Last week I was facilitating a workshop with a group of very bright and experienced Market Systems Development (MSD) practitioners. As happens so often, at some point we discussed the concept of systemic change. This particular discussion reflected quite well the problem of the wider field of MSD: the group could not agree on how to assess whether a change they instigated has changed the system they are working in. While during most part of the discussion I was in the role of the facilitator and tried to keep my own thoughts out, my passion for the topic made me at some point step out of that role and bring in some of my own thoughts. I’m using this blog post to further clarify my point of view. Indeed, I am making the case that we should finally stop discussing about what systemic change is and move on to focusing on how to measure and communicate about it. In order to be able to do that, I’m suggesting a conceptual understanding of systemic change that I think is quite powerful and that I hope will enable us to put the discussion on what systemic change is to rest.
The discussion we were having last week was around four criteria that the group had decided were essential to assess whether a change was systemic: scale, sustainability, inclusiveness and transformation. Some of the questions the group was discussing on a very high level included whether we need all of these criteria or if we can collapse two into one (transformation into sustainability or the other way around), or whether some are more important than others (scale and sustainability for some, transformation for others). The group was also not clear on their definition of transformation, which is when I stepped out of my role as a facilitator and presented the systems iceberg to define transformative change. For me, change is transformative in a system when it changes the structural level, the constraints that shape the patterns of behaviour (see here for an explanation of the iceberg).
Prompted by some work for a client I dived back into the literature on institutions this week. It was a fascinating journey and I have discovered some other the things I have known before and confirmed many of my suspicions with the project at hand. Indeed, the reading confirmed my view that most market systems development projects pay too little attention to the institutions in a country, given their massive importance in shaping economic development. There is too much focus on finding solutions to fixing problems in the short term.
What I found fascinating while reading is that the insights from the theories on institutions and on complex systems actually overlap really neatly, with maybe slightly different ways of approaching change but in a coherent and complementary way.
Market systems resilience connects systemic change and sustainability
Resilience was one of the central themes at the 2019 Market Systems Symposiumin Cape Town, where I recently had the pleasure to interview Kristin O’Planick, for a Systemic Insight Podcast (subscribe wherever you download podcasts). Kristin spoke about a new framework for assessing market systems resilience being designed by USAID.
I have spent the last three days at the Market Systems Symposium 2019 in Cape Town. I really enjoyed the event. Besides meeting good friends, there was a great number of practitioners with astonishing accumulated experiences on how to implement Market Systems Development (MSD) projects. There was also a good number of donor staff, which provided their perspectives on the challenges of implementing adaptive and learning programmes – unfortunately the European donors were largely absent (with the exception of one participant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation), most of the donor staff were from USAID. The majority of the active participants were those that are working on further developing the approach, innovate within their project and generally try to make market development more effective – it was really exciting to hear what they figured out and what they are struggling with. There was a good energy around during the three days. But I have also picked up some concerning trends, particularly around the growing intent of MSD projects to change market actors’ behaviours.
I am aware that I have not been blogging for a while. One of the reasons is I assume well-known to everybody who has attempted to blog regularly: finding topics that seem worthwhile to share with others. Another reason is that I am currently going down quite an exciting rabbit hole on the concept of dialogue, but am not yet really sure about what it means, so it feels a bit early to blog about. I still want to share a bit of my journey here and I am therefore sharing what I’m currently reading that excites me. Continue reading →
Over the course of 2016, Shawn and I worked on a piece of research on systemic change in market systems development, funded by the BEAM Exchange. In this work, we question the utility of the concept of systemic change in market systems development (though this is valid in the wider field of economic development) as it is currently used and suggest a rethink. To do so, we went back to search for a fundamental understanding of economic change. This is what we found.
This blog post was originally published on the Website of CGAP as part of a series of blog posts on measuring change in market systems development under the title “New Funding Approaches Call for a New Way of Measuring Impact.” CGAP (the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) is a global partnership of 34 leading organizations that seek to advance financial inclusion.
The focus of financial sector development is shifting. Development organizations funding financial inclusion now operate with a vision of sustainability, resilience and impact at scale, and their goals stretch beyond building individual institutions. Now, they aim to improve the whole ecosystem for financial services, taking a facilitative rather than a direct intervention approach. Continue reading →
Economic development projects often struggle when it comes to scaling up the impacts of their successful interventions in order to reach a large number of people. Questions about how scaling up is done in a successful way have been asked in connection to various types of development interventions without finding a successful and definitive answer.
More recently, it is often said that scaling up happens quasi automatically or at least with much less effort when the interventions of a project are ‘systemic’. This can happen in economic development projects by actors copying new business models or when new business models in a specific market also benefit connected markets in a positive way. In the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) literature, these phenomena are called breadth and depth of crowding in, respectively. At the same time, the M4P literature acknowledges that crowding in might only in particular cases happen by itself and needs further efforts by the projects, such as for example dissemination of information about the new and successful implementation of business models. It is then anticipated that companies learn about the successes of their peers and will try to imitate them and with that the change will proliferate through the system. Again, it is often stressed that this will only happen if the introduced changes are ‘systemic’. But what does systemic mean in this regard? There are three important aspects at play here. Continue reading →