On Agency: Building a human centered approach to development

October 20, 2023
James Walsh and Temina Madon

The Agency Fund invests in tools and services that help people navigate toward a better future. Why? Because over the years, we have observed that some of the most cost-effective social programs expand people’s experience of agency, enabling them to effect positive change in their own lives. 

But what do we mean by ‘agency’? 

Agency describes the capability to formulate goals; understand and navigate our environment; and learn, adapt and maintain resilience as we strive to achieve our ambitions. Albert Bandura, a leading figure in psychology, defined agency as the “power to originate action.” But it is not just about what we do; it is about how we plan, think and feel – how we make sense of the world around us. Agency describes our capacity to make choices and take actions with a sense of purpose. It is our ability to set an objective, and then go about achieving it. 

Agency is invoked in every dimension of life, from mundane decisions like choosing a hairstyle, to more consequential questions like planning a career, or fulfilling a family member’s needs. And exercising agency effectively is key to flourishing – it enables us to build social connections and follow our passions. It is fundamental to meeting our basic needs. 

While all people have agency, it is neither a fixed nor an inherent capability. We learn how to set and calibrate goals for ourselves, both in academic contexts and through life experience. We figure out how to navigate our environment through trial and error, and with support from others. We develop the ability to maintain integrity even as we take on new or challenging tasks. 

The formation of agency begins in early childhood. Our life circumstances present us with opportunities to build and nurture this sense. But such opportunities are not distributed equally. Social exclusion, stigmatization, and economic marginalization, can hamper our ability to nurture agency.

Consider some examples:

A person who experiences social exclusion (on the basis of race, gender, or caste) may internalize the negative stereotypes associated with their identity. The threat of being judged negatively by others violates our basic need for belonging, evoking a complex stress response. As Sherman and Cohen write,  “Like a distracting alarm, psychological threat can also consume mental resources that could otherwise be marshaled for better performance and problem solving.”

A person who experiences the chronic uncertainty of poverty – for example, not knowing whether basic needs will be met on a given day – can begin to engender a sense of fatalism. People adapt to uncertainty, and to social status cues, by driving cognitive resources toward immediate concerns. The erosion of stability makes it difficult to maintain aspirations and engage in future-oriented activities.

How does agency relate to the social sector? 

Too often, social sector organizations focus on delivering specific opportunities to program participants – like cash, job training, or generic information. There are two problems with this approach: first, it assumes that an outsider can know what each of us needs. In reality, the designers of social programs have only a surface understanding of our individual goals, affordances, and constraints. No amount of data can reveal the web of experiences – and the resulting mental models – that each of us uses to navigate the world. 

Second, the standard approach assumes people are already well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities before them. This assumption is also problematic: it ignores the toll of exclusion and uncertainty that some of us experience in life. People facing severe disadvantages tend to have fewer chances to nurture and build a sense of agency. When profound opportunities to improve our lives do arise –  for example finishing high school, leaving an abusive partner, applying for a new job, or testing out a new crop – we may not, by default, pursue them. We may need support to take advantage of the opportunities around us. 

At The Agency Fund, we see a need for social sector organizations to get wise to the diverse psychological realities that people experience. Rather than delivering opportunities alone, programs can be designed with the appropriate psychological or social support needed to navigate our choices.

How might a social program expand our sense of agency? By helping us build the confidence in our own moral worth, so that we take on big challenges. By creating lower-risk environments for us to practice making new choices. By helping us calibrate goals that are both ambitious and achievable. For example, a program might:

  • Offer emotional support or counseling (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy) as we navigate a difficult life transition. 
  • Coach us through the development of a hidden skill or capability, like responsive parenting or entrepreneurship
  • Guide us through the affirmation of our most essential values, and in so doing help us meet the need for a sense of integrity. 
  • Invite us to imagine and explore a new identity within our community. 

With high quality support and care, each of us can update our understanding of the world, refine our beliefs about ourselves, and learn how to navigate future opportunities more successfully. 

We think that investing in people’s sense-making abilities is a way for program designers to demonstrate greater respect for their participants. It recognizes that people are best positioned to set their own goals and pursue their own futures. It respects that each of us faces new opportunities with a different set of past experiences and beliefs. 

But this is not just about respect... There is a growing body of rigorous evidence that nurturing agency can be radically more cost-effective than the delivery of opportunities alone (see, for example, recent work in Niger and Kenya). When we are supported in the exercise of agency, we build self-efficacy and self-determination. And with this comes the power to find a tractable path toward the future we seek.