The next step in systemic change

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.

Systemic change in a market system is characterised by improvements in the quality, value, or extent of economic opportunities for people, achieved while the institutional landscape remains adaptable to future challenges. It is fundamentally an evolutionary process: involving variation, selection and amplification of solutions to complex problems.
Systemic change is most likely to be achieved when influential actors or networks of actors become aware of how change happens, and their role in realising the evolutionary potential of the economy. These influential actors need to develop the capability to engage in, collectively discover and continuously shape their institutional landscape – a process that is most effective when it is done in a transparent and participatory way. Generally all levels of society need access to these processes if people living in poverty are to be included in its bene ts.
By implication, it is not sufficient for a development programme from outside the system to improve market access for a particular target group of beneficiaries, like micro / small enterprise, marginalised women or people living in poverty. Rather, the aim should be for the relevant actors in the system to become able to recognise that some groups are left out or that some negative patterns are repeating and react to that.

These three paragraphs mark the conclusion of our research work. It was an exciting journey through three knowledge domains: evolutionary economics, new institutional economics (both part of an emerging field called New Economic Thinking) and complexity and social change.

Along the way, we also engaged with a good number of market systems development and economic change practitioners and had a lot of fun discussing ideas around evolving economies, complex dynamics and the role of development actors in there.

Not much more to say than to invite you to dive into reading the outputs of the research. There are two papers:

  • technical paper that contains a detailed discussion of the findings and suggested principles and an extensive list of references. If you are intrigued by what you saw above and want to get some in-depth discussion, this is the paper for you.
  • discussion paper that (painfully) summarises our journey in eight pages for the time poor reader who wants to get an idea what we are talking about.

An accompanying case study was also published, written by colleagues at Palladium, applying the thinking above to the DFID-funded programme “Northern Uganda: Transforming the Economy through Climate Smart Agribusiness – Market Development (NUTEC-MD)”.

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