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Power shift in the poverty net

D. Murali

EVEN AS politicians hanker after power universally, regulators ask for toothy power while allowing their old tools to rust, people lament about power-tariffs that always tend to climb, courts and dictators debate the power-equations in a neighbouring country, and businessmen gauge the purchasing power of consumers in the marketplace, the World Bank has launched a new Web site on empowerment.

Empowerment, according to the site, is "the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives." To empower is to give somebody power or authority, a sense of confidence or self-esteem.

The term empowerment has different meanings in different social and political contexts, and does not translate easily into all languages, concedes the Bank. Empowerment is associated with a horde of other things such as self-reliance, choice, life of dignity in accordance with one's values, capable of fighting for one's rights, independence, own decision making, being free, awakening, and capability. It is not only an individual's concern but also of groups.

Choice, a key ingredient of empowerment, increases one's authority and control over the resources and life's decisions but, sadly, poor people's choices are extremely limited. The core `power' in any empowered person draws its strength from assets that give one an edge in negotiating better terms with institutions. Those who lack assets lack power too.

The Bank's PovertyNet speaks of four elements of empowerment — access to information, inclusion and participation, accountability and local organisational capacity. "Most investment projects and institutional reform projects, whether at the community level or at the national or global level, underestimate the need for information and under-invest in information disclosure and dissemination," rues the Bank. Importantly, people need to be informed about rules and rights, state and private sector performance, and so on. One reason why the very people who vote governments to power are denied relevant and timely information is because information is power. Elected representatives choose often to operate behind opaque veils to guard their interests, because informed citizens could pose a threat of competition in accessing opportunities and services, wish to exercise their rights, and hold economic actors accountable.

There is a danger that `participation' can become a lip service. Vested interests threatened by including the poor in decision-making may make a sham of the exercise by holding "endless public meetings without any impact on policy or resource decisions" and making participation "yet another cost imposed on poor people without any returns".

While the last element, that is, organisational capacity is too obvious (because power lies in group action and it, therefore, makes sense for smaller clusters to network to bargain for better terms), the Bank is forceful about `accountability'. It refers to "the ability to call public officials, private employers or service providers to account, requiring that they be answerable for their policies, actions and use of funds."

Sounds great, because accountability is the one lever that can shift control and power. How nice it would be if professional accountants — seasoned in the study of numbers and legislation — acted as catalysts in this sphere.

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