BIC statement explores a new concept of empowerment

March 12, 2013
Rose Kornfeld Matte, right, of Chile's National Service for Older People, speaks during a panel discussion at the offices of the Baha'i International Community on 7 February 2013 during the UN Commission on Social Development. At the left is Sewa Lamsal Adhikari of Nepal, Chairperson of the Commission. In the center is Ming Hwee Chong of the Baha'i International Community.

NEW YORK, United States — Concepts of empowerment that pit one group against another should be discarded in favor of a new vision where social transformation is approached as a collective enterprise in which all people are able to participate.

That was among the main themes of a statement issued by the Baha'i International Community (BIC) to the recently concluded UN Commission on Social Development.

"The impulse to rectify social inequalities is unquestionably noble, but us/them dichotomies only perpetuate and reinforce existing divisions," said the statement, which was titled "Empowerment as a Mechanism for Social Transformation."

"Careful thought needs to be given to ways in which empowerment can be approached as a universal and shared enterprise and not something the 'haves' bestow on the 'have nots.'" One way to avoid such extremes is to understand humanity as a single social organism, suggested the statement.

"Implicit in such a conception are characteristics such as the interdependence of the parts and the whole, the indispensability of collaboration, reciprocity and mutual aid, the need to differentiate but also harmonize roles, the need for institutional arrangements that enable rather than oppress, and the existence of a collective purpose above that of any constituent element."

The statement was among the BIC's contributions to this year's Commission, which was held 6-15 February, and took as its priority theme the "empowerment of people" in addressing poverty, social integration, and full and decent employment.

On 7 February, the BIC sponsored a panel discussion on the topic. Among the panelists was the Commission's Chairperson, Sewa Lamsal Adhikari, who said empowerment is increasingly seen by the UN as a vital issue in addressing social transformation.

"Empowerment of people is at the root of social development," said Mrs. Adhikari. "It is becoming one of the core elements that underpin efforts towards the achievement of the three core goals of the World Summit for Social Development: poverty eradication, full and productive employment and decent work for all, and social integration."

"As such, empowerment is a means towards the ends of social development." Mrs. Adhikari is Charge d'Affaires of the Permanent Mission of Nepal to the United Nations.

Ming Hwee Chong, a representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, suggested that it was no accident that the theme had reached center stage in discussions about social development.

"It is a natural evolution of the development discourse," said Mr. Chong, who moderated the panel. "It is reflective of what is happening around the world, part of an expanding consciousness of who we are, what our potential is, both individually and collectively, as the human race."

Other speakers at the 7 February side event – formally titled "Empowerment: Of Whom? By what means? Towards what ends?" – included Rosa Kornfeld Matte, director of the National Service for the Elderly in Chile; Corinne Woods, director of the Millennium Campaign; and Yao Ngoran from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

A second panel discussion sponsored by the BIC on 8 February, titled "Empowerment in Action," offered reflections by grassroots development practitioners.

Hou Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Organization for Research, Development and Education (CORDE), said his organization takes a "learning by doing" approach that aims to build capacity in youth so that they can better serve their communities.

A Baha'i-inspired organization offering supplementary educational programs to more than 3,000 young people in northwest Cambodia, CORDE requires its students engage in acts of service to their home communities in addition to textbook work. "So everything has a component of study and of action," he said.

Judith Therese Eligio-Martinez, program coordinator for the Baha'i-inspired agency, Bayan Association in Honduras, likewise said service is at the core of their program, which currently reaches some 6,000 high school age students in 12 of Honduras's 18 departments.

"It is built upon the belief in the capacity of the individual to make decisions for him or herself, and to help develop the capacities of three major actors (in community development): the individual, the community, and institutions," said Ms. Eligio-Martinez.

Developed in Colombia by a Baha'i-inspired organization, FUNDAEC, and known by the acronym SAT, for "Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial" in Spanish, the program trains and coordinates community-based tutors who then offer a high school education appropriate for rural areas.

"We consider SAT to be a creative way of becoming educated, but with its center being the idea of service to humanity and making the world a better place to live, on a local level as much as possible," said Ms. Eligio-Martinez. "And in this way, we feel we are contributing to empowerment."