Agency, Empowerment, and Democratic Development’

Crocker, David A. (2014). ''Agency, Empowerment, and Democratic Development'' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Dr. David A. Crocker

Senior Research Scholar

Director, International Development Specialization

School of Public Policy

University of Maryland

Title: 'Agency, Empowerment, and Democratic Development' (Submitted for consideration in a 'Full Academic Paper Session.')


In this paper I analyze, evaluate, and link recent work on individual agency, empowerment, and democratic development. The result is an ideal for shared action to make development projects more inclusive and democratic and to make national governance more deliberative and empowered. Two motivations for the paper is to move beyond unanalyzed clichés with respect to 'agency,' 'empowerment,' and 'democracy' and to engage recent work on these concepts and their relations (and institutional embodiments) both inside and outside the capability approach.


In this paper I analyze, evaluate, and extend my earlier work on the nature, value, limits, and policy implications of a Senian notion of individual and social agency. I addressed these issues in Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and (with Ingrid Robeyns) 'Capability and Agency,' in Christopher Morris, ed. Amartya Sen (Cambridge University Press, 2010). This proposed paper has three parts.

First, I analyze and seek to improve Sen's empirical concept of agency, as an individual's action that may be contrary to her well-being, and his normative ideal of individual agency, as action that is intended, deliberated, and makes a difference in the world. This section will feature an engagement of my reconstruction of Sen's theory with Michael Bratman's 'planning theory of intention and action' with his emphasis on 'strong' forms of human agency often captured by notions of self-determination, self-government, and durable autonomy. Second, I will criticize my earlier notion of empowerment – as simply the acquisition of agency. Following Jay Drydyk's and Christine Koggel's recent papers, I will argue that agency is a necessary but not sufficient condition of individual and group empowerment. To be empowered a person not only is author of her own intentions and acts, not only makes a general difference in the world, but makes a particular kind of difference. She has – on her own and especially with others -- the power to confront and (at least partially) overcome obstacles to her own well-being and agency (and that of others). Third, I extend the analysis of individual agency and group empowerment to the theory of democracy, deliberative democracy, and participatory development. I will analyze and evaluate Michael Bratman's theory of 'shared agency,' including his notion of shared deliberation, and Anna Stilz's ideal of democracy as 'shared cooperative activity.' Stiltz remarks:

'When the state we live in is a democracy. . . , each citizen not only helps to coerce other members of the state by paying taxes and obeying the law: she also has the obligation to deliberatively involve herself in the political process. The Rousseauian goal of a democratic state is to formulate a just scheme of rights and duties by acting together. And in contributing her voice and vote to the political process, the democratic citizen is party ot a shared intention in a more robust way than when she simply obeys the law' (Liberal Loyalty, 194).

I conclude by drawing out the implications of these notions of agency, empowerment, and the obligations of democratic citizens for further elaboration and defense of my notion of an agency-oriented approach to deliberative and democratic development. I finish with a call for individuals and social movements to exemplify and build inclusive local and national institutions that both deliberative together and challenge elitist economic and political power. To do so is one way to renegotiate justice in a time of global crisis.


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