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Beyond Agency: A Critical Analysis of Agency Measurement in Economic Programming

This post introduces a paper published in 2018 by the Market Development Facility (MDF) that was authored by Ariane Ryan, Amna Awan, Maryam Piracha and Syeda Samira Saif. The paper explores the six women's economic empowerment (WEE) domains that are integrated into programs and is broken down into six sections:

1) MDF's approach to WEE
2) The importance of understanding agency
3) An agency conceptual framework that outlines a measurement model
4) Cases and findings 
5) Results 


"Investing in women's economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth."

Long relegated to the sphere of ‘women’s issues’, Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) is now recognized as a critical outcome in poverty reduction and successful economic programs.

Interventions that ignore gender and women’s economic empowerment by adopting a gender-blind “do no harm approach” may exacerbate the entrenched discriminatory status-quo; socio-economic changes that are ‘gender-neutral’ are rare. Gender blindness often results in failing to engage women in areas where they should have been engaged, while further shifting power dynamics towards men. This, in turn, can prevent women from fulfilling their potential, or worse, weaken their position as the gender gap expands and men move even further ahead through better information, connections and opportunities.

Even when WEE is achieved through the dimensions of both access and agency, it remains a difficult concept to integrate and measure. For economic development programs, ‘access’ is the traditional entry point, while ‘agency’ has proven more complex to grasp and target. However, both access to economic resources and agency are mutually reinforcing and present entry points for creating economic advancement and changing social norms. As a result, understanding and measuring impact across access and agency is critical to effective programming. Without an understanding of agency, identifying effective ways of bringing about change is a challenge: there is a risk of oversimplifying approaches, ignoring potentially useful ones or at worst, causing harm. 

This paper explores the effect of increased household income on women's economic empowerment in the context of household dynamics, and seeks to understand how access to economic inputs, information, opportunities or services impacts agency. it extrapolates learnings from data gathered by the Australian-funded Market Development Facility (MDF) which has been operational for six years across five Asia-Pacific countries. 

This report establishes a foundation framework for understanding agency and lays the foundations for a tool to be developed that will allow projects to measure agency in a range of contexts. The extensive evidence used to build this model has been gathered by MDF teams in the field, and will be used to ensure that it can be practically embedded into Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) systems. 

While the intended audience includes practitioners, implementers and programs looking to understand the impact of their interventions on agency and strengthen their WEE programming, the authors nevertheless feel that the paper's relevance extends beyond the development field and encourages engagement, feedback and discussion from all interested parties and professions. 

The full paper is available to read and download on the Market Development Facility website