Thursday, 11 December 2014

Governance and Development blog will no longer be updated but you can read all the latest opinions from the IDS community on our website

This will be the last post to be published on this blog. The Institute of Development Studies now publishes all our members’ and guest bloggers’ posts directly onto our website.

You can keep up to date with the latest opinion and expert analysis from your favourite development bloggers, comment on and share their posts, by visiting our website, following us on social media or subscribing to updates from the following IDS research and knowledge clusters:


We are sure you will continue to enjoy the conversation.

Best Wishes

The IDS Communications and Engagement Unit

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In defence of agency

The concept of ‘agency’ was recently dismissed on this blog as an "academic affectation" that keeps policymakers and practitioners from "simpler, cleaner and more evidence-based thinking about development options".

Wouldn’t development be so much easier if we could just ignore complex research into the workings of human agency – our ability to think and act to change our conditions and achieve our goals – and reduce it to something that we have either more or less of, depending on our circumstances?

Such a simplified model of human behaviour would no doubt make the work of development professionals easier, but would it really produce more realistic policies and programmes?

The need to understand human agency is at the very heart of good development thinking and practice


While undoubtedly abused and misunderstood by some, "agency" is no less an artefact of academic jargon than notions of being "innovative", "entrepreneurial", "adaptive" or "politically smart" in explaining how people deal with structural realities (as put forward by the blog's author, David Booth). To reduce agency to the exercise of choice, or to being clever enough to make good choices, within limits afforded by structure, rather than recognising it as a part of human nature that can be cultivated and deployed in creative ways to reproduce, resist or reshape structure, is to misread the agency-structure resolution posed by Giddens.

In structuration, agents do not simply make individual choices available to them among the options dictated by structure; they also think and act in ways that either confirm or disconfirm that structure. That is, they act upon the social norms that define what options are currently permissible to them (PDF). This is one of the central lessons that can be drawn from theories and methods of power analysis (PDF) (as opposed to political economy, which often equates agency with choice) and of feminist analyses of gender and women’s empowerment.

Power analysis recognises that agency is often subordinated by ideology, discourse, values, belief systems and social constructs, and that it can be transformed by practices of critical and reflexive awareness (PDF) and freeing of the imagination to envision alternatives (PDF). The outcome of such processes is not ‘more’ or ‘less’ agency, as something actors have more or less of in some inverse relationship to a structurally-defined set of choices.  Rather, it is forms of thinking and action that either reproduce or critically challenge structure, defined for example as "networks of social boundaries that enable or constrain freedom".

This is agency and structuration with a power lens.


Connections between individual agency and collective agency


Feminist scholarship and activism has long recognised and validated these dynamics, revealing the connections between individual agency (power within) and collective agency (power with) as people recognise, reimagine and enact differently the gendered power relations in society (PDF). Such empowerment practices typically iterate between the intimate, private and public spheres of personal and collective experience, ultimately transforming the scope of choice. These processes for example put women’s rights on the table as a legitimate issue, so that they will eventually be taken up in legislation and in individual moments of choice.

Views of women’s empowerment grounded in economics, which emphasise women’s access to resources, their achievements, and their agency understood as the power to make strategic life choices, recognise the structural limits to women’s options posed by the conditions and consequences of choice in the socio-cultural context. Empowerment therefore requires collective solidarity as well as individual assertiveness to act in transformative ways upon those conditions and consequences.

Agency in this view is not something women have more or less of in order to exercise choice; it is action on the field of possible choices.

These understandings and practices, well documented by activists and scholars over many decades, conceptualise agency as more than quota per person, a variable determined by circumstances, or a degree of choice within the options afforded by structure.

Instead agency is manifest in qualities of thought and action – individual and collective – that either reproduce or challenge those very structures. It would be a sad loss if these appreciations of agency’s role in social change were silenced by a "simpler, cleaner and evidence-based" paradigm, and dismissed as "academic affectation" in favour of "innovative, adaptive and entrepreneurial" jargon to explain human behaviour.

Jethro Pettit is a Director of Teaching and Learning at the Institute of Development Studies. He is interested in the use of participatory learning methodologies to create and communicate new knowledge and ways of being, which lead to changes in power relations.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Who cares about child rights governance?

Promoting child rights is what drives all good development programmes for children. One way to institutionalise this, support its positive impact and long-term sustainability, is through that magic word ‘governance’.

So what exactly is Child Rights Governance?

My friends asked me this before I took up a job in the field.

At the time, I didn't know the full answer, so I made something up, based on what I’d learnt from my Masters in Governance and Development at IDS. I said it was about strengthening the institutions that govern societies so that children's rights were better realised. I suggested this would include improving public service delivery for children, especially at the local levels of government that are 'closest to the people'.

Seven months on, I find I my educated guess was more or less correct although the reality of 'child rights governance' is far more complex and nuanced.

Child Rights Governance is like vitamins in fruit: it is one of the most wholesome elements but is mostly invisible to the eye. Its benefits are sometimes equally intangible or unglamourous. Because of this, some people question the value of Child Rights Governance.

Translating Rights into Realities


Nelson Mandela once referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as “that luminous, living document that enshrines the rights of every child, without exception, to a life of dignity and self-fulfillment”. His lyrical description hints at the lofty ideals that brought every member of the UN General Assembly together except two to ratify the Convention in 1989. Twenty-five years on, it is still the most widely and rapidly ratified treaty in history. It also includes a ground-breaking commitment by states to invest in children ‘to the maximum extent of resources available’.

Last week, we celebrated what a grand and visionary treaty the Convention is on its 25th Anniversary. Its 54 articles cover virtually every aspect of a child’s life from infancy through childhood to adolescence. But how much is the right to an education worth if the road to the school is constantly flooded during the monsoon season, preventing children from accessing that right? The state is the primary duty bearer of the rights under the Convention; yet without a commitment to mobilise public resources for child-friendly programmes, child rights mean very little.

This is where Child Rights Governance can add real value. It asks for budgets to be disaggregated to show how allocations benefit children, and then seeks to hold policymakers to account for the promises they make. These transparency and accountability initiatives are what translates rights into realities.

Decentralisation: Not Just for Grown-Ups


Decentralisation is crucial for enabling child-friendly governance at the local level. Localising decision-making processes increases opportunities for everyone, including children, to take part and for government officials to be more responsive to their community’s needs. Together these are believed to lead to better public service delivery and accountability.

The child’s right ‘to express opinions, to have them taken into account and to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives’ (Article 12) reinvigorates this framework. It allows for one of the most practical realisations of the Convention’s revolutionary premise: a child is not just a passive object of care or subject of adult power but a citizen in his or her own right. Children who are capable of forming and expressing their views should have as much opportunity to contribute to their community’s development as adults. This could be through open budget sessions, dialogue with the mayor or other public consultations where they can speak and be heard.

Local government officials are also often the unwitting gatekeepers of child rights. They control budgets that can be used to build parks and playgrounds. They sometimes also hold the power to select families in their communities to benefit from national social protection programmes. Adult advocates can and should lobby for these child rights to be realised. But their advocacy pales in comparison to the power of children raising their voices and trying to claim their rights themselves.

Child Rights Governance can facilitate children’s empowerment by developing their knowledge and confidence for meaningful public participation. Equally, it can sensitise local actors so they are more aware and responsive to children’s needs and rights.

What Is Crucial Isn’t Always Cool


Child Rights Governance isn’t cool. It doesn’t tug at our heartstrings in the way that classic child protection issues like child marriage or child labour do. Nor does it pull the donors’ purse strings like the giants of health and education. It often takes place quietly behind closed doors. This could be at awareness-raising sessions for government officials or capacity building workshops for children. It could also be at high-level meetings with Ministry big wigs about improving investment in children.

But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said – "universal human rights begin in small places, close to the home, where they cannot be seen, and unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Child Rights Governance doesn't have to be cool, but it does need to follow effective frameworks and be fit for the context. For me, personally, my work is also driven by the conviction that the principles of good governance should accommodate and benefit all citizens, including children. I think my MA in Governance and Development at IDS taught me to appreciate these distinctions more than anything.

Suralini Fernando is a lawyer, writer and MA Governance and Development 2012/13 alum. She now works as a child rights advocate in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Against ‘agency’, an academic affectation that does not help development practice

Why do so many, otherwise rational and well-informed, people in our field have such a bee in their bonnets about 'agency’?

To me, slogans like "making space for human agency" and "recognising women’s agency" are attempts to convey some useful messages from social science to the world of development practice. But they do that job badly.

By peppering our prose with "agency", we may make our writing seem more profound. However, this is spurious – an academic affectation, with questionable intellectual credentials, which gets in the way of clear, evidence-based discussion of an important set of real-world issues.

People do not have less agency when they have fewer choices


There was a time when social scientists genuinely needed to make an issue of agency.

That was when sociology and political science were significantly influenced by types of functionalist or structuralist theory that purported to be able to explain human behaviour without any reference to people’s intentions, motives or reasons.

That so-called structure/agency problem was put to bed definitively by Anthony Giddens and others at least thirty years ago. The then mainstream sociological and Marxist functionalisms have now all but disappeared. They have been replaced by a range of dominant perspectives – mostly 'new institutionalisms' of various kinds – that, whatever their other failings, do not have this particular weakness.

A core point in Giddens’ philosophical resolution of the structure/agency problem was that human beings have 'agency' simply by virtue of being human. This is not in conflict with the observation that human behaviour is typically quite structured. It is only in conflict with the notion that structures explain what people do in spite of (rather than by way of) their intentions, motives or reasons – for example, because the social order or the capitalist system has both ‘needs’ and the ability to secure them.

The Giddens position is consistent with ordinary language: agency is the quality that agents have. People do not have less agency when they have few choices (e.g. because they are poor, oppressed or enslaved); they just have fewer choices. Great leaders don’t have more agency than average leaders; they just use their agency differently.

Academic jargon infecting development practice


The notion that agency is something people have more or less of according to circumstances is contrary to both the Giddens solution and ordinary language.

Yet it has become the custom to use the word in exactly that way. In much academic and even practice-oriented writing, agency has become an empirical variable, something that varies inversely with the extent of structural constraint on behaviour – and something researchers and practitioners can appreciate or fail to notice depending on where and how they look.

I am aware that there is a back-story to the academic trend. This is about the way Giddens’ influence was blunted by a stream of less lucid sociological writing while the ink was still fresh on the page. I think it’s a pity that Giddens did almost nothing to defend his corner against this type of critique, then or since, unwisely counting on the sheer power of his argument. Someday, perhaps, someone will have the dedication to tell this story as it should be told. In the meantime, I submit, we should let ordinary language settle the matter.

Unfortunately, the nonsensical, either-or, language of structure and agency is now entrenched in many of the books and journal articles new generations of social scientists are made to read. As advisers to social development and governance programmes, young graduates have carried this into the world of practice.

As a result, the philosophical allure of ‘recognising agency’ is often hard to resist, pushing aside simpler, cleaner and more evidence-based thinking about development options.

Doing development differently


Why is this worth saying now? Because there are some currently rather exciting messages that social science needs to convey to development practice that will get blunted if they get mixed up with ‘agency’.

Often, appeals to "bring back agency" are substantively about recognising the historical roles of visionary, rebellious or entrepreneurial leaders. Or they are about the way the oppressed sometimes decide to exercise the little power they have in courageous, innovative or otherwise unusual ways.

Another valid concern sometimes conveyed in these terms is about complexity and uncertainty in human affairs: because of uncertainty, people may have more choices than they habitually admit, meaning that there is more room for change, and a greater role for ideas, than predicted by prevailing explanations.

These issues about uncertainty – and the implied scope for politically smarter, more adaptive or more entrepreneurial development work – are really important. They are at the heart of the lively debate now going on about doing development differently. The central ideas of this discussion very much need to be communicated to practical people, such as officials in development agencies who exaggerate the extent to which development or governance reforms have to be, and can be, planned, blueprint style.

We need better evidence on the circumstances in which innovative choices can be made by different sorts of individuals and organisations. We need to be capable of explaining clearly how smarter forms of development practice can help discover promising pathways of change. It will be easier to rise to this challenge if we are not encumbered with ‘agency’.


David Booth is a senior research fellow in the Politics and Governance Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), UK.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Fieldwork reflections from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. Part II.

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’, changing food habits in Burkina Faso

As part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, each year I try to visit one or two of the ten research countries, and meet our partners there. This year, at the onset of the third round of research, focusing on how food habits and customs are being influenced by processed foods and foods perceived to be unsafe, I got to go to Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Here are some reflections on the second part of my trip.


In order to understand what is happening to food habits, the national research teams ask a multitude of question pertaining to the way people eat, such as ‘Why and when do you choose to eat out?’. Of course, there are many ways to answer this question. In Burkina Faso, one woman was very direct and didn’t hide her disregard for our silly question: ‘Why do we eat out? Because we want to! Sometimes you feel like having skewers. You could have sardines from a tin at home, but what you want is skewers.’

During a focus group with some youths in Kaya, 100km north-east of Ouagadougou, the discussion got pretty heated. 

In the course of the discussion, one of the men explained that when he can’t afford to pay good tasty food for his family of three, he will just eat out after work and then head home for dinner. The important thing for him was that at least he would be satisfied that day. Better him than no one.

Now, one of the good things about my role in the research is that I have access to the anecdotes and stories from all ten countries. Thanks to that, I knew that in some countries this story could never have been shared without hanging one’s head in shame. There are places where mothers in particular but fathers often as well will go hungry to ensure that their children have enough to eat. However, my ‘friendly observer’ role that day did not allow me to dig deeper and see whether I was the only one in the room to be startled by such an easy statement.

A few minutes later, another of the men explained that the main reason why people (read ‘men’) choose to eat out is because women can’t cook. When prompted further as to why he thought women couldn’t cook, he explained that a lot of women take the money given to them by their husband, but then use some of it to buy fabrics and dresses. In turn this means there isn’t enough money left to buy ingredients that will make a meal tasty. The other two men all agreed and referred to this phenomenon, this divestment of cooking funds, as ‘cutting’.

This time, I couldn’t help it. I very politely asked whether the story that had been shared previously about eating out prior to having dinner at home was also a form of ‘cutting’. As soon, as I asked that question, thereby challenging what had hitherto been an incredibly male-dominated discussion, it’s as if a screen had been shattered. One of the women sat opposite was unstoppable.

‘Do you think anyone can cook a meal with 500CFA? With 1000CFA?’

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’

So yes, let’s talk about that. What goes into a meal in Kaya?

The answer: Maggi cubes or one of the many other food flavour substitutes. A civil servant in her fifties went as far as to say ‘If you don’t put Maggi in your dish no one will even look at it.’

When I asked her and her colleagues why Maggi was so important, and whether their mothers would use Maggi when they were growing up, I was told by one of them that the first time she saw a Maggi cube was after her mum had come back from a trip to France 44 years ago.

And besides, back then with 100CFA you would get enough meat to feed a family.

And that’s exactly the hunch we had when we decided to investigate the emergence of processed foods and flavourings that we saw creep up in all the food photos we got sent in the past two years.

And indeed, there are some other, more concerning, ingredients that people add to their dishes for a wide range of reasons. Adding petrol to your sauce helps it cook faster, which means saving time, and saving firewood. Adding ‘Maggi blanc’ (artificial glutamate, best way to scour off metal) to a soup gives it that extra texture and taste.

These are just some of the examples (extreme I hope) of what people do to deal with food prices which no matter what they look like at the global or macrolevel, on the street still feel like they keep getting higher and higher.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is researcher currently working with Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, a collaborative study between IDS and Oxfam.