Towards a better definition of ‘agency’

Malik Aabid and Prachi Singhal

‘These solar lights you brought are great, but we would have preferred solar-run coolers instead. You sit in an AC car, so you wouldn’t realise that in this extreme heat, it’s not the non-availability of continually run lighting solutions which is our pressing problem, but the unbearably hot living conditions.’

This seemingly oblivious remark made by one of the recipients of the Access to Energy aid program one summery afternoon is one of the simplest expressions of a highly abstract term called self-agency.

Commonly, the agency is understood as a person’s ability to make a free, informed choice about their own welfare. By ‘agency’ we mean the ability to act, that is when individuals have the power to make their own decisions and solve their own problems without any external constraints or influence. It also means the ability to identify goals or make choices and then act upon them. In the context of social development, agency is a multi-dimensional theoretical concept that often gets inaccurately mixed up with concepts such as empowerment, capacity building, training, collectivisation, and so on. While these terms are interconnected, it is important to treat them separately from each other.

A collective form of agency encompasses the following:

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The tensions in philanthropy’s agenda for transformation

Anna Hirsch-Holland