Making Meaning of Empowerment and Development in Rural Malawi—International Individualism Meets Local Communalism

Authors

  • Johanna Sofia Adolfsson
  • Sigrun Marie Moss

Abstract

Empowerment is a prominent concept in psychology, and for decades, it has been a key term in global development policy, theory, and practice. However, in line with similar turns toward individualism in psychology, the prevalent understanding of the concept centers on individual capacity to change circumstances, with less focus on empowerment as a context-dependent or communal approach. In this article, adopting decolonial feminist psychology as a lens, we analyze how rural Malawians make meaning of the overarching empowerment and development approach of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in their villages, and how they perceive the approaches as fitting with local contexts. When development implementers largely ignore Malawi’s communal lifestyle, individualized empowerment initiatives can lead to individual and communal disempowerment and distress. Given psychology’s large influence on other arenas, and psychology’s implication with the individualized gender-development-empowerment nexus, we argue that it is imperative to explore the effects and experiences of this empowerment approach in different contexts. A more context-appropriate understanding of empowerment—as with most other psychological concepts—is needed.

Author Biography

Johanna Sofia Adolfsson, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

Empowerment is a prominent concept in psychology, and for decades, it has been a key term in global development policy, theory, and practice. However, in line with similar turns toward individualism in psychology, the prevalent understanding of the concept centers on individual capacity to change circumstances, with less focus on empowerment as a context-dependent or communal approach. In this article, adopting decolonial feminist psychology as a lens, we analyze how rural Malawians make meaning of the overarching empowerment and development approach of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in their villages, and how they perceive the approaches as fitting with local contexts. When development implementers largely ignore Malawi’s communal lifestyle, individualized empowerment initiatives can lead to individual and communal disempowerment and distress. Given psychology’s large influence on other arenas, and psychology’s implication with the individualized gender-development-empowerment nexus, we argue that it is imperative to explore the effects and experiences of this empowerment approach in different contexts. A more context-appropriate understanding of empowerment—as with most other psychological concepts—is needed.