Ethical empowerment

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Empowerment of local communities is a valid and ethical means to re-distribute wealth.


What is ethical empowerment?

This question is not as straight forward and it would appear and in order to answer it is necessary to understand the meaning assigned to the words “ethical” and “empowerment”. If we take the dictionary meaning of the words, “ethical” refers to that which is morally right whilst empowerment, refer to authorizing or giving of power!

My personal understanding of the issue of ethical empowerment is that of enabling people or giving people the tools to deal with day to day life challenges. It is also about dignity and sustainability. I have drawn on research I carried out on “Community Involvement” whilst at University, as well as personal experiences in my attempt to answer this question.

I find that it is useful to understand how power works as well as how it operates in certain localities. There are different concepts of power, which try to explain how power is held, and by whom, within society but the one that I like best is put forward by Taylor M 2003 in her book on public policy. She puts forward power as an elitist concept/theory and according to this theory power lies in the system or establishment. Power is held by corporations, privileged groups and professionals because of their wealth, knowledge and cultural conditioning, which give them, access to politicians and thereby their ability to influence decisions in society.

Furthermore that they are individuals in the community that are powerless and unable to exercise choice in the market economy and therefore do not have the means to exit due to their lack of material and personal resources. This leads to exclusion of individuals from amongst other things the decision making process.

The notion of empowerment implies that someone with power gives it over to some without power (Staples 1990 cited by Hart et al 1997). However, this assumes that the powerful are willing to lose control of decision-making and thereby the intended outcomes of decision-making.

Empowerment in the developing world

The big question here is how this applies to the developing world. Do we see them as powerless helpless people? If so, why, where is their evidence for our assertions?

I agree that there is an imbalance in power as it relates to trade agreements. It would appear that these are weighted in favour of the developed world. We have all heard of subsidies to farmers in the West and the “dumping” of excess of Sugar, flour etc on the developing world markets.

I remember attending an event and happened to sit next to a guy from the Fair Trade organisation. I asked him how the female producers at Ethnic supplies could go about registering with Fair Trade. He looked me in the eye and told me that Textile and handicrafts are not included. I asked him why and did he realise that he was possibly excluding two thirds of the world’s population from the opportunity of earning a fair wage for their hard work?

These women are not hopeless, or useless, they are not looking for handouts either. They work hard with the little they have to make ends meet and require market access for their products on equal terms as the rest of the population

The need for ethical empowerment

Ethical empowerment is about dignity, sustainability as well as giving people the tools to deal with day to day challenges in their lives we should certainly agree that there is a need for ethical empowerment.

When I think about dignity I also think about that which is morally right leading me to ask these following questions.

  • Is it morally right that people should go hungry or be subjected to life of poverty and disease, because by accident of birth they were born in Asia, South America Africa or Eastern Europe?
  • Can the rest of us live with us ourselves/turn a blind eye to the issues that we perceive as unjust? Are we committed to doing the right thing and do we know what the right thing to do is?
  • We each have a differing view and the answer to these questions maybe tied in with the choices that we make daily.

I would however argue that we cannot sustain individuals or whole economies through handouts, there is no dignity in it nor is it sustainable due to demands on resources. As such ethical empowerment is required so that people learn/acquire the skills to manage day to day life challenges, identified by the community in question. This not only ensures sustainability but ensures ownership of issues/projects leading to enduring success.

Things that need to be kept in mind

  • People in developing communities are not there to be “done things to” this means that if you want to start any projects the community must be involved or take ownership of the project for it to be successful.
  • Partnership working is crucial.
  • Respect the cultures of the community within which you intend to work, wherever possible involve the community leaders. That said ensure that they represent the wishes of the rest of the community .
  • Good will goes along way.
  • Identity and work with the skills in any given community and only bring in outsiders where necessary.
  • Do not promise anything that is not in your gift to give or unable to deliver, especially money.

Ethnic Supplies

My aims Ethnic Supplies aims are to promote economic and social development of East African women involved in handicraft and textile production by enabling them to bring their products to the market. We work very closely with the producers to ensure that they create the very best handmade and ethically produced African handicrafts and fashion accessories created using natural materials and methods. The women we work with are almost always excluded from any form of employment and this is their only source of income, therefore buying the products provides valuable income to these women.

We identify our producers through a referral system, and before we begin working with them a company representative visits them to assess the integrity and the work of the groups concerned. The purchase prices are determined by the women we work with as they are best placed to decide the value of the effort that they put into the work that they produce

The start

In December 2006 I went home to Uganda for Christmas and whilst there I was invited to New Year’s eve party in South West Uganda. I had never been to this part of Uganda and found it difficult to reconcile the beauty of that part of the country with the poverty – I resolved to do something on my return to the UK.

I quit my job as Housing Manager for a London council with a view to do something about the whole situation I had witnessed in South West Uganda. The result is Ethnic Supplies, an online business selling a range of products made by poverty-stricken women’s groups from Uganda as well as Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar. Items include costume jewellery, mats, bags and silk scarves; all made by hand using natural materials and traditional methods.

I was unsure how best to go about it setting up a business and whilst searching for help on the internet I came across the Business Link website. I rang them up and told them what I was trying to do. They explained they offered one-to-one sessions with advisers for complete beginners like me. I made an appointment at my local centre in Woking, went in and everything has followed on from there. My Business Link adviser was able to articulate the ideas that I had and the whole process has been incredibly helpful.

Ethnic Supplies was launched in October and now helps suppliers such as Hand Products of Tanzania (HOT) which is made up of women from Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda some of whom have disabilities or are affected by HIV/AIDS. By the end of the year I had managed to get one of the line of bags into Exeter museum in Devon and I working hard to get into other outlets/gift shops.

What I'm doing is providing a market for these goods as the women don’t have anywhere to sell them apart from the odd tourist and clearly this is not enough to sustain them and their families. It is also a more dignified and sustainable way out of poverty.


  • Taylor M (2003): Public Policy in the Community: Palgrave Macmillan England
  • Hoggett P (1997) Contested Communities: The Policy Press Bristol

Additional Infomration

  • For further information, visit