By Marcus Jenal, Partner, Mesopartner
For most practitioners, the hardest part about applying systems thinking is shifting how they frame whatever problem they are trying to address. As Marcus describes in his blog, many practitioners think about their main challenge as something static, requiring a specific technical fix, or as Marcus suggests, a band-aid (plaster). While technical fixes are certainly a component of most development challenges, the fundamental question is always around why the known solution does not resonate within the system. This post provides a thoughtful way of explaining the importance of embracing complexity in development, starting with changing the key questions we ask and the frameworks through which we interpret these development challenges.
Market systems resilience connects systemic change and sustainability
Resilience was one of the central themes at the 2019 Market Systems Symposium in 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.
The conversation about market system resilience brings together several threads I have worked in my professional career, particularly on measuring systemic change and sustainability. The perspective I offer here contrasts markedly with some recent BEAM Blogs (Why can’t we measure systemic change? and How can we fix the biggest sustainability problem facing development?).
Systemic change is not about fixing current problems
I want to challenge one dominant view in our field which seems to conceptualise market systems development as being about finding fixes to specific problems in the system (an underperforming function or rule) and then scaling these fixes out to reach large numbers of beneficiaries. This happens first through project partners buying into that fix, then scaling it out, and then through other market actors crowding in and copying the fix.
In my opinion this way of thinking about systemic change is akin to putting plasters (band-aids) on system wounds, not trusting or believing in the ability of the body to heal itself. An alternative view of systemic change, inspired by resilience, would be more about enabling the body to heal itself. This does not mean that we don’t need plasters at all; they can help the body to heal in acute cases. But without building up the healing capacity, we will never be able to step back from the role of first-aider. The interesting thing is that in our daily lives, we seem to understand this much better than in our work lives (see my recent blog - We seem to understand complexity in life – why can we not in our work?)
A better way of thinking about systemic change was described in depth by Shawn Cunningham and I in Rethinking Systemic Change for the BEAM Exchange in 2016. We concluded that "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."
In other words, what we strive to achieve when using the MSD approach is not merely to fix some current problems, but to build the capability for continuous learning and development into the market system. This is in line with Carl Folke’s definition of resilience: "Resilience is about cultivating the capacity to sustain development in the face of expected and surprising change and diverse pathways of development and potential thresholds between them” (Folke, 2016)
Sustainability as adaptive capacity
This brings us to the next concept that resilience helps us to reframe sustainability. To use the same metaphor as above, current views on sustainability seem very much about trying to ensure that the plasters (band-aids) we put on stay on as long as possible. Or in other words that a fix that a project puts in place (a new business model, a new service, etc.) will be continuously provided also when the project stops funding it and, ideally, forever. Is that really what we should be after? With dynamic, shifting economies, this particular solution might not be relevant anymore in a couple of years, what then? An economy is dynamic and evolving. So why not equip market actors with means to navigate this dynamic landscape, rather than to put in place a solution for a current problem? That, for me, would be a truly sustainable form of market systems development.
Back in 2013, Lucho Osorio and I conducted an e-consultation on M&E in market systems development and one of the findings was that we should see sustainability not as how long our particular solution persists, but rather as how able the market system is to "avoid or minimize future shocks and benefit from new trends whilst staying inclusive, productive and efficient” (Osorio-Cortes and Jenal, 2013). We called this ‘stainability as adaptability’.
Daniel Christian Wahl in his book Designing Regenerative Cultures describes sustainability as a learning journey: “Sustainability is not a fixed state that can be achieved and then maintained forever after. Sustainability is a dynamic process of co-evolution and a community-based process of continuous conversation and learning how to participate appropriately in the constantly transforming life-sustaining process that we are part of and that our future depends upon.”
Sustainability as a concept also has an important role to play in its original meaning: how we can live on this planet in a way so future generations will also be able to live happy and fulfilled lives. That is a whole different challenge, which is, I believe, not taken into account enough in market systems development. The big question there is how we balance social, environmental and economic sustainability, without seeing these as trade-offs.
What I don’t want to imply in this article is that programmes are not doing any of this at the moment. They are. Yet the conceptual discussion about systemic change and sustainability seems to be dominated by first-aiders. I think it is important to put more emphasis on a system’s resilience and give it priority over fixing current problems. All in all, I would say that market systems resilience is a helpful concept when thinking about our legacy as development actors both with regards to systemic change and sustainability.
By Mike Field, Market Systems Specialist, EcoVentures International
In a previous blog on this site, “Diversity and Inclusion in Market Systems Programming,” contributed by Anoushka Boodhna and Devi Ramkissoon, the authors raised an important evidence-based discussion on why diversity and inclusiveness are central to more durable economic growth.
During many conversations around resilience and economic growth at the 2019 Market Systems Symposium, I found it useful to reframe the purpose of a market system. If you can, think of a market system as evolved social mechanisms that, when most effective (i.e., provide the greatest good for the society), can proactively manage risks, solve problems and generate more resources. The challenge when market systems are not working at their best is they often become tools of the powerful and connected to extract resources and consolidate power. So the question remains: what to do when a market system is not working effectively for the wider society? Specifically, there are three interconnected and interdependent capacities that a market system requires to effectively perform its functions for a society. Without these capacities a market system cannot effectively allocate human, financial and other resources in response to emergent risks and opportunities. These three systemic capacities include:
It is through the interdependent interactions of these three capacities that a market system can effectively allocate resources to various combinations of people and ideas that most resonate with the society, as well as an ability to define relative value between different types of risks and associated products and services. A key point here is how market systems self-organize to be responsive to consumer/societal demands by innovating ways to meet demand and add value (i.e., by mitigating, neutralizing or otherwise managing risk proactively). These dynamic allocation processes ensure enough diversity and inclusiveness are integrated into the market system to best secure the wider society’s ability to proactively manage risk and add value.
By Mike Field, Market Systems Specialist, EcoVentures International
Over the last few years there has a been an interesting evolution in my thinking that initially was grounded in questions about systemic resilience. Central to understanding resilience has been how societies manage risks around shocks and stresses. However, from a systems thinking perspective, how communities are managing risks is only a small part of the challenge. How to do societies mange risks across communities, regional etc.? What are the patterns in investment, policies, etc. that indicate an orientation in how societies perceive and think about risks related to stresses and shocks? In starting to investigate these and other questions regarding how a society could shift in ways to better manage known and knowable risks. IN particular, why and how could a society via its political and market systems manage risks across groups/communities at a systemic level, which has in more developed countries limited the burden placed on individual isolated communities.
Taking northern Kenya as an example, the communities have evolved ways to manage risks from shocks and stresses based primarily on their ability to absorb the risks through strong communal fabric. All members of the community are essential threads in the fabric, and as long as community members can maintain their roles the fabric can absorb enormous amounts of hardship. In addition to communal loyalty, communities seek to accumulate resources and see outsiders often as rivals for scarce resources. Resilience programming has primarily sought to bolster a community’s ability to weather shocks and stresses by reinforcing their absorptive capacity, which makes complete sense.
While much of this is not new, when systems lenses are applied to this landscape some interesting insights and questions arose. Primary among them is a question about how does this landscape and the efforts around it align with efforts to get a country to middle income status. More specifically are these efforts leading to an improved capacity at a nation-state level to manage stresses and shocks over time so they can remain on a path to middle-income status? This question has implications past resilience tied to shocks like drought in northern Kenya as many NGOs that focus on the most vulnerable also focus on the resilience of those communities in relation to day-to-day stresses that leave them on a knife’s edge. For organizations and practitioners working in areas prone to bigger shocks and stresses or those working in areas where vulnerable populations are often under stress related to basic needs, they have tended toward focusing on social safety net services as essential to stabilize the communities. While this is makes sense, as practitioners have become more aware of systems thinking and applied systems lenses question continue to arise related to how such programming aligns with supporting a country towards becoming self-reliant.
It would be expected that as a country moves toward middle income status and greater self reliance, it would also see the value in investing in mechanisms and tools to manage stresses and shocks in ways that reduces the burden on its populations. This expectation brings to light an important conversation that has started, but needs to progress much further. Specifically, how should/could practitioners engage around shifting the way the system provides social safety net services, as opposed to providing the services themselves. The challenge here is that any such suggestion has to recognize that there would be a gap around social safety net services. This challenge would not be easy to address but it is critical, especially once it is understood that social safety net services are central to market system development. They are also essential to a society’s ability to manage resilience at a higher systemic level in ways that can mitigate and neutralize known and knowable risks without forcing individual communities to always take it on the chin.
A serious conversation about how societies manage known and knowable risks including how that affects markets, political, social, etc. systems is essential. It is increasingly clear that as a result of international development evolving multiple stove-piped areas of investment, many efforts now work at cross purposes. Systems thinking has provided effective lenses to see how and why alignment across these domains is needed and possible – even if it is not going to be easy.
The MSDHub Blog Series is authored by respected implementers and donors of market systems projects globally.