Empowering marginalised communities: why and how?

One of the distinctive characteristics identified about Richard Sandbrook was his belief in the latent potential of the underdog - the impact that can be achieved if the disempowered are supported to support themselves and to become changemakers for the better. Achieving sustainable development isn't just about influencing big, important people, or indeed being one yourself.

Transformation: small-scale changes on a large scale

This is a common reflection too running across much of the discourse around the 'history' of sustainable development. For example, as Harriet Lamb describes in her perspective on the Fair Trade movement, the impact of fair trade is very much down to empowering people to make change themselves. That might be empowering small-scale farmers and producers in developing countries, through fair remuneration, to be able to build up their businesses and to develop financial independence and reasonable standards of living. Or it might be helping the ultimate consumers of their products to change their consumption patterns: Harriet emphasises the importance of 'making it easy' for consumers to fair trade produce. The inclination might be there but often you have to help it along.

Influence the followers to influence the leaders

Sara Parkin, in 'Leadership for sustainable development', and Halina Ward, in her narrative about democracy and sustainable development, make the point about the significance of 'ordinary' people in a large crowd. Some politicians may want to make difficult changes for sustainability but sometimes can't if they would simply be voted out of office. Looking the other way round, other politicians, or business leaders, may be forced to take sustainable development issues more seriously when the lack of faith in them mounts up from an increasingly impatient electorate or consumer-base. Without followers, leaders don't exist. Paradoxically, sometimes it's easier to influence the followers than their leaders.

Dedicated efforts to give the marginalised a voice

Empowering the marginalised isn't just about local communities, or minority communities, or electorates, or consumers: it can be about entire nations. Climate change is, stereotypically, an issue caused significantly by developed nations but with the most significant impacts on less developed countries. In 2000, as Camilla Toulmin describes, IIED set up a programme to give Least Developed Countries a voice in climate change talks and to build their capacity as stakeholders around international tables.

Struck by the challenge rural Kenyan women were facing in fulfilling their basic needs, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s. Based on believing in, inspiring and empowering women, GBM has since won successful campaigns for democracy, for land rights, and to help women in 4,000 community groups to transform their own lives.

So you don't have to be a hero to change the world. Maybe you just have to be a bit heroic.

March 2013

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The right to be heard: people claiming their right to a better life
Credit: 
John Ferguson / Oxfam East Africa

Big Questions

Big Question pages are editorials, pulling together common strands, and sometimes different opinions, from across all of the perspectives, timelines and discussions on Sustainable Development Perspectives.

Other big questions

The modern-day sustainable development movement has developed principally over the past 50 years. But forecasts today suggest we don't have that long again to overcome perhaps much bigger challenges. So how can we move fast enough?


The challenges of sustainable development are often huge, inter-connected, comprehensive and fundamental. Some practical steps from authors’ perspectives on getting over the sense of futility and making effective change.


One of the characteristics that almost all sustainable development work has in common is working with a variety of different stakeholders. But multi-stakeholder working is complex and hard work: competing agendas, different ideas, managing egos, maintaining relationships... Why not just do it alone?