Skip to main content

HP08 - Exploring representation in the context of development

Convened by Margit van Wessel (Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands) and Maaike Matelski (VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

To submit an abstract for this panel, please check the FAQ section on paper management.

Access conftool, our conference management software, here 

Representation, defined here as acting on behalf of others, is an undertheorized concept in development studies. While many scholars would recognize civil society as engaging in representation, this assumption is challenged in the field of development. The claim of representation appears uncomfortable for many (I)NGOs  that prefer to speak of their relations in terms of empowerment and partnership. Thus far, few development scholars have studied civil society through the prism of representation. The attention given to representation is also largely negative, focusing on ways in which powerful INGOs misrepresent populations.

We propose that addressing representation beyond this theme is crucial for understanding relations between civil society organizations and the people they work with or for, and for advancing equality and justice in development. First, because it is common for civil society to act on others’ behalf, representation by these organizations is a concrete reality that needs to be faced and addressed. Second, representation of otherwise marginalized societal groups by civil society actors may advance groups’ rights, views, needs and interests by helping to overcome the structural limitations of electoral representation.  Third, representation is under pressure for multiple reasons related to power dynamics in the aid system and constraining political contexts, pulling development organizations away from their constituents and delimiting their space for advocacy. Fourth, considering civil society’s diversity, beyond formalized, professionalized NGOs, it is important to explore the ways different types of civil society actors may engage in representation.

We welcome conceptual and empirical papers addressing representation in any form by civil society actors. We especially welcome papers centred in the Global South. Papers challenging the notion of representation as adequate for understanding civil society roles are also most welcome.