influential individuals who make a significant impact on our society and the world.

Let’s set aside all the loopholes or frauds committed, let’s just start with one simple and basic question: WHY do people think it is okay to do this? HOW could they live with their conscience? Is it because money and power have blinded them? Or they just think they’re powerful and entitled to do so? Or what I don’t know?

What I do know is that we humans aren’t born greedy or evil. How could there be such people who cause so much harm and wrongness to other fellow humans, who step on others’ vulnerability and misery to make money or gain power? What kind of a world or society that creates such people? Humankind, when we lose our humanity and kindness, we are simply just another kind of animals. And to be honest, even animals sometimes show more love, compassion than us human beings.

I choose to believe in goodness and that despite this crazy world we are living in, we can still be kind to each other and there is still hope to make a difference in this world.

Going back to the question, are we really empowering people? I think before even thinking of empowering people, we should empower ourselves first, by changing the way we think and live for the better, by questioning what is going on around us and what we can do to make it better. We empower people by empowering ourselves. Small actions from individuals but together, it can change and make a much larger impact from bottom up.

I truly believe in development at a grassroots level where communities help their own communities, not relying on any government bodies nor international development aids. It is truly amazing what communities can do when people stand side by side and challenge the status quo.

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Posted by:Hanh Lam

I am a young Vietnamese woman with a passion for development work and social change, a desire to explore the world and a love for storytelling.

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