Klein, Elise (2014). 'PSYCHOLOGIAL AGENCY: EVIDENCE FROM THE URBAN FRINGE OF BAMAKO' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Amartya Sen convincingly argues that economic development is not the sole purpose of development and that increasing people's freedoms is the real focus of development. Sen explains the usefulness of expanding one's freedoms on two distinct levels. The first is the normative approach used by Sen to measure the success of a society by the opportunities it provides or the 'substantive freedoms that the members of that society enjoy' (Sen, 1999, pp18). The second level calls on the role of empowerment, agency and systemic process freedoms such as democratic practices, civil and political liberties, where the process of achieving such freedoms is just as important. Sen states 'Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, these matters are central to the process of development' (Sen, 1999, pp 18). Sen places agency at the center of the capability approach and development. 'The people have to be seen… as being actively involved – given the opportunity – in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs' (Sen, 1999, pp 53). Agency is the ability to act on values, or as Sen puts it, 'what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important' (Sen 1985, cited in Ibrahim and Alkire 2007, p384). In this sense, Sen focuses on agency as purposeful, where agents act towards a particular outcome.  


This paper focuses on psychological constructions underpinning purposeful agency to improve well-being by people in a neighbourhood on the urban fringe of Bamako, Mali. There is a large deficit in the theorisation of psychological elements of agency and empowerment in the development literature. Instead empowerment is generally defined as a favourable opportunity structure, as choice or as the distribution of power. Further still, the examination of the psychological literature reveals a lack of empirical research related to non-Western contexts and development policy. In view of this, I present the results of an empirical study using the inductive mixed methods to examine the central factors contributing to initiatives people undertake to improve personal and collective well-being. Informants articulated that the psychological concepts of dusu (internal motivation) and ka da I yèrè la (self-efficacy) were most important to their purposeful agency. I argue that these wellsprings of psychological agency are fundamental drivers influencing agency and innovation. As one Malian Bambara proverb states 'If people don't believe in you, you will fall flat on your face. If you don't believe in yourself, you will die.'


The empirical analysis is divided into three parts and based primarily on qualitative data, enriched by quantitative analysis. Firstly I will examine the concepts of dusu and ka da I yèrè la, which are characterised as having an instrumental and intrinsic significance to people's purposeful agency. They were also characterised as important factors in supporting local social development initiatives. Secondly, I will show how these psychological concepts were not related to the agent's socio-economic characteristics or decision making ability, rendering both variables weak proxies for measuring psychological agency. Instead I found that measures of intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy are more viable for evaluating psychological agency. Thirdly, however, whilst dusu and ka da I yèrè la are important to people's agency and the social development of the neighbourhood, they cannot be viewed as a silver bullet to social development in Kalabankoro Nerekoro. Specifically, in the examination of purposeful agency, I underline that agents cannot always succeed in the pursuit of their well-being goals, even though they demonstrate high levels of psychological agency unless structural inequality at the micro, meso and macro levels of Malian society are addressed. Through this empirical study, this paper will contribute the closing of the gap between psychological and development literatures as well as work towards developing measures of psychological agency. As Martin et.al (2010) puts it, 'Emptying people of what matters to them is to reduce them in ways that render them distorted or malformed, if not wholly alien'(Martin et.al, 2010, pp 57). We must consider psychological agency as without it, we are missing an important part of the human development picture.



Ibrahim, Solava, and Sabina Alkire. 'Empowerment and Agency: A Proposal for Internationally-Comparable Indicators.' Oxford Development Studies 35, no. 4 (2007).

Martin, Jack, Jeff Sugarmann, and Sarah Hickinbottom . Persons: Understanding Psychological Selfhood and Agency,  New York; Springer, (2010).

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.