Self Reliance, Hip Hop, Resistance and Weapons of the Weak: do we need to rethink Empowerment?

A 3 day conference at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) inevitably makes you dig deep and question your assumptions, and last week’s gathering of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme was no exception.

This time, presentations from Myanmar and Mozambique set me off. In Myanmar the researchers had expected to find communities opting between ethnic and state authorities, but found instead that many are intent on avoiding both – i.e. they are seeking self reliance. Trust is local, built on ethnicity, past experience (eg of individuals’ behaviour) and familiarity.

So say a community or a family succeeds in being left alone and managing on their own. Does that constitute empowerment? And what does that mean for accountability? It feels like our notions of Empowerment and Accountability (E&A) have somehow shrunk to looking at and valuing only what goes on in the public sphere – protests, voting, holding the state or other institutions to account.

In Mozambique some fascinating research into hip hop artists found that calling it ‘protest’ music misses a lot of what is going on. Their analysis of lyrics by ‘Refila Boy’ (blog to follow), and conversations with a range of musicians, identified issues like the value of catharsis; ridiculing and destroying deference to authority as well as complaining about daily problems like stirring up protests on corruption.

Again, our understanding of E&A seems to only privilege stuff that happens in the public sphere. Calling the president ‘shorty’ in a song lyric, and having people sing along, is not seen as important in itself, only as a way to mobilize them.

From the sludge banks of memory, I dredged up a book I read a long time ago – James C Scott’s ‘Weapons of the Weak’ (1985) and his later book Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1992). Based on two years of field research in a Malaysian village, Scott identified ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance, the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage.’ In the later book he developed his thinking on ‘hidden transcripts’ – ‘ a secret discourse that represents a critique of power spoken behind the backs of the dominant.’

My fear is that we have somehow lost that understanding, and allowed E&A to become synonymous with what are effectively ‘weapons of the strong’ – public acts such as voting, violence, public statements, lobbying and so on.

But in conflict-affected places, this seems a huge mistake – there, public opposition and action is all too likely to backfire, putting lives at risk. Isn’t it time to rethink empowerment and accountability, and the relationship between them? Surely feeling less scared, more defiant is itself a form of empowerment, and enhanced wellbeing, even if nothing else follows in its wake? We talk about ‘power within’ largely in terms of it being a necessary first step to public action, but shouldn’t we accept it as an end in itself, and think harder about the role of secrecy and resistance?

but is it empowerment?

Amartya Sen described development as the expansion of the freedoms to be and to do – a broad concept that would definitely include changes in the private world inside people’s heads. I think we need to make our understanding of empowerment equally comprehensive.

I’m even more confused about what all this means for our understanding of accountability. From Egypt we heard of nurses arguing effectively that E&A are in opposition: demanding accountability of doctors and patients in cases of sexual harassment of nurses would, in their view, undo efforts to establish nursing as a reputable job in the public eye.

John Gaventa listed the theories of accountability as covering access to Information; the rule of law; voting and the

social contract between states and citizens. None of those relate to private spaces, so does that mean we should separate empowerment and accountability altogether? Or think harder about private sphere accountability, eg in the household, or in the mind (am I being true to my values in thought and action?)

Discussions then touched on the potential downsides to a shift in this direction: is talking about the value of self reliance merely romanticising/accepting a survival strategy born of a lack of options? Accepting a status quo that is already full of inequality and violence? Is humour really liberating, or does it merely release the pressure for change through the kind of gallows humour that always flourishes under repression?

Not sure if this makes much sense, but I clearly have some processing to do – any advice appreciated!

And here’s a Refila Boy video as a reward for getting this far:


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6 Responses to “Self Reliance, Hip Hop, Resistance and Weapons of the Weak: do we need to rethink Empowerment?”
  1. Good one Duncan.Way to go.Indeed societies with large, active and young demography has a very distinct notions of justice and equality as well as notions of future, besides the how aspiration is internalised. The last 8 years in India and also during my visits in East Asia and Africa(Southern)I noted this. While facilitating a major campaign on health in South Africa, I noted the volunteers, men and women- had no reference to the Anti- Apartheid struggle at all. Similarly, in South India- young women both urban and rural-I saw a distinct sense of confidence and assertion( besides Education ) as well as articulation of dreams for the present and the future-very different to the experiences I had in the 80s.

  2. Geoff

    Empowerment kind of assumes that people don’t have power in the first place and that their empowerment is dependent on something or someone. But we know that doesn’t hold. Resistance as a concept is grounded in the idea that all people have dignity, and when they experience violence or oppression then they will resist or respond to violence in order to uphold their dignity. Resistance can include overt acts such as open force or covert actions or thoughts that may be invisible to bystanders. Yet those small acts of resistance are meaningful and important. The slaves have been pissing in the soup for thousands of years and it’s a beautiful thing.

    But we can’t understand why someone resists the way they do unless we understand the context in which the violence occurs and the social responses that people anticipate and receive. Social responses are important because how people respond can be helpful or harmful. You are not going to piss in the soup if you mate is going to tell the boss.

    Check out the work of Dr Linda Coates and Dr Allan Wade from the center of response based practice and this video of Dr Wade at a recent event in

  3. In terms of sites of gaining, claiming and negotiating power, I still love the Rao & Kelleher (2010) gendered domains of change framework I discovered through Batliwala/AWID (2012). It shows the formal sites of power and influence (policies, laws, budgets as well as access to resources, opportunities) but also informal and that all of these institutions including markets and households are gendered. For informal, I think of elders, artists, social media, norms and narratives. What I like most about it is the reminder that these sites are interrelated for good and for bad. And that “agency” or “empowerment” requires this overlap. Cue- Gaventa/Veneklasen/Miller power analysis here. A spiral of self-organizing out from the centre from small groups to movements. That it’s a long term game.

    In volunteer circles in North America, I’m hearing the word “co-powering” more than the word “empowerment.” I like it much better. I get what it means. I still use the phrase “women’s economic empowerment” in my work in spite of the fact that none of these words really get at what happens in reality.

  4. Laura Ahearn

    Anthropologists have produced some excellent work on the complexities of “resistance” and “empowerment,” and feminist scholars have called into question the public/private dichotomy. Much of this would be relevant to the issues you’ve raised here, Duncan.

  5. Really good points about the potential dangers of defining empowerment solely through an accountability framework rather than thinking about other configurations. From the State of the World’s Volunteerism research (with 1500 participants across 15 communities) what communities valued most about voluntary action was the ability of ordinary people to self-organize for self-reliance. True, this was partly possibly reactive as it was most pronounced in the most marginalized communities where other forms of support were lacking, but there was a very strong agency component that was not solely defined in relation to interacting/engaging with wider actors.

  6. Jane Lonsdale

    To add, what does accountability within a self-reliant community look like, accepting that there are inequalities and power at play in the running of a community? If we worked on micro level governance, how do we then scale out instead of scaling up? If we supported empowerment of communities on their terms, focus on power within, living without fear, and including trauma healing in conflicted affected places, before focusing on any engagement with higher level authorities (of whatever form), would that then put communities in a stronger position to demand if and when they wanted to? Thanks for the blog, its made my report back to the Myanmar office much easier 😉