The current popularity of the term empowerment in development coincides with recent questioning of the efficacy of central planning and the role of .the state., and moves by donor governments and multilateral funding agencies to embrace NGOs as partners in development. Political and institutional problems have gained prominence on the development agenda with a focus on human rights, good governance and participation. (Razavi and Miller, 1995).

Recent UN conferences have advocated that women’s empowerment is central to development. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Agenda 21 mentions women’s advancement and empowerment in decision-making, including women’s participation in .national and international ecosystem management and control of environment degradation. as a key area for sustainable development (quoted in Wee and Heyzer, 1995). The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, discussed the population issue not just as a technical, demographic problem, but as a choice that women should be empowered to take within the context of their health and reproductive rights. The Copenhagen Declaration of the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD), called for the recognition that empowering people, particularly women, to strengthen their own capacities is a main objective of development, and that empowerment requires the full participation of people in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of decisions determining the functioning and well-being of societies. The Report of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women called its Platform for Action .an agenda for women’s empowerment. Meaning that .the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities. (UN, 1995).

The empowerment approach to women in development offers a number of attractions for development agencies over the other approaches. Because its origins are often stated as being from the South, it may appeal to Northern development institutions who wish to avoid charges of cultural imperialism, especially in relation to gender policies. The bottom-up characterization of the empowerment approach can be regarded as more in tune with the growing interest in participatory forms of development. Current enthusiasm for NGOs, for .bottom up development and for empowerment, from both advocates within development organisations and from outside activists, can also be understood as a reaction to the frustrating experience of attempts to institutionalise gender in mainstream development policies and programmes (Razavi and Miller, 1995). The empowerment approach which has its origins in feminist and third world organisations emphasises the collective (.power with.) dimensions of empowerment.