When mentioning the word “empowerment”, especially in a politically active country like South Africa, thoughts often turn to gender, race, religion and minorities. People often think of quotas, numbers and requirements instead of thinking about the individuals to which the term pertains. Author Steve Maraboli defines empowerment as “the ability to refine, improve and enhance your life without co-dependency.” This is what empowerment should mean, the ability to be independent, and even more importantly, to be strong. We don’t look at empowerment as catch phrase, we see it as individuals finding the will and power to take control of their own destinies. Article by Carla de Klerk.
In writing an academic piece titled Empowerment, Participation and Social Work, Robert Adams describes the process of empowerment as “The capacity of individuals, groups and/or communities to take control of their circumstances, exercise power and achieve their own goals, and the process by which, individually and collectively, they are able to help themselves and others to maximise the quality of their lives.” In short, that is exactly what MEDO strives to do, enabling people to maximise the quality of their lives, and by default thus influencing those around them to do the same. South Africa is a country with one of the biggest wage gaps in the world, with top CEOs earning about 725 times more than an average worker’s salary. That is a lot of zeros if you were to take on the math. Currently South Africa has an unemployment rate of about 25-30% which is more or less a quarter of the country. If you then also imagine that the top jobs can earn more than 700 times than an average salary of those who are employed, there is clearly a very big and problematic gap forming.
At MEDO, we always say that we don’t focus on the negative, we look for solutions, which is exactly why we take a ground-up approach to economic development that aims to give the individuals we reach the power and responsibility to tackle these above mentioned gaps in their own domains.
Looking at our Space Programme for high school women for example, we don’t give our participants bursaries or promise them job security in the future, we give them the opportunity to attend workshops focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills, which is believed to be where the economy will revolve around in about five years. The biggest comment we receive after a Space Prep workshop, a one day workshop at local high schools on basic electronics and robotics, is that the young women say that they suddenly believe anything is possible, that they really can pursue any of their dreams. With these workshops intensely focused on STEM we do not necessarily want to push them to become engineers, we want them to start thinking of opportunities and thus truly believe that the possibilities are endless. Renowned businessman Rich deVos explains, “The only thing that stands between a person and what they want in life is the will to try it and the faith to believe it is possible.”
After our Space Trek one week bootcamp that saw 15 young women effectively launch small satellites into the atmosphere using weather balloons, the overwhelming response was “I never thought I would ever have been able to do this”. We even had a few girls deciding very sternly to pursue careers in astronomy and work their way up to becoming astronauts. And why not? Yes, Africa may not have a astronaut programme at the moment, but who’s to say one of these bright minds won’t set a range of events in motion to get there? Half of NASA’s newest class of asronauts are women, for the first time in history. Things are busy happening in the world (and of course off it as well) and we need to start thinking long-term, and we believe we are nurturing the changemakers of tomorrow by empowering them with inspiration and confidence. Steve Maraboli explains exactly what it is we are after, “Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”
Economic development has many spheres, factors and requirements, however in all these often academic terms we should never forget about the individuals impacted. As Jon Krakauer says, “It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.” And one should never underestimate the power of strong individuals.