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Accepted Paper:

What is 'local agency'? Questioning how power and agency are conceptualised in political analysis and development practice.  


Clare Cummings (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

Power is often described in relation to conflict but this is not particularly helpful in understanding processes of collaboration and inclusive development. Conceptualising power as productive could be more useful for understanding how actors can overcome collective action problems.

Paper long abstract:

The rise of political settlements analysis placed politics on a pedestal in development studies. Development partners have responded and a new era of 'politically-smart, locally-led' or 'thinking and working politically' development practices are emerging. Amidst this sea-change, Hudson and Leftwich's (2012) paper was a significant call to reject a reductive economic analysis of politics and pay greater attention to actors' agency. Yet, what 'agency' is and how 'power' should be conceptualised is contested. How development practice approaches these concepts is significant for how 'locally-led' programming is unrolled.

The term 'agency' is sometimes confused with 'power'. While all actors have agency, not all actors have power (Booth, 2014). Calls for greater attention to agency seem to be asking researchers and practitioners to consider the power of local actors. However, the concept of power needs careful consideration. In political settlements analysis, power is a zero-sum concept. Development is viewed as a conflictual process in which actors compete in pursuit of their interests and those with the greatest 'holding power' reap the greatest rewards.

However, research from the Effective States and Inclusive Development research centre and the Developmental Leadership Program points to the importance of coalitions in driving inclusive development. The narrow view of power as conflict is not helpful in explaining these changes. Expanding the concept of power so that power relations can be productive and collaborative, not just competitive is important for understanding how coalitions are formed and inclusive development occurs.

Panel P53b
Rethinking Power in Development Practice: understanding 'local agency' II