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Chapter: Activists' Forum
Section 2: Social Change & Empowerment
See also: Section 1: Political Ideals
Author # Title:  Click to visit article
Deborah Brandt
1 Excerpts from 'Critical Education for Social Change in the context of Sustainable Development' 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 92.
An excellent introduction to this section.
Anil K Gupta, Kirit K Patel, A R Pastokia & P G Vijaya Sherry Chand 2 Excerpts from 'Building upon Local Creativity and Entrepreneurship in Vulnerable Environments' Chapter Nine; 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 112.
Vangile Titi & Naresh Singh
3 Excerpts from 'Engaging Stakeholders in a Process of Change towards Sustainable Development' Chapter Thirteen;  'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 172.
4 Watch this space for new additions!
5 Watch this space for new additions!
  6 Watch this space for new additions!
Search this Chapter for: (Use 'Back' button to return)
Social or political activism cannot begin in a vacuum. Without building a firm foundation, and without knowledge and wisdom to guide its trajectory, activism will surely flounder on the shores of chauvinism and narrow-mindedness.

It is not Sankalpa's intention to merely point fingers at offending officialdom. Sankalpa recognizes that the path to change is always fraught with danger. History has shown that revolutions more often than not lead to the emergence of even more monstrous forms of oppression, than the regimes that the revolutionaries thought they were permanently overthrowing. This has led to a great deal of cynicism and distrust of all forms protest, and even the most benign ones, such as Sankalpa, suffer as a consequence.

Nevertheless, Sankalpa is an activist program. And the 'Action Phase' of any activist program can be fruitful only when the issues are crystal clear; and the best course of action is debated threadbare, before the actual program is launched. Hence the motivation to begin our explorations with the subject of 'Political Ideals'.

Hopefully, it will lead to a constructive debate about what it is that we should strive for, and what we should reject. This debate, and the ensuing definitions of the best course of social activism that could positively impact our society, will determine the future content of Activists' Forum. YOU determine the trajectory of the movement.

Total freedom may still be a long way into the future. Sankalpa hopes that you, the people, will participate in all aspects of the 'Activists' Forum', until we are completely united in our perceptions about what are the issues that are worth fighting for and how they should be fought. Bon voyage!

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1. Excerpts from 'Critical Education for Social Change in the context of Sustainable Development' by Deborah Brandt
Chapter Seven; 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 92.
According to Eduardo Baez (former director of Nicaragua's adult education program), popular education is aimed at preparing people to participate actively and consciously in democratic processes.
    That's understanding democracy not as simply voting every five years ... but as the way you participate in society every day: in your work, in your neighbourhood, in your organization, in your home, everywhere. To develop a real democracy, people have to learn to think critically.
... Popular education reflects a critical perspective on social reality and social change. It contrasts with traditional education which reinforces a conservative ideology, reproducing inequalities in its form, content, process and product. Popular education is based on a critical analysis of unjust social, political and economic systems and a vision for a more just and equitable society. It is a process in which people develop an awareness of their social situation and strengthen their ability to organize to change it. It integrates research, learning and organizing by and for popular sectors.

Why popular education?
Popular education is aimed at ending economic exploitation, political domination and cultural dependency. Its ultimate goal is to build a new, more humane and just society. In terms of sustainability, this would mean a humane society that respects diversity of both the ecological systems as well as the diversity of different social / cultural systems.

Eduardo says " ... Popular education is for people who are most interested in changing the situation, because it has been oppressing them". This means that people become the subjects and not the objects of development ... But popular education is not only a tool to teach illiterate people in the Third World countries to read and write. It is a tool for any sector of society in any country of the world that is interested in changing their situation. So it could be women, it could be workers, it could be peasants, minorities or any oppressed sector. Popular education engages people in critiquing "paternalistic" relationships and encouraging greater self-reliance and self-determination.

How is it done?
Popular education starts with people's working and organizing experiences, helping them develop a more critical understanding of these experiences, and leading them to take strategic action based on the new and deeper understanding ... The role of the educator is not someone who has knowledge to transmit to the student - not to give answers - but to ask questions:

  • It is a collective process - involving people in teaching each other and in learning by doing;
  • It is critical - seeking the structural and historical causes of the problems;
  • It is systematic - moving logically from the concrete to the abstract, and back to the concrete (practice-theory-practice), encouraging both reflective and active phases;
  • It is participatory - involving people fully in the process of research, education and organization;
  • It is creative - using cultural forms (drama, drawing, music, stories, photos) as educational tools, tapping people's imagination and energy.
Where is it done, and when?
Popular education can be applied anywhere, but it must always adapt its methods to the particular historical context, taking into account the political-economic system, the prevailing ideology, the language and culture of the people, and the specific contradictions of the moment.

For the past eight years, I have been involved in developing a process with community workers in Toronto involved in a variety of social justice issues. We gather people from different sectors to do an ongoing political analysis for action, to share our different perspectives on events as they unfold and to explore ways in which we can, in alliance, respond more strategically. Based on Antonio Gramsci's notion of "conjectural analysis", we call this approach "naming the moment". We've divided the process into four phases:

  1. identifying ourselves and our interests;
  2. naming the issue and the history of the particular struggle we are working on;
  3. assessing the forces (economic, political, ideological) that share or oppose our interests in this issue; and
  4. planning for action.
This process counters the more fragmented, dichotomous, either/or thinking of the western world, and helps people to think more historically, structurally, dialectically and strategically, in alliance with others.
[Reminder from Essem]:
This contribution is only an extract. Please read the full article for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.]
Comment # 1: Received from
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2. Excerpts from 'Building upon Local Creativity and Entrepreneurship in Vulnerable Environments' by Anil K Gupta, Kirit K Patel, A R Pastokia & P G Vijaya Sherry Chand
Chapter Nine; 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development'; edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 112.
If we can understand the process by which a poor person feels empowered, we can explore the ways in which sustainable operations for poverty alleviation can be identified ...

Empowerment through recognition and respect
Development has been defined as a process of widening the decision-making choices and extending the time-frame of the households. Most sustainable technologies require a longer time-frame to be viable. In the shorter time-frame, a higher discount rate would exclude most technologies that generate small returns.

The interplay between 'Power' and 'Communication' at the grassroots level is shown below:
Street singer
Farmer training center
Collegial learning
Power of silence

Two way communication and power is seen to be the most viable and sustainable institutional arrangement ... which Gandhi articulated as "Gram Swarajya", and Mao Zedong called the "Mass-line approach". Two way communication may not prevent mistakes entirely, but it does avoid perpetuating major blunders, since power both ways ensures learning and mid-course corrections, if and when needed. 

Empowerment is thus a process where those who have power willingly share it with others, conceding the right to disadvantaged communities to question and communicate alternative opinions.

Risk and social exchange mechanisms:
In different ecological regions, various kinds of constraints dominate and foster a mix of eco-specific strategies and social structures. However, there are some patterns in the ways people come together to resolve conflicts in market-dominated versus nature-dominated regions. Market-dominated regions are well endowed, irrigated, low-risk, high population density pockets with a larger surplus available with the people. Hence, market forces predominate and often provide support which would otherwise derive from social institutions. Nature dominated regions include drought, flood, forest or hill areas where people have to depend on rain or other natural resources for their livelihood. Some of the key contrasts are tabulated below:
Communication System
Pooling of resources
Very low
Very high
Reliance on common properties
Very High
Settling of books of accounts
Very short term
Long term
Proportion of women-lead households
Very low
Very High
Women participation rates
Very Low
Very High
Material resource-based
Knowledge resource & culture-based

In high-population density - or market-dominated - regions, people can manage their needs (both expected and unexpected) by tapping the markets or their own individual reserves for resources. For example, if a guest comes unexpectedly, a 'market-dominated' host could get things form the market or immediate neighbourhood. However, 'nature- dominated' regions have limited possibilities; one has to rely on informal cooperation. If it rains on one side of the village and not on the other, the pooling of bullocks and implements becomes necessary to conserve precious moisture. The pooling of resources is a logical necessity in nature-dominated regions because the cost of individual maintenance of inventories would be very high, given the uncertainty in the environment.

The empowerment process in nature dominated communities in vulnerable regions is quite different from those in market-dependent, low risk environments. In the former, it is knowledge and culture-based, while in the latter, it is material resource-based empowerment that may work.

The four A's of the eco-institutional model:
If we know what type of access conditions exists vis-a-vis market resources in a given situation ...
and the distribution of abilities among various groups ...
the types of assurances(horizontal and vertical) required to generate sustainable resources can be predicted. The ensuing attitudes are the result and outcome of the experiences with resource utilization, and provide a cultural basis of institutional working.

All four A's (access, abilities, assurances and attitudes) in a system level intervention must be satisfied for it to be sustainable. The advantage of this framework is that is if we know any two dimensions, we can speculate about the third ... Culture is the glue that holds the triangle of access, ability and assurance together. The empowerment of people cannot take place unless their access to resources, technology, institutions, etc. ... the assurances available to them from formal and informal institutions ... and the skills and abilities to convert access into investments or outputs are synchronized in a culturally adapted manner.

Resource Regenerating Institutions:
Empowerment through value addition is a concept that may help in generating sustainable market supported solutions ... SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) have already collected more than 1200 innovative practices - predominantly from the dry regions [of India] - proving that the [local] disadvantaged people may lack financial and economic resources, but they are very rich in knowledge resources ... Out of 114 plant derived drugs, more than 70% are used for the same purpose for which the local people discovered their use. This proves that basic research linking cause and effect had been done successfully by the local people in the majority of the cases. Modern science and technology could therefore supplement the efforts of these people, by improving the efficiency of the extraction of the active ingredients, or by synthesizing analogs of the same, thereby improving effectiveness.

The question with which we began this paper still stands: How do we ensure that poor people do not become more dependent on the process of development, instead of becoming more autonomous? How do we avoid their performance becoming contingent upon "external clappers"? We submit that far too much attention has been given to the role of external change agents and far too little to the endogenous trigger of change, creativity and innovation.

[Reminder from Essem]:
This contribution is only an extract. Please read the full article for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.]
Comment # 1: Received from
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3. Excerpts from 'Engaging Stakeholders in a Process of Change towards Sustainable Development' by Vangile Titi & Naresh Singh
Chapter Thirteen;  'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 172.
It has been observed that processes of impoverishment are continually being reproduced in developing countries, in particular, through the movement of resources out of these countries to sustain powerholders at national, regional and international levels. The transition towards sustainable development requires building an understanding of impoverishment processes and, out of that understanding, articulating a vision for their reversal.

The vision of a desirable future no doubt includes poverty alleviation and sustainable development. While disempowered and, therefore, impoverished communities constitute the basic entry points for empowerment strategies, it is important to extend the vision of empowerment to national governments which are seen to be progressively disempowered by macro/micro policy adjustment programs over which they appear to have no capacity to exercise control. Action for empowerment has been ongoing within communities around issues of 

  • access to resources and entitlements,
  • capacity building,
  • the nurturing of leadership, and
  • local initiative and institutional development;
A strategic need has been identified to articulate approaches aimed at forging alliances between communities and other stakeholders, to enable them to tackle legal and constitutional reforms, reform of financial institutions, and access to and dissemination of information.

Two major conduits of empowerment have been identified as education (or learning) and processes aimed at incremental institutional change.

The objective of education has been acknowledged as going beyond literacy and numeracy. Education is a fundamental tool in the transition towards sustainable development with its potential to empower the poor through the reduction of inequalities in the size and distribution of income and the increase in the productivity and earnings of the poor. There is a general perception that education is in crisis globally, and that the crisis is not purely economic. Many systems of education in current use are seen to support and re-inforce non-sustainable development models; hence the criticism that education represents a "shaky vehicle for the structural changes needed in the socio-economic and political spheres which are crucial in enabling the poor to participate in their own development". The global centralization of of the definition of education by UNESCO and the interests of the Bretton Woods Institutions (i.e. World Bank and IMF) and others to keep it so, present major challenges for the restructuring of education.

The idea of rediscovering local knowledge systems which may help redefine, social, economic and ecological viability of education seems to go against this trend toward globalization by emphasizing the decentering of power, control and knowledge. The need to structure education in such a way that it

  1. provides basic job-related knowledge and skills, and
  2. encourages a greater understanding of how individual and group action can help combat ecological degradation, promote the process of democratization and foster the ability for critical analysis and problem solving
places new demands on the state to devolve decision-making, fiscal authority and the delivery of services to communities. The issue of access to information coupled with the capacity to translate that information into a resource and a means to access other resources is seen as critical in the whole empowerment process.

Institutional Change:
On institutional change, the thrust is towards the recognition of institutions not as static but as constantly undergoing change towards either sustainable or non-sustainable forms of development. The kinds of changes that are needed require a focus on poverty alleviation and sustainable development - a challenge to the status quo. 

The notion of the state disempowering itself is crucial ... For the process of government self-disempowerment and community empowerment to succeed, the following are required:

  • the ability of the incumbent government to live within its means, 
  • the presence of a political will as a driving force to forge ahead with the process, and
  • putting in place a mechanism to turn over both resources and responsibilities to the communities
The objective of empowering people is not necessarily in conflict with good government. Indeed, a community that is empowered will make less demands on the declining, debt-committed resources of central government. It will work towards reinforcing national progress rather than contributing to its disintegration.

Tentative work has already been started by a number of educators to come to grips with what kind of education is needed to galvanize the transition toward sustainable development. The choice of action on institutional change has to be based on the understanding that institutions, as mediums and outcomes of human interactions, are constantly in the process of change and renewal.

Empowerment for sustainable development requires new and innovative kinds of partnerships based on consensus, given the complex and multidimensiona nature of issues involved. The history of "development" has demonstrated that the top-down approach has neither succeeded in bettering the conditions of the poor, nor has it managed to maintain the levels of affluence experienced by the countries of the North.

Empowerment for sustainable development means giving to people and communities the true capacity to cope with the changing environment, as societies and communities strive to enter the transition towards sustainable patterns of development -

  • the capacity for increased social awareness,
  • higher levels of social economic participation, and
  • the utilization of new insights on ecological processes of change and self-renewal.
These require the strengthening of the meaning and reality of the principles of inclusiveness (i.e. engaging the relevant stakeholders in a process of change), transparency, and accountability which gives legitimacy to any process and decisions reached.

Without the major transformation of institutions at the international level, gains made at national and local levels towards empowerment will not be sustained ... The concept of empowerment embraces the role of human agency, of culture and of spirituality in advancing sustainable development goals.

[Reminder from Essem]:
This contribution is only an extract. Please read the full article for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.]
Comment # 1: Received from
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