In social sciences, the word ‘agency’ refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make own choice. This is one of the guiding principles for people working in the social development sector, where they are perceived as individuals possessing and displaying ‘agency’ or ‘free will’ and not as ‘resources’ meant to be used for the achievement of a goal. How we understand human beings will define the way we perceive and approach the process of social change.
The concept of ‘agency’ presupposes involvement of the beneficiaries in all stages of the change process that runs across needs assessment, problem identification, solutioning, implementation of solutions and the evaluation of outputs, outcome and impact. It encompasses within itself a healthy respect for traditional knowledge and wisdom of the target beneficiaries along with the skills and abilities of the other stakeholders including development professionals.
Now imagine an individual working in such a development organisation and being consistently driven to adopt more inclusive and community-centred processes. While she would be working closely with the community in all aspects of her work, taking their views into consideration, driving them to be part of a sustainable solution, there is a fairly good chance that she would be experiencing a very different kind of culture within the organisation she works in.
A lot of our current wisdom in building and running social organisations comes from the business management space. There is immense focus on and respect for standardisation, structure, process and policy definitions, top-down strategy definitions and goal-setting, manager-led performance reviews, tight control on leaves and holidays, fairly strict and at times rigid work timings etc. These are design factors that have worked well in building strong, performance-driven, efficient corporate organisations and once we start looking at large-scale work, supported by bigger and geographically spread out teams, then the importance, criticality and respect for these principles increases manifold.
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But spare a thought for the individual who has to deal with this cultural dichotomy on a daily basis—an external stakeholder driven outlook and process based on the concept of agency, trust, respect and group accountability versus an internal culture driven by the principles of structure, individual monitoring (reflecting a lack of faith), lack of autonomy, all-encompassing rules etc. (Structure, by definition, refers to those factors which limit or inhibit agency!). We are demanding a certain work ethos outside which is not being supported by what she experiences internally. How then do we expect the person to believe in those principles and live them in earnest through their work?
We need to experiment, research, learn from practice and develop organisation design and culture building principles that are more suitable for the development sector and that help resolve this dichotomous existence for the development professional, while contributing to build strong, robust social organisations based on the principles of trust, dignity and accountability that can deliver sustainable social impact at scale.
The author is co-founder, Indian School of Development Management, Delhi