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:

  • Empowerment: concerned with the processes by which people become aware of their own interests and how these interests interconnect with those of others.
  • Capabilities: referring to people’s ability to achieve various ways of being and doing which they have reason to value.
  • Power: the means and capacity to exercise free and well-informed choices.

Thus, when it comes to supporting someone’s agency, other commonly used terms such as ‘empowerment’, ‘capacity building, and so on fall under the larger purview of agency building, but they do not necessarily mean agency unless they are working in tandem. While sustainable growth focuses more on the outcomes and impact on beneficiaries’ lives because of the intervention, empowerment places the power of a beneficiary’s development in someone else’s hands, making it seem like there is a transfer of power. In contrast, ‘agency’ asserts that each individual possesses an inherent power: the power to express themselves, the ability to oppose unfair power distribution, the ability to challenge systemic inequalities, and the ability to fight for their rights.

Where does this phenomenon of a person (in the philanthropy’s case, the final recipient of an aid) being able to freely express their needs and having a role in designing/choosing the solutions/interventions meant for them lie in a philanthropy-driven social impact system? Do our philanthropic models understand and centre the receiver’s agency? These are some of the questions we set out to answer in our research. We are grateful for the support provided by the Center for Social Impact and Philanthropy, at Ashoka University. We interviewed some 20 key stakeholders encompassing donor organisations, intermediaries, on-ground organisations, and end beneficiaries themselves on what agency means to them and how they incorporate it into their work.

Here are the summarised findings from the answers.

On the question of what ‘agency’ means

To a lot of interviewees, agency was directly linked to the capacity and will of the beneficiaries to bring a change. As an interviewee who works in the field of livelihood says, Agency is about having the capacity and confidence to be able to use the abilities you have in a way that will help not just the person to grow, but also the community to make significant changes.Individual agency morphed into a form of collective agency toward improving a community or system. To them, agency is the ability to direct your confidence and ability towards the progress of your community. Their conceptualisation of agency deals with your own growth, on the one hand, but also focuses your attention on creating changes in your community that benefit everyone. In this collectivisation of individual agencies into community agencies, we observed that it is not the beneficiaries from the community who are leading the change, but the donors’ priorities and perceptions that drive the direction of the change.

Interestingly, an individual’s means to express their opinions and views formed a considerable part of our interviewee’s perception of agency. An organisation that works on mobilising peasants and workers to access their government rights said that to them agency means ‘allowing people to have a voice in participatory governance.’ However, it remains unclear whether this voice of the beneficiaries can be political or in dissent of the organisations that are working to build their agency. This also raises an important question about the scope and boundaries of agency within the context philanthropic ecosystem.

In ‘As Politics Creep into Philanthropy, Beneficiaries Come Under Fire’, Paul Sullivan argues that organisations that work for the benefit of people are side-lined by donors if they are seen to be involved in ‘political issues’. According to him, the elite class hegemonies produce the narrative of their choice and influence, limiting the voice of others. A fully evolved agency also means having a say in how the country is governed, being able to hold your elected officials accountable, and being able to express your views without fear of retribution. In fact, an interviewee who works for the recognition, defence, promotion, and realisation of human rights believes that agency operates ‘when people have a voice, and they are able to bargain and negotiate with the government better.’

On how donors and on-ground organisations engage (and not) in building the agency of their end beneficiaries

The ability of their beneficiaries to continue thriving and displaying the impact of a donor’s intervention long after the active involvement of the donor has stopped is an important criterion for a donor. Building this ability is often considered to be building the agency of their beneficiaries. Capacity building, training, one-time resource investment, market linkages, providing access, and so on are the commonly used tools to build this resilience.

Among all the interviewees in this study, approximately 80 percent of the organisations did not involve their beneficiaries in any formal decision-making role within their organisation

This self-sustainability is often interchangeably linked with empowerment by both the donors and the on-ground organisations in a way that once an end beneficiary is self-reliant/empowered, they do not need to depend on others. For instance, an interviewee who mobilises farmers and labourers says, ‘We have facilitated movements and campaigns. Our biggest achievement is that 98% of women are panchayat karyakartas who are working on their own. They are empowered to an extent where they don’t seek anyone’s help.’ And while the agency is all about trusting people, empowering them to make decisions, and letting them know that they have the agency to make their own choices in life, building someone’s agency also needs work on providing them with the means to exercise that agency.

Ensuring Self Sustainability

Training and capacity building are important aspects through which organisations can engage in building the agency of people. The emphasis on skill development greatly benefits recipients in terms of not being dependent on anyone. For example, According to one organisation that works with indigenous people to support grassroots conservation and agriculture practices said, ‘We focus a lot on training and capacity building activities. Even if it’s a project that is supporting farmers with seeds or bio input support to be able to help them get back to farming, there is an equally substantial amount of focus that the farmers should get the training that will allow them to sustain these activities locally.’

Involvement in the decision-making process

Having direct decision-making power in matters involving one’s own welfare and that of one’s community is a key element of having agency. It is important to recognise the necessity of the active participation of people/organisations receiving funding in the decision-making process. Among all the interviewees in this study, approximately 80 percent of the organisations did not involve their beneficiaries in any formal decision-making role within their organisation. The remaining 20 per cent used some form of feedback collection mechanisms or hired some beneficiaries or community representatives in their teams.

The organisations that have tried involving their communities at all levels of their operations have usually had success with the model. For instance, an on-the-ground organisation working with indigenous people to support grassroots conservation and agriculture practices said,The way we work is slightly decentralised in terms of operations. We have intervention areas divided into seven ecological zones.  Each of these areas has its own field office and field centres. The field coordinator oversees all the activities and interventions in that area. The entire staff composition right from the senior positions to the volunteers is all the members of the local community. At the local level, all the decisions are made by the local community. We have created community foundations in these indigenous spaces which are governed and run by members of the community.’

However, redistributing power by creating access can often become tokenistic in that beneficiaries, although included in the decision-making process, are still relegated to the lowest levels of the organisational hierarchy. According to a donor with experience investing in youth- and women-focused organisations, A few community organisations have started creating spaces for young people to be on the advisory board. Some philanthropies have been inviting young people to the decision-makers in terms of giving out grants as well. With other organisations, right now it seems more tokenistic. But my concern has always been to move away from being tokenistic to actually handing over power. There are limited organisations where they actually have community people on the board and making funding decisions)’.

Measuring agency as part of the impact assessment (IA) exercise

In recent years there has been considerable improvement in the practice of monitoring and evaluation, most of the metrics used are to measure the impact of the interventions, ignoring questions about what beneficiaries need. Philanthropists erroneously assume that their commercial achievements qualify them to assess and influence judgments in other fields as well, and there is limited research on what happens in the beneficiaries’ lives after the philanthropic support ends once the project cycle is over.

On the other hand, given the ambiguous nature of the concept of agency itself, several organisations expressed difficulty in pinpointing one phenomenon/metric to measure it. Depending on their focus area, they have included exercises such as providing information about rights; organising individuals to come together as ‘one voice’; offering advice or counselling services; creating access/linkage to universal human rights; building means, skills and confidence to take decisions within and outside the household; economic self-reliance, that is, decrease in reliance on loans and independently owned income source; or participating in public/community events as agency-building exercises. These exercises then substitute the measurement of the whole of the beneficiary’s agency whereas even when we consider all these actions, they will only constitute a part of someone’s exercise of agency. Agency, by virtue of its intrinsic nature, cannot be wholly quantified into certain actions or steps.

The modes in which philanthropy is practised are ever evolving. Recently, models such as venture philanthropy, impact investing, and so on, have emerged to create a system of giving from the wealthy (represented by family funds, corporate foundations, individual philanthropists, etc.) to those in need. There is an attempt to break philanthropy from the sentimentality of charity and convert it into a systemic effort required to address global issues. A techno-managerial approach is rapidly becoming the norm for philanthropy to operate, and social entrepreneurs/social ventures (interchangeable terms to denote businesses with a social impact focus) are becoming the preferred drivers of the change.

From healthcare to climate change, local and global philanthropies alike are floating funds and developing extensive programs to support innovations and enterprises which promise to bring sustainable development to people on the ground who serve as end-users for enterprises; and beneficiaries for philanthropies.

Philanthropists erroneously assume that their commercial achievements qualify them to assess and influence judgments in other fields as well, and there is limited research on what happens in the beneficiaries’ lives after the philanthropic support ends once the project cycle is over.

There is a prevailing preference for economic growth over social growth, with an erroneous belief that income increase can by itself bring happiness, prosperity, and equity to people. Funders are moving away from supporting work that requires long-term investment, such as those focused on social justice, capacity building etc. Instead, they are choosing to invest in interventions that prioritise economic outcomes and offer quantifiable impact. However, limited data exists on what happens to these business-focused interventions (often subsidised by grant-in-aid) once the philanthropic project is over. Questions arise, do people still benefit from them, are they able to become independent, or are they trapped in another endless cycle of dependency on external technologies and financing loans?

For any economic growth model to be self-sustainable, the participant’s (receiver in the case of philanthropic exchange) abilities and motivation to participate in the model remain the foundation on which it operates. The gulf that currently exists between philanthropy, beneficiaries’ agency, research, and practice can only be bridged by active and healthy partnerships between donors and receivers. Unless beneficiaries are considered as participants in the development that collectively all of us wish to bring about, their agency cannot be fully realised. They need to be perceived as an equal participant right from designing the theory of change and taking funding decisions to measuring and displaying the success stories. We collected some practical recommendations that could be adopted to place the beneficiary agency at the centre of all our development work, combining intent with action.

Action Points:

 Exposure visits of the funders

Funders need to travel to observe and understand the ground realities of the beneficiaries they aim to impact. The purpose of the trip is not just to assess the impact they have already made, but to understand the impact they still need to create.

Measuring impact qualitatively rather than quantitatively

When funders put a number on everything, an organisation’s effective work on building the inherent capabilities and changes is often overlooked or not recognised at all. A lot of on-ground organisations deal with their funders’ fixation on numbers by cloaking some of their important central work as allied activities or breaking their goal into smaller sub-tasks that can be quantified.

Opening up decision-making avenues

Beneficiaries of philanthropy, more often than not, are unable to openly express their ideas since they are excluded from the decision-making process. The most effective strategy to enable beneficiary agency is to offer funding and tools that allow beneficiaries to make their own decisions.

Allowing failure

It’s important to recognise that recipients are humans who may occasionally fail, disappoint, or not deliver results.  Humanising the philanthropic exchange involves understanding this reality. People will only take bold actions in a culture in which individuals feel safe to fail and attempt new things without fear of judgement or financial consequences.

Patient Capital

The development of new models is challenging, especially those that meet the needs of the world’s poorest people. Patient capital is an indispensable resource that provides a window of opportunity to develop world-changing ideas that can address global challenges and make life better for all.

Treating beneficiaries as humans and not subjects

The onset of a techno-managerial attitude to the development system means that all work is increasingly viewed through the lens of inputs and outputs, with the end beneficiaries seen as subjects upon whom a theory of change is implemented to achieve certain outputs. It’s only these outputs which matter and every discussion revolves around them. This myopic treatment disregards the beneficiaries as wholesome humans with their own desires, agency and brains who might not fit/want the theory of change imposed on them.

Malik Aabid is a postgraduate in Human Rights, with a primary focus on research areas encompassing gender, women’s political agency and social justice.

Prachi Singhal is a 2019-20 Chevening Scholar with an MSc in Public Policy and Management from SOAS, University of London.

Comments (0)

Jasper Wilde

Type 9: The Peacemaker: Friendly and agreeable, they often feel comfortable in peaceful and harmonious environments, avoiding conflict. Each type has enneagram test its own development and positive aspects, but can also have negative aspects when they become obstacles to personal development and relationships.

hill climb racing

Absolutely, acknowledging that recipients are human beings who may occasionally fall short or face challenges is crucial in humanizing the philanthropic exchange. Understanding this reality is key to fostering a culture where individuals feel empowered to take bold actions, knowing they can experiment and innovate without fear of harsh judgment or adverse financial repercussions.

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