Negotiating autonomy in capacity development: Addressing the inherent tension

B. Rajeshwari, Nandini Deo, Margit van Wessel

A central goal of capacity development is transforming participants into autonomous agents. However, there is often an inherent tension between capacity development and autonomy because capacity devel-opment programs are frequently set up to fill an externally predefined lack in capacity. In this article, we argue that this tension can be addressed when capacity development is set up to advance what we call ‘‘narrative autonomy” (Williams, 1997). Narrative autonomy centers on individuals’ narrative interpreta-tions as they reveal or create the meaning of their own identity and situation, creatively draw on avail-able materials, and discern courses of action true to these interpretations.

The advancement of narrative autonomy requires certain capacities and conditions. Expanding on existing participatory approaches that focus on capacity development occurring within relationships and informal processes, we show how capacity development programs can be set up to advance these capacities and conditions through the intricate relations between formal and informal processes. We illustrate our theoretical claims through an empirical study of a capacity development partnership program involving a feminist Delhi-based civil society organization and seven local partner organizations in the state of Jharkhand. This program targeted women who had been elected to village councils. We show how the program advanced elected women representatives’ narrative autonomy through informal relationships that undergirded for-mal capacity development, and how the formal training helped to provide a language for constructing these narratives and a context conducive to advancing autonomous action that was true to the women’s narratives. By redefining the relationship between autonomy and capacity development, we move the theoretical debate beyond problematizing the aid-dependency power relations often seen in capacity development programs and provide a way forward for practice.

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