Abstract: Poor people have been recast by development agencies from ‘beneficiaries’ to ‘engaged citizens’ – yet the assumptions behind many democracy and accountability programmes remain simplistic. Power defines and constrains citizen engagement, which takes place against a backdrop of complex histories of exclusion, discrimination and violence. Poor people’s access to income, services or benefits can rely on patronage relations which they may be wisely reluctant to challenge. Citizen engagement is thus shaped by civic habitus: the tacit collusion with socialised norms of power. This article draws on a study of civil society strengthening work by Swedish organisations and their partners around the world which illustrates the challenges posed by political cultures of passivity and questions the logic behind much human rights and democracy programming. The article offers useful frameworks for understanding how power affects citizen engagement and the formation of civic habitus, and explores the implications of this for more transformative approaches to citizen engagement.