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 They have been replaced by a range of dominant perspectives – mostly 'new institutionalisms' of various kinds – that, whatever their other failings, do not have this particular weakness.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.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

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

'All the good things are going out' (Todas cosas buenas estan yendo a fuera)

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 first part of my trip.

Over the course of the first two years of research, we have gathered a substantial amount of pictures from the research sites. As such during my visit in Bolivia, along with the team we decided to organise an informal meeting in the periphery of Cochabamba with some of the participants to show them pictures of the other sites, the people whom, like them, we disturb year after year asking the same old boring and obvious questions.

Part of what I enjoy about my role in this project, is the fact that I have both a general view of the overall trends, and at the same time I have access to the infinite number of anecdotes and stories that help make sense of some of those trends.

For example, in 2012, we found out that the sharp rise in coffee prices since 2008 has had deep cultural impacts in one of our research sites in Ethiopia. Indeed, prior to the shock, it was customary for people to make coffee with doors and windows open and for passers by to stop for a cup of brew before carrying on. Today, high and volatile coffee prices mean that for many it is no longer possible to make coffee every day, let alone every week, so now many doors and windows are closed. This has impacts on the wider social relations within the community our partners are working in.

When I told this story to the people who had gathered around the old ping-pong table used for most community meetings, the response was immediate: 'It’s like quinoa here!'

Quinoa, which contains almost double the amount of protein as rice has seen its popularity soar over the past few year (The UN has even named 2013 International Quinoa Year!). The unsurprising flipside of this increase in ‘global’ (although, it’s more global north, than global global) demand is that domestic prices have risen sharply, pricing out the local population.

One man explained that at the local women’s refuge, quinoa used to be on the menu at least once a week but has now been replaced by other –cheaper- cereals. Similarly, talking about her children, one woman explained ‘Before I could give them nutritious things like cereals, but not anymore’.

One after the other, the people who had gathered that night started telling stories of how their food habits were changing, starting with the disappearance of quinoa and moving on to other subjects.
A selection of seasonings

'We’re filling our bellies, but not feeding ourselves. This is not alimentation.', said one.

'When potatoes are expensive, I cook without potatoes. But what can you cook without potatoes?', added another.

'Cochabamba use to be the "grain attic" (granero) of Bolivia. We had wholegrain foods. Wholegrain bread stays in your belly for hours, in a way that white bread simply doesn’t', was one man’s reflection.

Of course this isn’t just about supply and demand. There are other complex factors at play, not least climate change and changing tastes. In fact, one woman compared changing food habits and the fact that more and more people prefer white wheat bread to roasted cereals (despite Bolivia importing 90 per cent of its wheat) because it is seen as more ‘sophisticated’, to young people not wanting to dress’ indigenous’.

In the past two years, we picked up on several stories relating to changes in food habits, food safety and quality. For that reason, this year the central theme is ‘fast foods and fake foods’. When we started, we assumed that the theme wouldn’t always make sense to people, that worries about the quality of food, hygiene and processed foods were an inherently middle-class thing. But sitting there in Kami, it became clear that people from the urban and the rural area alike had a lot to say about that. All knew about chemicals, bad oils, hygiene, what they should and what they shouldn’t eat. And interestingly to me, there was no way not to frame all of this as part of a wider, global context.

Talking about the global context, the only quinoa I ate during the trip was in a tiny cereal bar provided by the airline on my flight out of the country.

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.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Do you want to learn how to design a rigorous impact evaluation?

Over the last 10 years I have worked on the evaluation of development programmes and seen how the use of evidence-based policy making in international development has evolved. In March 2013 I ran the first Impact Evaluation Design short course at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the response was overwhelming! The course held the following year was equally successful and I’m delighted to announce that the course will run again next year from 20 April to 24 April 2015.

Participants’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. This year’s evaluations highlighted, for example:

‘The superb quality of all facilitators… quantity of examples and resources. Learning the difference between experimental quasi-experimental designs as well as the group presentation on these themes..’

‘The course has been insightful in improving my understanding of IE and assist in determining which areas to apply it on and when.’

‘My course objectives were excellently met as it gave me a lot of input to the planned IE. The mixed methods concepts is very valuable.’

And IDS Alumni Ashley Kuchanny attended the course and has written eloquently about how she is applying the knowledge and experience gained in her work with Children on the Edge.  

About the Impact Evaluation Design short course
The course is particularly targeted at researchers, managers, and practitioners of development. The focus is on how to design a rigorous impact evaluation in a developing country. This includes things like theory of change, experiments and quasi-experiments, and sampling. My expertise is in quantitative methods and I will be joined by Professor Robert Chambers (IDS) and Dee Jupp who are experts in qualitative approaches. They will illustrate the use of old and new qualitative evaluation techniques such as reality checks. The goal is to design an evaluation that incorporates the best of qualitative and quantitative research.


So if you’re interested in learning more about Impact Evaluation design, take a look at our short course web page.

Finally, we’re glad to announce that three bursaries will be offered for participants from low income countries, two from the International Initiative for Evaluation 3(ie) and one from IDS. As you can imagine demand for these limited places is very high!

About the author
Edoardo Masset is a research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and is leading the Impact Evaluation Design short course.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Food riots and food rights: reflections from researchers on the front line

Over the last two years IDS has been leading a research project exploring the causes and consequences of food-related riots and right-to-food movements in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique. In this blog researchers working on the Food Riots and Food Rights project share some of their experiences from the field.

We asked for wheat and got bullets instead

Shreya Bhattacharya, India: 'Gom chayite gechilam, gooli khelaam' (We went to ask for wheat and got bullets instead). For me, the Food Riots and Food Rights study is summed up in this quote from one of the action-takers in a village in West Bengal, India where rioting for food took place. It’s a state where political consciousness is ingrained among everyone, where food is not just a question of survival, but is seen as an important entitlement.

The field work experience was really insightful in terms of class and gender dynamics especially in one of the villages where rioting happened. After spending almost a whole day in the rioting village, and having numerous discussions with people, we were directed to the action-takers who had taken part in the riots, with a wary eye from representatives of political parties. The articulation of villagers on macro- economic issues like monopoly in agriculture, high inflation and it’s links to the power corridor (even from a high school student) was another aspect that stood out. Overall, being part of this study reinforced my personal belief in the strength of mobilisation and in people’s movements, which alone can lead to building a just society.

Power of listening

Muhammad Ashikur Rahman, Bangladesh: The Food Riots and Food Rights project was my first ever research involvement. I was excited by the topic, and once I looked through the methodology, I became even more interested. I came across some new and intriguing methods to obtain inputs for the research that helped me rethink academic approaches to social research.  The ‘Listening Post’, in particular attracted my attention as, I think, it was new for almost all of us. I personally enjoyed listening to the people talk about issues that were relevant to them without probing them with pre-determined questions.

Direct impact on citizen action

Noble Khan, Bangladesh: In my personal experience, I have encountered few research projects that have direct and immediate impact on their area of concern. Interestingly, I discovered a direct impact of our Food Riots and Food Rights project on market operations in Gaibandha, one of our sites of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh. After our discussions with people selling goods in a Haat (local market) of Gaibandha in the second phase of this project (discussions that we personally found immensely engaging and insightful) we discovered that due to our presence and discussion with people in the first phase over popular mobilisation and protest against market mismanagement and domination of Ijaradar (who take lease of the market), Ijaradars reduced tax imposed on every goods and commodity sold in the market. The fact that there was strong organisation amongst the sellers in the market also meant that they were able to pressurise Ijaradars more effectively to take steps to reduce selling tax. This direct and visible change produced through our project fieldwork has been very interesting to me, even if it was not consciously intended or planned.

Realities of patriarchy

Khobair Hossain, Bangladesh: On 13 July 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, we held a focus group discussion with female garment workers who were activists, at Jamgora Asuliya in Savar, Dhaka. The discussion started off with them citing some almost unbelievable realities. But when we moved to the section of the interview about their collective mobilisation against the garment authority, one of their husbands began to shout from the room. At the sound of his shouting, men from other rooms came out to us and commanded their wives to stop the discussion. The women obediently stood up to leave the session. The aggressive behaviour of the men scared us somewhat. However, after we had a calm discussion with the husbands, which went on for at least 15 minutes, they agreed to allow their wives to continue the session. This was a grim reminder for us about the realities and operations of patriarchy in the household that continue to lie behind the militant protests by women garment workers that we admired in the photos and videos shown my the media.

When the mafureira grows upside down? Beer and Riots

Michael Godot Sambo, Mozambique: During the exciting fieldwork time, I had the opportunity to interview many people from different ages in three neighbourhoods. I heard many interesting stories and interpretations about the riots and a multiplicity of contested facts emerged. One of the most striking refrains frequently repeated by people of almost all ages, regarded an advertisement for cheap beer entitled "trĂªs cem" (the advert offered three beers for 100MT, approximately U$3,30). The chorus came in different tones and facial expressions with a big question mark: 'Why is it that the beer price is always falling, whereas food, food which is our necessity, the price is always rising?! Why?", they asked.

The beautiful and heart-breaking poetic explanation given to me by a old shoemaker about this scenario still rings clear in my mind. The shoe-maker had seen a massive decline in his status and earnings over the last few years. He now lives off the meagre earnings he gathers from his shoe-polishing bench in his neighbourhood. He claimed that this neighbourhood, which was one of the first residential sites in the capital's periphery, is one from which a number of current government officials emerged and some still have family members residing there. After a long and friendly conversation, where the shoemaker continuously meditatively nodded his head, he exclaimed in disbelief 'Chamankulo (the neighbourhood's name) means the bathing place for big people!" And he laughed grimly and said: "it's only for you to see that the mafureira (local fruit tree) is now growing upside down'. I could only nod my head in agreement.

Navigating media spin

Bonface Oduor, Kenya: I was in charge of developing the political event catalogue, which was a difficult process, as archives of newspapers were not very easily available or well-organised. My analysis of the patterns of media reporting on food mobilisations strongly affirmed the presence of media bias when it comes to reporting activities of food protest. Reports were typically biased in such a way that instead of reporting on the issues raised by the protesters, they tended to spin the protest and the stories in a way that aligned them with or sold a particular ideological narrative. Very often, food related protests were completely ignored. The political events catalogue gives a very limited and distorted idea of the extent of mobilisations around food.