Accessibility statement

Agents of order? Brokerage and empowerment in development and conflict

Posted on 12 April 2023

Dr Sara de Jong has editorial and special issue published

Sara De Jong

Dr Sara de Jong has a new editorial and special issue she has co-authored alongside  Ward BerenschotDavid Ehrhardt and Oliver Walton which has been published in the online Journal of International Development.

The article: "Agents of Order? Brokerage and Empowerment in Development and Conflict" was first published on 27th February 2023.


Over the last two decades, development studies research has shown a renewed interest in the role of brokers (Bierschenk et al., 2002; Fechter & Schwittay, 2019; Lewis & Mosse, 2006). The importance of these brokers is observed for a range of development challenges, including political decentralisation and democratisation (Anwar, 2014; Wood, 2003), managing growing social and cultural diversity (Bilecen & Faist, 2015; Crafter et al., 2015; de Jong, 2016; Koster & van Leynseele, 2018), access to public services (Berenschot et al., 2018; Jeffrey et al., 2011), the resolution of (violent) conflict (Goodhand et al., 2016; Raeymaekers et al., 2008; Volkov, 2016), facilitating and transforming global supply chains (Reinecke et al., 2018) and playing key roles in the political economy of migration (Alpes, 2017; Lindquist et al., 2012), as well as in research and knowledge production (see Eriksson Baaz & Utas, 2019; Sukarieh & Tannock, 2019).

One of the most pertinent questions arising from this literature is the impact they have on the position of the people and organisations for whom they act as agents. Especially in situations of inequality and power hierarchies, brokers often connect relatively marginalised communities with those in power—be it the state, private enterprises or international organisations. But do they actually benefit the position of the marginalised? Or do they rather, as Meehan and Plonski (2017, p. 43) suggest, serve to entrench their disempowerment? This special issue addresses this question by looking at a range of different contexts in which brokers connect relatively marginal constituents with more powerful actors and exploring the dynamics of (dis)empowerment. We highlight and analyse variation in the degree to which brokers succeed in empowering marginalised communities, while noting that brokerage often functions as a force for order rather than transformation. We conclude that under certain circumstances—particularly in the context of fragmented brokerage networks and strong ties between well-connected brokers and their clients—brokers can significantly empower communities, but that this impact is curtailed by the systemic constraints inherent in their social context. Longer term transformative change for the benefit of the marginalised is therefore far from assured.

We define brokers as intermediaries who bridge gaps in social structures by facilitating a two-directional flow of goods, information, opportunities and knowledge across those gaps (Stovel et al., 2011, p. 1). This definition highlights two important aspects of our understanding of brokerage. First, it is inherently dynamic and temporary in nature, filling gaps in social structures by connecting previously unconnected spheres of a social system. The moment brokers become permanent nodes in a system, they cease being brokers and instead become other forms of permanent institutions. Second, the two-directional flow that brokers facilitate underlines that they act as agents of two principals simultaneously, who often represent diverging (or even competing) interests. Moreover, the relationship between the two social groups between which brokers mediate tends to be marked by power inequalities, which places brokers in an even more ‘liminal’ position with fragile relations of trust, loyalty and dependency (Hinderaker, 2002, p. 359). This inherently ‘Janus-faced’ position has been remarked upon repeatedly in relation to brokers (Aspinall, 2014; de Jong, 2018; Ehrhardt, 2016; Hinderaker, 2002; Kern & Müller-Böker., 2015), not only because it helps to explain the precariousness that often characterises their position but also because it raises the question of who benefits from their brokerage.

In this special issue, we are most concerned with the impact of brokerage on the empowerment of marginalised communities, that is, their position of power relative to other actors in their social system (e.g., Rowlands, 1995). Given the difficulties involved in defining power, we take a broad view to what empowerment might involve, derived from Eyben's (2011) formulation: the process of increasing one's ability to control one's life. This may comprise anything from increased awareness and understanding of political norms and regulations to use them to your advantage, to increased inclusion in formal or informal decision-making fora, or even fundamental institutional reform (cf. Calvès, 2009; Hill, 2003; Kaminski et al., 2000). The breadth of this definition is useful because it allows the papers in the special issue to freely explore the different ways in which brokerage impacts on the power of marginal communities. This exploration highlights considerable diversity between cases, as is to be expected, but it also brings out four key patterns that the remainder of this introduction aims to highlight.

The articles in this special issue show, firstly, that brokers often provide substantial benefits for the communities they represent, but that they tend to do so working within, rather than against, the political and economic structures that cause the marginalisation of these communities. The empowerment that brokers offer, in other words, tends to involve increasing a community's capacity to extract relatively small benefits from dominant groups or institutions, without meaningfully eroding the causes of their domination. Within this general pattern, however, as we outline below, our studies show that even the capacity of brokers to provide such benefits varies greatly: In some cases, brokers fail to secure any meaningful benefits for those who could be considered their clients, while in other cases, brokers succeed in providing a steady flow of state resources and other benefits to their clients.

Exploring this variation using the articles in this special issue as well as other available studies on brokers, we propose that a comparative analysis of the empowering capacity of brokers involves paying attention to three key dimensions of brokerage: the characteristics of the broker, the nature of the brokerage network in which the broker operates and the structural conditions that give rise to a (fluctuating) demand for brokers. For each of these dimensions, we will identify features that, as our case studies suggest, strengthen the capacity of brokers to empower their communities. These are, of course, not the only dimensions and correspondent features, and we welcome future research to develop this. However, we propose these as a useful starting point for comparative analysis of the potential for empowerment by brokers. After introducing current debates on brokerage and empowerment and outlining our approach, we will discuss each of these comparative dimensions in turn. We end by highlighting the relevance of a comparative understanding of brokerage for the study of development and empowerment.