Agency, opportunity structure and social capital: Facilitating empowerment

This section theoretically chalks out how agency, social capital and opportunity structure in amalgamation facilitate rural empowerment.

Empowerment and agency

Empowerment and agency are relational concepts (Samman Sc Santos, 2009). The conceptual interdependence becomes clearer in Ibrahim and Alkire (2007), where they draw a directly proportional relation between the two, thereby conceptualizing empowerment as an outcome of enhanced agency. In the process of measuring empowerment, three aspects need to be considered:

  • 1 Existence of choice;
  • 2 Use of choice; and
  • 3 Achievement of choice.

Agency, combining direct control and effective power, therefore accounts to be primary in enhancing individual/group capacity to make purposeful choices and to successfully translate the choices into desired outcomes. The notion of cultivating agency directly opposes the top-down model of development. Instead of designing policies for specific groups, the development interventions need to be dedicated to attaining empowerment from within and consider individuals bringing about change through individual/collective activity (Sen, 1999). Equipping the rural marginalized to bring about self-induced transformation not only facilitates empowerment from within but is crucial in itself for sustaining the socio-economic wellbeing of the marginalized community. Thus agency in our rural developmental paradigm has been treated in terms of both its instrumental and intrinsic value; as a means to attain empowerment and also having value as an end in itself.

Ibrahim and Alkire (2007) define empowerment as a process in which people gain power over, power to (creating new possibilities), power with (acting in a group) and power from within. Effective cultivation of power among individuals/ groups is only possible when agency is treated as a multi-dimensional concept (Samman &c Santos, 2009). Agency, being multi-dimensional, therefore comprises different spheres (the social structure in which people are embedded), domains (multiple areas of life in which a person may exercise agency) and levels (micro, nieso and macro). This makes measuring agency along diverse socio-economic lines mandatory to derive a fairer idea on the multi-dimensional operationalization of the aspect. Jejeebhoy (2000) maps the common direct measures of autonomy as economic decision-making, freedom of movement, power relation within gendered groups, access to resources, and control over resources. In our research we have tried to track these among rural marginalized community to understand their extant hindrances and subsequently propose contextual measures to pronounce their autonomy by overcoming operative obstructions.

The impoverished knowledge base of the rural community features as one of the major factors restricting the agency of the members in taking informed decisions, thereby sustaining marginalization of the rural sector (Ali & Avdic, 2015). Our rural developmental framework is premised on enhancing the knowledge base of rural marginalized community in an attempt to enhance their agency and subsequently bring about rural empowerment from within. An enhanced knowledge base is not simply an outcome of providing members of marginalized community equal access to knowledge. Only when the rural marginalized become knowledge capable — that is, they develop evaluative capacities to process acquired knowledge for practical benefits - can they translate their enhanced knowledge base in pursuit of pronouncing individual and collective agency.

Empowerment and opportunity structure

One of the key deficiencies in many marginalized rural communities is the lack of linkage to local, as well as larger, metropolitan area opportunity structure, including financial, technical, social and political resources. Since marginalized rural communities are disconnected both physically and digitally from local as well as urban opportunity structures, they have: (i) less access to quality educational support, training and advisory services; (ii) less knowledge about the available local opportunities (community assets, sharable resources); (iii) less access to market links (buyer, seller, micro-credit, etc.); and (iv) less access to any forum to discuss their problems with relevant agencies. Widespread hindrances along the above-stated lines impoverish the knowledge base of the rural marginalized community. Lack of inter- and intra-communitarian linkage contributes in sustaining social, economic and civic isolation of rural community. As a result, the rural marginalized are not just deprived to venture in search of additional possibilities, but the lack of relevant knowledge alienates them from the extant welfare schemes devised for rural development. It is by equipping rural populations with relevant knowledge that we have not only attempted to enhance opportunity scopes for rural marginalized producers but have also made provision of optimal utilization of existing schemes to achieve holistic empowerment.

Alsop and Heinsohn (2005) insightfully chalk out the measurement criteria for degrees of empowerment into the following: “(i) whether the person has the opportunity to make a choice, (ii) whether the person uses the opportunity to choose, and (iii) once the choice is made, whether it brings desired outcome.” This conceptualization highlights how opportunity structure, which refers to the formal and informal context within which actors operate, is equally mandatory, along with agency, in any developmental framework designed to achieve self-driven empowerment. Even though various formal laws have been undertaken, both along physical and digital lines, to improve socio-economic conditions of rural communities (Singh, 2009; Minkes, 1952), the informal and restrictive social structure often impedes them from utilizing the schemes designed for their benefit, thereby obstructing empowerment of the rural marginalized communities.

Out of its several schemes, the Global Cottage Industry initiative (Global Cottage Industry, 2012) undertaken in the Middle East to enable effective artistic exchange between Bedouin women of Tunisia and women of Abu Dhabi, as a part of Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Culture’s Handicrafts Project, deserves special mention. The exchange has been fostered to cultivate and share indigenous artistic styles and patterns, thereby enabling rural indigenous producers to attain global recognition and identity. Similar initiatives have been undertaken in various nations to promote indigenous heritage and rural practitioners on the global platform. To promote the growth and improve the indigenous entrepreneurial journey of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the European Commission in 2008 adopted the Small Business Act, which demands specific initiatives and sustained efforts to enable SMEs to realize their true potential. It also encourages member states to implement measures in support of micro-enterprises (European Union, 2014). During the last decade, indigenous industries, both farm and non-farm, have increasingly become important components of modern post-industrial knowledge-based economies and have raised great interest about their effective economic value. Apart from this, the increasing penetration of online portals has created an opportunity for rural produce to gain global visibility, thereby creating enhanced market prospects for rural indigenous producers (IMARC, 2018). Several e-commerce initiatives, such as Etsy, Okhai, ArtFire and Supermarket, provide rural producers with subsidized prospects to create sellers accounts and sell their produce to a global market.

In spite of several initiatives taken both at global and local level, the welfarist agenda on which the initiatives have been premised have seldom been successful in addressing the issue at stake. In this context, we need to pay specific attention to the literacy level of the target group. While in the developed nations there can be provision for a decent literacy rate among rural practitioners, aspects of rural illiteracy loom large in the context of developing and Third World nations. As a result of low literacy rates, the rural population often does not have adequate knowledge regarding various schemes undertaken for their own benefit. Moreover, rural populations’ physical and informational distance from urban transaction sites, due to weak inter- and intra-communitarian linkage, further aggravates their ignorance. Various national and international agencies have come up with a diverse range of skill-building training programmes for rural communities to enhance their skill sets, markets and entrepreneurial prospects. However, formulating training modules without addressing the specific nature of rural need and lack of provision to impart the curriculum in local language contributes to an alienation of the target group from the initiatives.

In order to provide members of rural communities with the capabilities needed for optimal usage of extant opportunity structures and cultivation of newer opportunities, knowledge capability among rural population needs to be enhanced. Development of operative capacities to process knowledge gained is a prior requisite if rural members are expected to benefit from the same. Only when the rural marginalized community develops evaluative capacities to process acquired knowledge by virtue of knowledge capability will they develop the credential to optimally utilize extant opportunity structure and venture out in search of newer possibilities of socio-economic betterment.

Empowerment and social capital

Along with agency and opportunity structure, social capital plays a crucial role in facilitating rural empowerment, as has been identified in the World Bank’s Development Report 2000-2001. Social capital, referring to strength of social ties and norms governing social interactions, plays a crucial role, along with agency and opportunity structure, in translating intended actions into desired outcomes. Social capital refers to the network of relationships between people residing in society, purposive interaction between whom enables the society to function effectively (Putnam, 2000). Our attempt to improve the social capital of rural community in the process of empowering them attempts to enhance the target group’s networking ties by fostering effective intra- and inter-communitarian knowledge and information exchange.

Smooth communication and relevant exchange of information enable people to interact and collaborate with each other, establish community norms and values, share resources and build trustful relationships, which are the core values of social capital (Putnam, 2000). An enhanced social capital often acts as an accelerating force to bring about empowerment for marginalized segments, by improving inter-connectedness and thereby enabling them to overcome geographical isolation. To strengthen the social capital of the rural community, this chapter proposes community empowerment schemes dedicated to eventually blurring the rural—urban knowledge divide.

Our integrationist view to overcome rural—urban knowledge divide by virtue of fostering two-way knowledge exchange between these spatial entities is undertaken to enhance inter-dependency of the two territorial units, instead of separating them further by conceptualizing them along polarizing terms. Fostering effective two-way networking between urban and rural communities is bound to have different, yet empowering, consequences for both. For example, by virtue of smooth communication and effective inter- and intra-communitarian exchange, rural communities will have improved access to various expert- mediated advisory services. Valuable advice from professional mentors will guide the rural target group to access quality resources based on their need, enable them to share their concerns on public forums and provide them necessary counselling wherever required. Smooth communications will enable mentors to interact with the rural community to identify problems and then let the mentors impart their knowledge to solve those problems, thereby enhancing the bridging social capital of the underprivileged community. Experts may also help rural marginalized community in assessing their community assets and competencies — such as traditional but extinct skills, arts, crafts, culture, and natural flora and fauna, wildlife, etc. — and help them translate these assets into opportunities. Access to such a knowledge pool derivative of effective rural- urban networking will not only enhance the social capital of rural community but will go beyond to mitigate their geographical isolation and enhance socioeconomic prospects of the community. On the other hand, the two-way knowledge exchange making the dynamics of indigenous production known to urban crowd contributes in enhancing their intellectual capital. The indigenous knowledge assets of rural community shared in the process of two-way exchange will subsequently pave the path for contextual policy formulation by informing urban communities and policy-makers about the specific nature of rural need. It is through this symbiosis that our research framework targets rural empowerment specifically along dialogic terms.

In a digitally connected world it is important to use technology to strengthen the social capital of marginalized community by fostering effective exchange through the formation of virtual communities, which will enable underprivileged members of the rural community to be part of the global knowledge network. We will discuss these issues in greater details in Parts II and III. Strengthening social capital of rural communities by fostering purposive intra- and inter-communitarian networking will not only help in developing “bonding” social capital (social ties within homogenous groups) but also pave the path for “bridging” social capital (social ties within heterogeneous groups) by enabling interactions outside the purview of immediate closed community. Thus the cultivation of social capital and growth of purposive communities is not only required to enhance internal solidarity of rural community, it also contributes in placing the marginalized members within the global knowledge network. This accounts to be a precursory measure in securing empowerment for marginalized rural community along with an enhanced agency and opportunity structure of the target group, which will subsequently enable it to translate intended actions into desired outcomes.

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