Empowerment – A palette of understandings

Start date: 17 February, 2017 End date: 19 March, 2017 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A30994 Countries: Kenya Institutions: Roskilde University (RUC), Denmark Grant recipient: Anne Hedegaard Wrang Rasmussen and Anna Louise Dølpher Total grant: 19,830 DKK



The Master’s thesis is an investigation of the concept empowerment within development communication. The concept is often emphasised in development projects and is referred to as a buzzword. A buzzword that is widely discussed and criticised by theorists and development agencies. What seems to be lacking is the voices of the people the concept is being used about. Therefore, we have examined how empowerment is being ascribed meaning in a specific context within a specific project in order to shed light on understandings and usage of the concept as well as when, how and to whom it makes sense to utilise the concept.


The thesis takes its point of departure in a field study conducted in Nairobi, Kenya, in which the development project Breaking Stigma and Discrimination — Responding to HIV/AIDS is investigated: A three year cooperation between the Danish organisation AIDS-Fondet and their Kenyan partner organisation HerStory Centre. The objectives of the project are to empower and reduce (self)stigmatisation and discrimination of female sex workers and people living with HIV and AIDS in the slums of Nairobi. Thus, AIDS-Fondet, HerStoryCentre and the female sex workers are the involved parties in the project, and we examine how the concept is being understood and utilised among these three parties. Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse, power and subject is deployed in combination with perspectives from Paulo Freire’s dialogical and participatory approach. This, in order to examine how the concept is constructed and ascribed meaning in a crosscultural context. We focus on the positions from where the parties articulate understandings of empowerment and how these positions create possibilities and limitations of articulations. In relation to this, we examine the power dynamics that circulate in the cooperation between the involved parties in order to gain insight to how a buzzword like empowerment, which entails dialogical and participatory methods, is actually worked with in practice.


Our research shows that the concept of empowerment is primarily understood in relation to knowledge, economy and social networks, and that empowerment is mostly connected to exiting sex work, thus leaving little room for sex workers to be positioned by themselves and by others as empowered. The study also provides insight to the difficulty of describing what the concept actually means to the people who are using it. It is described as a donor word that does not necessarily make sense for the people the word is being used about. Perhaps NGO’s need to use a different vocabulary in development communication. A vocabulary that covers what they are actually working towards in the specific context instead of naming everything they do empowerment.