Mikkelsen (2005) states that empowerment is based on a social theory that advocates for the expansion of people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where their abilities had been previously denied. Mikkelsen further states that empowerment is the means of restoring to individuals a sense of their own value and strength and their own capacity to handle life’s problems.
Empowerment, by itself, includes both individual change and collective action (Visvanathan 1997). This would entail building a positive self-image and self confidence, developing the ability to think critically; building up group cohesion and fostering decision-making and action.
There is a great need for all development actors in Kenya to ensure that development prioritizes on the needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups in order for them to participate and enjoy the fruits of sustainable development.
Over the years, there has been a growing discontent and protest among many Kenyans that development seems to be targeting and benefit more the rich at the expense of the poor, and vulnerable in our society. This ought to change and efforts ought to be made to prioritize and plan for development that is conscious of the needs of all.
Who are the Vulnerable in our Kenyan Society?
The Oxford dictionary defines the vulnerable as individuals susceptible to poverty. It further states that poverty denotes the want of the necessities of life. According to the Beijing Platform for Action, poverty has various manifestations such as lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure a sustainable livelihood; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increasing morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments; and social discrimination and exclusion. Poverty is also characterized by a lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life (United Nations 1996, Paragraph 47).
Bearing this in mind, one can draw the conclusion that we are all susceptible to poverty that is why we wake up early in the morning to go to work and earn a living so that we can meet our daily needs and more. The fear to be poor spurs us to acquire education and life skills to equip us with the knowledge and capacity to engage and utilize resources and opportunities to generate wealth.
Developing Good Effective Strategies of Empowerment
The major strategies for empowering vulnerable, disenfranchised and oppressed people can be grouped into three general approaches. These 3 approaches to empowerment are discussed further by Dugan (2003) in his book-Empowerment: Beyond Intractability. The 3 strategies advocate a focus and prioritization on education, organization and networking. There is need for the Government of Kenya to bear in mind and put more resources to these 3 approaches in order for empowerment of the vulnerable to be complete.
Education as the first strategy. The underlying tenet in this strategy is that the vulnerable already know a great deal about the sources of their vulnerability and oppression and that they know what must be done to overcome vulnerability. What they lack is an organized approach to translate this knowledge into action. This approach therefore elicits knowledge and response. The vulnerable individual/group is empowered by taking responsibility for learning by increasing their understanding of the communities in which they live and by understanding how they as individuals are affected by current and potential policies and structures. Equipped with this greater understanding and with new confidence in self, the vulnerable can develop policies and structures that better meet their needs and strategies for bringing those policies into being.
Organizational Strategy. Vulnerable groups have no choice because they have no organization. Organization gives the vulnerable a way of expressing their needs in a way that cannot be ignored. In Kenya, this approach can be demonstrated by the emergence of chamas. Chama is a Swahili term that refers to a group of individuals who have come together with a common purpose/objective to form a group.
In Kenya, chamas tend to be synonymous with women’s groups, but are not limited to women. They can be welfare groups, support groups, church groups, savings group etc. Chamas are normally strategically positioned to help its members be empowered through sharing issues/problems in order to leverage or lobby for action. In most chamas, members contribute agreed amounts of money which act as capital for the establishment of income generating activities. Members also can get loans, which they are required to pay back with an interest.
This has proved a powerful tool of enabling women empower themselves. Currently, the Government of Kenya and the Private Sector have recognized that chamas are powerful agents of development. They have therefore established funds that can be loaned at a subsidized interest for the establishment and support of income generating activities and micro-enterprises. Such funds include the Women’s Fund, Youth Fund etc.
Networking Strategy. Networking is a key tool of development. Dugan (2003) argues that vulnerable groups can realize and extend power through networking with like minded individuals, both inside and outside their social groups. Networking with professionals/experts can act as a good avenue for role-modeling. In Kenya, the Green Belt movement, founded by noble Laureate-Prof. Wangari Mathaai, is a perfect example of an organization that works with grassroot vulnerable groups to promote environmental conservation hence contribute towards sustainable development.
The Way Forward
In his speech during the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, Nelson Mandela states that poverty is a major issue that causes vulnerability and it’s a major assault on humanity. Therefore, there is need to support any initiative that attempts to investigate more holistic approaches to livelihoods assistance that address the constraints on the vulnerable groups (Pankhurst 2002).
In tackling poverty and rights of the vulnerable, a more joined-up approach is needed, which links the macro and micro economic context, as well as the economic agenda to social and political change. This can help operationalize the empowerment strategies for the improvement of vulnerable groups in Kenya.
In conclusion, it is important to note that empowerment resides in the person, not the helper or social worker (Napier 2002).