Empowerment – a matter of life or death

What’s in a word? In an environment of jargon, cliché and political
correctness the word ’empowerment’ has suffered badly. Let’s stand
back, and elevate it to its proper place: arguably, empowerment is the key concept for people supporting community development.

There are two housing estates on the outskirts of Glasgow: Drumchapel
and Bearsden. In the early nineties, life expectancy in Drumchapel was
10 years less than in neighbouring Bearsden, Glasgow’s richest area (1 – PDF). The Scottish Executive’s website says that the difference today is 11 years (2). Both areas are served by the same health service and the same general hospital (3). So, what is going on?

These statistics illustrate a hyposthesis: the more you control your
own destiny, the healthier you are likely to be. Empowered individuals
are healthier and live longer, the theory goes.

A survey in 2003 (4 – PDF)
established that 16% of Drumchapel working population were unemployed
and a further 14% were permanently sick or disabled. 22% reported some
form of financial difficulty. As an unemployed person, you are less
likely to live in a place of your own choice, and other people are more
likely to be telling you what you can and can’t do. You are more likely
to be stressed and more likely to smoke, drink and take other drugs.

But what about those well-off people in high-paid, high-stress jobs who
may also smoke, drink and take drugs? Interestingly, research amongst
the employed appears to reinforce the empowerment and health
hypothesis. A study of male civil servants showed conclusively that
those in the lower grade jobs (messengers, doorkeepers) had a
three-fold higher mortality rate than men in the highest grade jobs (5).

This status-related risk factor was found to be more significant in
determining death than smoking, high blood pressure, or cholesterol.
None of those studied were living in poverty, and all had access to the
National Health Service.

People in control, in the higher level jobs, ‘the empowered’, were
healthier than the lower grade employees who had things done to them,
who often had skills that were under-utilised, lacked clarity in tasks
they were asked to do and had very little control or idea about what
the future had in store for them.

So, for the individual, empowerment is the biggest gift that can be given: quite literally a matter of life or death.

For me, these principles can be applied at levels beyond the
individual. Unhealthy families, communities or businesses are
characterised by a lack of control over their own destiny. They have
things done to them, they are not in control themselves. Failing
communities usually exist in an environment – physical and non-physical
– not of their own making. The way forward is to empower communities to
take control of their own destiny.

Businesses usually fail because they are unable to manage aspects that
should be under their control. Good business planning, timely access to
information, just-in-time training and relevant, tailored support all
enable businesses to be more in control of their destiny.

So, we use the word ’empowerment’ with pride in the ruralnet|uk mission
statement: To promote social inclusion and reduce deprivation in rural
areas by empowering individuals, families, communities and
businesses so that they able to control their own destinies and fully
engage with society.

1: World Health Day 1996: The Who’s Healthy Cities Programme

2: Building Better Cities: Delivering Growth and Opportunities

3:The myth of welfare dependency by Nicolai Gentchev

4: Drumchapel Social Inclusion Partnership Board, Baseline Study, 2003 Update www.drumchapel.org.uk/downloads/baselineupdate2003.pdf

5: Marmot, Shipley and Rose, 1984 cited by www.workhealth.org/projects/pwhitew.html

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