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Robert Bortner

Mr. Bortner is the founder and executive director of the Community Empowerment Network and the president ofAcumen International, a consultancy that works around the world to promote sustainable social and economic development by using information and communication technologies. Bob is skilled in international business management strategy, technology access and utilization, and has expertise in cross-cultural people skills and database design. He has managed multidisciplinary teams and projects addressing the macro/policy level, as well as the individual and community level, for more than 25 years. Many of these projects and teams have applied renewable energies and ICT as tools for individuals and communities to generate income, as well as to meet other development objectives, including education, health and governance. Initiatives have included the design and implementation of a program that provides hard and soft skills development, and access to capital and domestic and international markets for a range of nontraditional products. Bob’s cross-cultural skills have been honed by a lifetime of living and working in many regions of the world, including North and Latin America, Western Europe, Israel, Southern Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

Bob coordinated several projects for Greenstar Corporation in South Africa and Brazil. He has helped to establish the business case for programs in the village of Kgautswane, Limpopo Province. He has also helped to lead Greenstar participation in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. He continues to advise the community on a variety of development efforts. Bob has also assisted with the utilization of information technology in a number of development efforts, including Tarahaat in India, Fundação Pensamento Digital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Digital Partners in the U.S. His previous business experience includes work as a corporate account representative for headquarters sales at Microsoft Corporation. He ran a virtual team based in Redmond, Washington, that was responsible for developing customer satisfaction, identifying customers' IT needs, and contract negotiation. Bob's team was responsible for managing and implementing a marketing program targeted at converting influential Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect users and their work groups to Microsoft Word and Excel, working closely with more than 300 channel partners to build their business development skills, marketing and sales resources and to engage in corporate accounts. He also worked in enterprise and channel sales as territory manager for small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. Great Lakes District, and was also responsible for anti-piracy efforts for the headquarters district.

Previously, Bob pursued market development and distribution opportunities for a variety of products, including computer software, as an independent consultant in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. He successfully developed a distribution network in Puerto Rico, and researched and co-authored studies involving the utilization of satellite telecenters in the Dominican Republic. He was also involved with the management of the petrochemical project task force with Trinidad while working for the Puerto Rico Economic Development Administration as an industrial promotions officer. He was primarily responsible for generating U.S., Far East and European investment in a five-nation Caribbean territory and managing the relationship between those countries and the Puerto Rican government. This work generated more than $300 million of investment in Trinidad and Barbados in a two-year period. Bob oversaw and managed all aspects of participation by four Puerto Rican government agencies and 10 exhibitors in international trade shows in Trinidad. He also researched and implemented countertrade exchange in Brazil for International Trade and Investments, Chicago, which involved identifying target products and locating and negotiating with U.S. buyers and Brazilian suppliers.

He worked closely with top management from the pharmaceutical, chemical, electronics and metallurgy industries, among others, to promote investment sites and expedite relocation. Key investors included General Electric, Schering-Plough, Mobil, GTE, ICI, and Matsushita. Bob met regularly with key government officials in the region, including the chief minister of the British Virgin Islands and the former secretary of state of Puerto Rico. These efforts resulted in more than 20 projects, which were together worth $500 million.

Bob received a master’s degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Building self-reliance doesn't happen overnight. Until now, CEN has primarily focused on creating the tools for building a strong foundation for development by strengthening the basic skills and habits of a small group of participants in three communities in the Brazilian Amazon. We are addressing one of the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms.

Over the past couple of years, our work has resulted in sustainable change in the communities where work. Here are some examples:

Water faucet with soap With CEN's assistance, the Rural Family Home (CFR) has raised over 82 percent of the cost of the Rural Family Home Artesian Well Project, which has allowed the school to excavate a well and install a pump and a water storage tank. Hopefully the funds we raise through the end of the year will allow the CFR to finish the entire project! We're getting so close. Watch our short video on the artesian well project >>
Meeting about community radio 150 Residents of Suruacá have become increasingly self-reliant in addressing the many daily and long-term challenges they face. For many years, we've combatted the learned helplessness that has affected the community for generations by mentoring residents and strengthening their soft skills. Rather than simply resigning themselves to their fate or holding their hands out to others to fix their problems for them, they’ve learned how to grapple with the challenges themselves.
Larissas Grocery 150 Entrepreneurship throughout the community of Suruacá is also exploding with scores of new microbusinesses taking root where few existed. Read more about the recent progress in Suruacá >>
Banco da Mulher Assembly 150 The regional women’s group, which once provided valuable technical training and microfinancing to hundreds of women entrepreneurs in nearly 50 communities throughout the middle Amazon, has shaken off years of near-paralysis. This is thanks in part to CEN's efforts in helping to hold the first meeting of members of the Banco da Mulher in over five years and presenting our findings and recommendations on the microfinance program. Read more about the Banco da Mulher’s progress >>
Clariss at computer 150x150 Thanks to CEN's ongoing coaching and some limited financial support – as well as a healthy dose of the residents’ own ingenuity – the residents of Suruacá have prevailed in furnishing the electricity required to double the number of laptops available in the community’s school and power a freezer, which enables the school to provide students with lunches that have improved the quality of child nutrition in the area. Through CEN’s strategy of support through mentorship in creative problem-solving, CEN has fostered greater self-reliance and strengthened the community’s capacity to solve problems on its own. Read more about how the school achieved its goals >>


We need your help to maintain our momentum!

CEN needs to raise less than $1,700 by the end of the year to finish the CFR's well – and we can do it!

There are two simple ways to help this holiday season:


Making a donation on our website. Every dollar we raise through the end of the year on the website will go toward completing the well.

donate to Global Challenge


Using endruralpoverty.org/amazon when you shop for gifts on Amazon.com throughout the holiday season and Amazon will pay CEN a percentage of your purchases at no additional cost to you. (please bookmark this link)

CEN Amazon.com Link


With your help, the Rural Family Home will be able to offer thousands of youth in the region a promising future!

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During my latest visit to Brazil a few months ago, I visited Suruacá, one of the first communities where CEN started work over 10 years ago and one of the host communities for the cCLEAR Proof of Concept Project where we developed and tested our signature PRATICAR Learning Approach.

brazil projects tapajos webThe community of approximately 600 residents is located about five hours by boat from the city of Santarém, along the western shore of the Tapajós River. Although it is not as well-known as the Amazon River, the Tapajós is still very impressive. During much of the year it is over 30 kilometers (approximately 18 miles) wide, and even during the dry season when I last visited, it was still about 25 kilometers wide.

On the boat ride to Suruacá, I noticed a number of changes. First, the crew members, who all hailed from Suruacá, were better organized than they had been in the past. I noticed little things such as following a standard process of writing down the names of all the passengers as soon as they arrived, and issuing tickets for lunch. As a result, loading and unloading went more smoothly, and the new system cut down on people not paying for lunch or possibly even for the trip itself. It used to be pretty easy to skip on board without paying. I also noticed differences in the passengers: Most were dressed better and looked better nourished than they had looked in the past, and some children were playing with toys. All this pointed to a rising standard of living, which was confirmed when I arrived in the community.

As I climbed up the path from the river shore and entered the community, I was struck by the number of houses that had extensions. Several years ago, the federal government built basic houses for all residents to replace their substandard wooden houses. Each new house was constructed from bricks and had two bedrooms, a kitchen, an indoor bathroom and a tiled roof. In many ways they are an improvement, but they were not designed for the heat of the forest, so they can become quite hot inside. Many people have either expanded their houses or built on top using more traditional wood and palm thatch, which helps to keep the temperature cooler inside. A lot of the houses have nicely tiled floors now too.

As I roamed around the community catching up with old friends, I learned about other new developments, including numerous new businesses that have sprouted up. For instance, Djalma and his wife, Magarete, both participants in CEN’s projects, continue to build upon the micro-businesses they started. Djalma started selling phone cards after the local cellphone provider put up an antenna in the community. Magarete’s bakery is still doing well. Now they are both dreaming of expanding by building a lunch counter, which would be the community’s first restaurant. Other small businesses that now serve the community include a grocery store – the first true store in the community1, hair salons, as well as those run by artisans who produce handicrafts such as clothes, pillows and baskets. This is a huge development because when I first started visiting the community 12 years ago, there was not a single true business.

As impressive as these developments are, perhaps the most exciting change I witnessed was the residents’ new focus on exploring and addressing their problems, rather than simply resigning themselves to the many limitations they face, as was the case when CEN started visiting the community, and is still prevalent throughout the rest of the region. Today there is a growing awareness and confidence among residents that they do not need to rely on others to solve the problems they face.

For instance, Djalma’s and Magarete’s dream of starting a restaurant has been hampered by a lack of electricity. Instead of depending upon electrical appliances such as toasters, stoves and blenders, which are typically used in restaurants in cities, Djalma built a propane stove and oven out of bricks, which they will be able to use when there is no electricity. When electricity is available, he can use the appliances, which are much cheaper and easier to operate.

Larissa Grocery with caption

Another powerful example is how Larissa Sousa, the owner of the community’s grocery store, met the community’s need for frozen meat and cold beer (and yes, if you ask me it’s a need in the Amazon heat!), despite having no more than a couple of hours of power from the community generator each day, which isn’t enough to keep food and ice frozen. Although community members have lamented for years their inability to store ice or keep things cool, including storing medicines at the community health center, the problem was never solved.

Undeterred, Larissa met with energy specialists in Santarém to discuss her options. Consequently, she decided to install a solar energy system with enough batteries to power just the freezer for several days if the weather becomes overcast. Although the system cost a considerable amount, she recouped her investment in less than six months by selling meat, ice, and cold beverages.

Over the course of my visit, I was pleased to discover that nearly every participant in our proof of concept project continues to create or sell some product, even if it’s not necessarily the same one that they started with during the project. Even more impressive is the number of their family members and neighbors who have learned from them. For example, Rosivania, who produced clothing during the proof of concept project, is now fashioning decorative pillows. Her mother, who had learned to weave baskets years ago but gave up, became inspired by her daughter and has now started again. She has been selling baskets to neighbors as well as in Santarém when she or a family member goes into town. Our participants have become change agents for the community.

While it would be disingenuous for CEN to claim the entire credit for these gains, our focus on strengthening soft skills and continued mentoring in the community have made an important contribution to the transformation of the community. Our work would not be possible without your support, and I truly appreciate it.

There have been a couple of small stands that sold a few groceries in the past, but they rarely had more than a few items – and were rarely open. This is a real store.

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Earlier this week I arrived home after a successful month long visit to Brazil. As I unpack and unwind a bit, I’d like to share some of the highlights from the trip. As you read my report, keep in mind that CEN’s focus isn’t to just give money for the projects, but to help support communities’ own efforts to achieve specific objectives. The initial strategies they come up with don’t always work out because situation changes, there are unforeseen obstacles, inadequate execution, or because of poor planning. CEN’s goal is to help the communities – and their leaders – become more flexible, creative and more self-reliant so they can solve problems on their own. Our goal is to break their dependency on others to solve their problem. Here’s how two current community-led initiatives are faring:

Suruacá School Electrification

EixoForteFeb13tourElise250 520d5f558befbThe original objectives of the project were to double the number of laptops (from 5 to 10) available for students and faculty to use, and power a freezer so the school could store the food needed to provide nutrition lunches to students. The community’s initial strategy was to double the size of the existing solar (photovoltaic) electricity system. Since the project began however, their five batteries failed due to age and harsh environmental conditions. Batteries, which only last about four years in the heat and humidity of the climate, cost about US$1100 – and need to be replaced about every 4 years. This recurring cost significantly increased the financial scope of the project. In the face of these developments, here’s what they’ve done so far:

  • They've purchased a larger power inverter for only about $200, which now allows them to power 9 laptop – at least when the sun is shining. Since teachers and students mostly need to access computers and the internet during the day, this is usually adequate, except on overcast and rainy days when the system isn’t able to generate enough electricity. (During the rainy season, it can remain cloudy for days on end). The community also runs their community generator for 2 hours most evenings now though, which gives the laptops an opportunity to recharge in the evening. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a big improvement.
  • When I arrived on this visit, the teachers and students could only access the Internet by plugging directly into a modem in the office. To allow multiple teachers and staff to access laptops from within classrooms, CEN purchased a new modem and router for the school. Although the router and model will only work when there’s electricity (and hence not on rainy days), the community is exploring other options to address this.
  • As for the freezer, the school secured support from the municipality to provide 50 liters of fuel each month. This amount is enough to power the freezer for three hours in the morning and three in the evening for 3 weeks each month. The fuel keeps the freezer at the perfect temperature so the meat purchased in Santarem doesn't thaw, a requirement to qualify for a grant from the government to purchase the food to provide school lunches. Although they still can’t offer school lunches to students for about 1 ½ weeks each month, it does represent significant progress towards their objective.
  • While at the school, I also sat down with the secretary to explore options for raising money needed to purchase fuel for the rest of the month. One idea discussed involved selling food during the many community held soccer matches. We also tossed around the idea of holding a bake or rummage sale, where the entire community would assume joint responsibility to support the effort.

By encouraging problem solving and resourcefulness through ongoing coaching, as well as strategic use of limited financial support, CEN helped the community accomplish most of their initial objectives - at a far lower cost than initially budgeted.

Rural Family Home Artesian Well

CFR Santarem 131242 2 300x190The primary original objective of this project was to provide water to the school and host community for drinking, and irrigation for the program’s horticulture program. So far:

  • They school dug the well, purchased and installed the pump, and installed some of the piping needed to deliver the water.
  • They still need to build the water tower, purchase a new water tank because the one they had secured was damaged, and to connect the system to a central water main.
  • CEN has provided approximately USD$1165, which enabled the CFR to raise a similar amount of additional resources from other sources. Today they only need about USD$3800 more to finish the project.
  • With the assistance of our partner, Eunice Sena, the CFR has submitted a proposal to a Brazilian government program to make significant improvement to the schools building.

Again, by encouraging problem solving and resourcefulness through ongoing coaching, as well as strategic use of limited financial support, CEN helped the community accomplish most of their initial objectives at a lower cost than initially estimated. These cost reductions were a result of the CFRs staff using CENs financial contributions to secure more local support on their own. The dollar’s appreciation against the Brazilian Real als helped our dollar-based donations go even further.

Banco da Mulher Rotating Savings Fund


Voting at the Banco da Mulher AssemblyThe Banco da Mulher provided critical training and start up capitol to women for a period of several year ending in 2009. Several members are still operating their businesses and countless others continue to apply what they learned from their experience in many other positive ways. As one of the few such programs in the entire region, it offers a powerful model for other community organizations interested in fostering the micro-entrepreneurship of their members. In order to stimulate this, CEN has been evaluating and documenting the program so that other organizations in the region learn from its successes and challenges.

While In Brazil, I helped our partner, Eunice Sena, organize and participate in the first meeting of the fund’s membership since 2008. About 22 members (out of 60 total) attended the meeting, during which I presented a summary our research findings and evaluation of the fund. Members also discussed the future of the program. Camila Hana, another volunteer here at CEN, and I will incorporate participant feedback and new information obtained during the visit to make edits to our latest draft the report. We will try to finish a final report in Portuguese by February, with an English translation approximately 6 weeks later.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to these successes either through their hard work or financial support!

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Posted by on in General

Regina Crocheting web

I woke up this morning to a beautiful day here in the Pacific Northwest, one certainly befitting the specialness of this day - Mother’s Day. We are creatures of habit aren’t we, and so across the country at this very moment I’m guessing families are gathering, phone calls are being placed (did you call your mother?), flowers are adorning tables, brunch is being arranged and children’s artwork is being held up for loving inspection.

Like most days as I sip my morning coffee my mind will drift to Brazil, wondering how things are with the families we’ve served there. On this special day I’ll take extra time to think about the mothers of Suruacá, mothers like Regina Souza. As far as moms go, she really is a special one. That’s her in the picture. Wow, what a smile. Her four kids were nearby when we took this picture and I know they know how special she is. Regina thinks she is special too, thanks in part to the work you’ve enabled us to do in her community.

Regina was a participant in cCLEAR, our program that provided skills training which participants can then successfully apply to a range of community development priorities. That’s a lot of words for a simple concept. Through the program we assisted Regina, and many others in the community to strengthen core basic skills that they are now applying to build economic security for themselves and their families.

Through the program, Regina became more persistent, self-disciplined, motivated – and much more self confident. As a result of her enhanced sense of empowerment she taught herself how to crochet and sew, and launched her own independent needlework business. Her designs and instincts regarding fashion and function have positioned her for success and she shared with our team a while back the joy she gets from earning her own money and helping to make a better life for her family.

Regina 7 10 1 053 web

Not only has the extra income Regina earned from her needlework allowed her and husband to improve her family’s nutrition and general health, but Regina has also become a powerful role model for her kids and her neighbors by demonstrating that they too have the power within themselves to improve their own lives.

The support donors like you have provided enabled us to build the cCLEAR program and empower moms like Regina to become more self-reliant break the cycle of poverty. On behalf of the mother’s of Suruacá, their children, husbands and loved ones we say simply - Thank You.

Now go call your mom, or if you are a mom yourself, settle back into bed…breakfast should be arriving any moment now.


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Children in front of kitchen in SuruacaTen years ago a German organization funded the construction of a kitchen for the women of the tiny Amazonian community of Suruacá to make and sell doces (sweets) from local seasonal fruit, generating income for themselves and their families. About a year later, CEN Director Bob Bortner met with the women’s group to learn why the facility was not being used. The group explained that although they were trained on how to make a variety ofdoces, they were not shown how to sell them. Instead of taking the initiative to come up with a plan to turn a profit of their own or speaking with others who have had success in similar pursuits, the women of Suruacá were holding off on using the kitchen until someone with power and authority would determine how they should make and sell the treats. The impact of the project, which had initially appeared to be a success, turned out to be ineffective because it could not be sustained.

As Pulitzer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg said, "(Sustainability) is important to donors, who don't want to see their money wasted. It's important to the groups that do the work: No project is successful unless it's taken over by local people to run. And it's most crucial to villagers themselves, who grow cynical about promises after they see project after project inaugurated only to fail." Failed projects feed into the community’s sense of helplessness and powerlessness.

Poverty is powerlessness

Poverty is more than just the lack of income. It is the lack of nutritious meals. It is the lack of clean drinking water. It is the lack of adequate shelter. It is the lack of access to a doctor or medicine. It is the lack of education. It is the lack of opportunity. It is the lack of quality of life. It is the lack of a future. According to the World Bank, poverty is powerlessness, and a lack of representation and freedom.1

John Friedmann, widely regarded as among the most authoritative living planning writers on sustainable international development, argues that poverty should be seen not merely in material terms, but as social, political and psychological powerlessness. He presents the case for empowering the poor in their own communities and mobilizing them for political and economic participation on a wider scale. Unless people have an active role in directing their own destinies, long-term progress will not be achieved.2 “The poor must take part in meeting their own needs. To do so, they must acquire the means to do this.”3


“(Sustainability) is important to donors, who don’t want to see their money wasted. It’s important to the groups that do the work. No project is successful unless it’s taken over by local people to run. And it’s most crucial to villagers themselves, who grow cynical about promises after they see project after project inaugurated only to fail”

Tina Rosenberg

Pulitzer Prize winner


Learned helplessness is a mindset in which an individual has learned to believe that he or she is helpless in a particular situation — that he or she has no control over the situation and that anything he or she does will be futile. They feel powerless to control their future, so they just accept their current situation, no matter how unfavorable it happens to be.

The term "learned helplessness" suggests that a person has learned to feel helpless and think in self-defeating ways. In other words, the person has been taught that nothing he or she can do will make a difference, that he or she can do nothing right, that others know better, and that he or she has little or no power and control over either his or her own life or external events.
Unlike actual helplessness, powerlessness implies that a person does indeed have power over outcomes, but in a particular circumstance, has lost that power. Powerlessness can be overcome by building self-reliance.

Building self-reliance through strengthened soft skills and mindsets

Achieving self-reliance requires more than just overcoming the sense of powerlessness. Self-reliance also requires individuals and their communities to possess certain actual skills and mindsets that strengthen their capacity to assume responsibility for addressing the economic, social and environmental problems they face.

Higher-level skills are generally technical skills that can be taught and, most importantly, applied in a concrete way. They're measurable and are related to an area of expertise, such as bookkeeping, sewing and filing. Soft skills can be described as the ability to apply hard skills to actual situations. Mindsets, or habits of the mind, are when people adopt a deeper quality of learning and thinking. Although it's possible to learn higher-level skills without mastering basic skills, in the long run, the lack of basic skills and self-reliant mindsets catches up and interferes with the continuous practice of the higher-level skills.

For instance, a person could be very proficient in bookkeeping, but without critically thinking about what the numbers in the books mean, or without the discipline to maintain the books, he or she could be seriously inaccurate. Similarly, while an entrepreneur might learn how to establish prices, he or she won't be able to do so effectively unless he or she possesses the discipline to keep track of expenses, production levels, and sales.


Soft Skills for Self-Reliance

Accuracy/Precision/ Attention to Detail









Critical Thinking


Through our decade of work in community development, CEN has identified the 10 soft skills and mindsets (please see sidebar) that help overcome the sense of powerlessness and bolster the self-reliance of individuals and their communities. Additionally, these basic skills and mindsets strengthen the capacity of communities to address many of the economic, social and environmental problems they face, as well as form a firm foundation for applying higher-level skills that are typically addressed by development programs.

Strong basic skills, mindsets and the habits — as well as the behaviors that are associated with them — are critical for communities and their residents in addressing the economic, social and environmental problems they face. As in the case of the women’s group mentioned earlier, many community development projects worldwide have collapsed after the outside project team departed because local community members lacked the basic skills and mindsets to keep the project operating on their own. In many cases this has been because they felt dependent upon others outside their community to fix a broken pump or plug a budget shortfall, due to undeveloped critical thinking, problem-solving skills, as well as failure to believe in their own capabilities. As a result, the projects are not sustained.

If community members decide that they can't do a task, or perhaps they don't feel worthy, they may give up. While training and resources, such as money and equipment, might give the community members some additional confidence, they'll often give up when they hit an obstacle that they don't feel equipped for. On the other hand, if they are given the same situation when they have confident and disciplined mindsets, they will not be discouraged by difficult tasks and will likely arrive at several solutions.

Individuals and communities frequently have many resources available to them, but are unable to harness these resources for their own long-term benefit. Youth mentorship, microcredit, workforce and entrepreneurship development programs, for example, offer opportunities to many individuals; however, without attention to detail, discipline, persistence, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, or motivation and self-confidence, they will not derive full benefit from these opportunities.

Self-reliance is essential to long-term, sustainable development

Self-reliance is defined by independence. It is the ability to think and act without the help or influence of others, the ability to decide what you should be or do. Dependency, on the other hand, is the act of relying on others to make decisions on your behalf. Learned helplessness and the sense of powerlessness that results from dependency are learned behaviors that must be reversed before an individual can become self-reliant.

A self-reliant individual has the ability and motivation to recognize and take advantage of opportunities and solve problems without relying on others. The program in Suruacá, for example, did not progress after the women were trained to make their treats because they lacked the skills and mindsets to market their treats without outside assistance. Had the project developed greater self-reliance as well, the initiative may have had a greater lasting impact.

Self-reliance is critical for sustainable community, regional and national development. Sustainable development requires the full support of the community and the participation of ordinary people at the local level. The ability to manage resources sustainably on the local level is essential for ensuring that gains are maintained long after a project is over. A higher measure of self-reliance also allows communities and their residents greater grassroots participation, and develops the capacity to address many of the economic, social and environmental problems they face.

Furthermore, self-reliance is vital for residents to successfully govern their own lives and economies. When residents rely too heavily on outside influences, even supposedly benevolent players such as government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, they relinquish control of their resources and more importantly, their future. They allow others to make decisions that are not always in the best interest of these communities.

Empowering citizens to create and pursue opportunities, as well as overcome the obstacles they face through increased self-reliance, breaks the cycle of poverty and is essential for long-term, sustainable development.


1 Poverty. N.p., 2011. Web. 8 Mar 2012.
Friedman, John. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992. 102. Print.
3 Ibid
Ghai, Dharam Ghai and Jessica M. Vivian. Grassroots Environmental Action: People's Participation in Sustainable Development. Routledge, 1992. 13.

Related articles

Our Approach to Development
What is Empowerment?
Disempowerment is at the core of poverty

©(c) 2015 Bob Bortner
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