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The Role of Politics in Community Empowerment

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Principles behind the Methods

Principles behind your appearing apolitical while mobilizing


What we usually know as "politics" focuses on two dimensions of culture: (1) the distribution and use of power, and (2) ideological values about what is wanted. Both of these are important to the mobilizer.

Because the mobilization of communities as a technique of empowering them is, in itself, a political process, politics in its ordinary meaning can be very troublesome to that process. This document explains why that is so, and suggests some general strategy considerations to assist you in developing your own mobilization strategy to ensure that "politics" does not defeat your purpose.

Partisan Politics:

Political process is not a choice; it is a dimension of culture and therefore present wherever there is culture (society).

The forms that the allocation and practice of power take, like political institutions and practices, may differ from society to society, but there is always a political dimension. Although political parties (elected or otherwise) are found in most societies, there may be other institutions for allocating power, and for expressing it. Within any society, different levels (national, regional, community, institution) may have very different forms and practices.

When an individual or a party wields power, that power provides some benefits or perquisites which can easily lead to temptations and addiction (to power). This known tendency is expressed in the proverb (cliché) "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." However it may be expressed, there is a temptation for people in power to take unfair, even illegal, advantage of being in power, and there is a tendency for those in power to want to hang on to that power. As explained in the "Five Factors of Poverty," corruption (dishonesty) is one of the important causes of the continuation of poverty as a social problem.

The desires for maintaining and misusing power, therefore, are among the factors contributing to poverty. Corruption fertilizes poverty. It is not necessarily among the historical causes of poverty, but it maintains, sustains and supports poverty, and must be removed if poverty is to be eliminated. If politics generates corruption, then it generates poverty.

The Political Dimensions of Empowerment:

Empowerment of poor and marginalized communities, the removal (not alleviation) of poverty ─ these are immensely political goals. There are many persons with vested interests who do not want these to happen because they benefit from the overall structure remaining as it is. It is a huge, global struggle. It involves two cultural dimensions, power and values (ideology).

If your work as a mobilizer is to be effective, it will result in a revolutionary political change, the removal of poverty. It is not an easy job, and it will be much thwarted if it gets mixed up in partisan politics. Think! If poverty is removed, then there will not be the global schism of rich versus poor. That has huge political ramifications.

Obviously there will be many rich and powerful groups and individuals who will not wish to see such a result, and have vested interests in stopping your work. These vested interests may disguise themselves by the more bland concept, "resistance to change," or even "preservation of culture."

The work of a mobilizer –the empowerment of low income communities, the democratisation of decision making, the removal of poverty– have important political consequences.

The Reputation of a Mobilizer:

A bad reputation hinders your work. A good reputation is your major asset. Elsewhere in these pages, you will see that you must learn local values and customs, and avoid doing things that alienate you from community members. This is important, for example, in your behaviour and attitudes towards sexual activity. Equally important, it refers to your political image.

A political reputation puts you into a box; it hinders your movements; reduces your options. Once people have decided that you support or belong to a particular political party, they have labelled you, put you in an identification box. They will then pay less attention to you, judge your further actions as belonging to that box, trivialize important moves you make, and reduce your effectiveness as a mobilizer.

It is better to have them unsure of where your political alliances lay; they will pay more attention to you (by being kept guessing) and will be more likely to hear your message of community empowerment. To be effective, the mobilizer must work hard to avoid being identified with any political party, movement, ideology, or label.

A Matter of Strategy:

One element of politics, especially prevalent in countries characterized by representational democracy, is the public clarification of political values.

In practice, speeches by politicians tend to be similar to preaching by pastors. As explained in the mobilization training modules, preaching is not a good method for use by mobilizers. A mobilizer should avoid preaching, whether it is on religious or political values. Preaching hinders empowerment.

The training on these pages can not dictate your strategy to you. It can only provide you with skills, methods and principles for you to design your own personal mobilization strategy.

There are also some negative consequences even of being closely associated with politicians. See Politicians. When you walk through the farmyard of politics, watch where you put your feet. You might step in something that you would rather avoid.

The Techniques of Mobilization:

Think about social change for a moment. Development is social change; so is community empowerment. In sociology, we learn that change in any one of the six dimensions of society and culture will soon lead to changes in all the other five dimensions.

Just to remind us of the six dimensions of culture and society:


In the nineteenth century, Marx suggested that the bottom two changed independently, and caused changes in the top four. Later Max Veber said that the top two changed and caused changes in the bottom four. Today we know that social change is much more complex, but that changes in any of them cause changes in all the others.

Generally, if you are interested in introducing changes into a society (or community) it is easier to introduce changes in the technological dimension. For most people, changes in technology appear to be more innocent than changes in values, beliefs, or patterns of interacting. That is why, in training new mobilizers, or as a mobilizer explaining your purpose and method to community members, it is wisest to emphasize that you are introducing new techniques. Techniques belong to the technological dimension of culture and society.

Do not advertise that you are interested in the demise of poverty; that implies values that people might fear. The techniques are part of the arsenal on the war against poverty. Mobilization techniques. Avoid theory; emphasize technique.


While it is useful for you to understand the principles behind the techniques of mobilizing communities to empower them, including the political principles, it is important for you not to preach those principles, or even to make their discussion any part of your public work.

While empowerment is a macro political process and has important political consequences, it is important, as a matter of strategy for your work as a mobilizer, to avoid being associated with any overt politics.


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© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2011.09.27

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