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  • Writer's pictureThom Sinclair

Next Level Learning for Market Systems via Links Wins

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Editor's note (Michael Field from the Vikāra Institute):

The blog provides a great overview of how learning and knowledge sharing evolve in market systems development. Perhaps the most crucial insight in the blog is that learning is an ongoing process of improvement. While we are often drawn to the idea that there is a solution, in complex systems, there is no end to new and emerging challenges, which all require learning. While in most MSD cases there are known and knowable risks/inefficiencies/constraints that practitioners identify as problematic, we have realized that it is critical to learn why local market actors do not invest in a learning process to develop a solution/or manage risk as they emerge in their context. Market systems practitioners have now made it standard practice to ask why a system works the way it does. It has also become increasingly clear that international development is a complex system that needs to learn how to learn better. Learning and sharing are at the heart of MSS, but as the blog points out, we are really at the start of a journey about learning how to learn.

This blog post is written by Thom Sinclair, director of knowledge management and collaborating, learning and adapting at Bixal. In this Q&A, Thom discusses the evolution of market systems development (MSD) and how Bixal’s work on USAID Links knowledge-sharing platforms has informed our learning in the MSD sector.


Where have we been and how might we advance MSD learning?

Since leaving the World Bank and joining Bixal in January as the director of knowledge management, I’ve had the good fortune of leading a portfolio of USAID learning projects. At Bixal, we manage Marketlinks, Agrilinks, ResilienceLinks and other USAID knowledge-sharing and learning platforms, including EducationLinks and Learning Lab. I’ve been reflecting on how international development has evolved in how we capture, package and disseminate knowledge and learning. We’ve moved from an almost sole reliance on dense research reports to curated, digestible knowledge products that come in multiple, more accessible format.

How has sharing knowledge changed in the MSD sector?

Marketlinks was first launched as Microlinks around 2006. Since then, new technology has allowed those of us working on the USAID learning platforms to be more creative and expansive in our work. We’ve gone from synchronous, in-person learning events to more inclusive learning spaces. We expanded access by posting seminar recordings and allowing comments to encourage participation from anywhere at any time. However, the lack of mobile platforms, slow download speeds and bandwidth issues kept real conversations with our in-country colleagues from truly taking off.

Where are we now?

We know the more inclusive and locally-led a solution, the better — and technology can help. Improvements in mobile reach, download speeds and bandwidth have been a game changer in terms of access and inclusivity. Leveraging Bixal’s learning from the Agrilinks and ResilienceLinks mobile designs, we can increase accessibility even further.

We’ve gathered some key learning resources for market systems development, below. I didn’t do a landscape study for this blog, so let me know what I’ve missed.

Bixal looked at Marketlinks’ most viewed content over the last year and found the following to be the most popular:

The Marketlinks Value Chain Development Wiki is the site’s most popular tool, and the Practical Analytical Framework for Inclusive Entrepreneurial Market Systems has high engagement numbers.

These various tools, blogs, briefs, primers, wikis and interviews make content accessible to people with varying skill levels, learning styles and schedules.

Other MSD platforms include the Agrilinks Feed the Future Market Systems and Partnerships Activity page. Beyond USAID, there are the Market Systems Symposium and the BEAM Exchange.

The symposium, which starts Monday, provides inspiration, capacity building and connections that strengthen and transform MSD development practices. That connection is key, and this symposium is the only annual event where MSD practitioners can gather to learn from their peers. The BEAM Exchange focuses on market system approaches to reduce poverty. Both offer online learning through Vikāra Institute's Market System Accelerator and BEAM’s DevLearn.

What might the future look like?

As a sector, we have produced MSD learning resources that meaningfully help to build markets and economic resilience and improve people’s lives. Now it’s time to take that learning to the next level and apply insights from systems-thinking approaches to our future learning and knowledge management efforts.

If we want to continue to drive learning that is more inclusive of local market actors and practitioners, we need to start thinking and talking about learning not simply as building individual technical skills and abilities, but as markets, systems and networks. Systems are dynamic and always evolving. This includes learning systems. And, like market systems, they require curation and facilitation.

We can take what we’ve learned across the USAID Links sites to curate and facilitate solutions related to the full spectrum of market systems needs and apply them across a range of key USAID topics honed for our local partner audiences. For example, solutions might include:

  • Guest subject matter experts sharing real-time experiences and learning, and amplifying more diverse voices from local partners based in the countries where USAID works, in live presentations, videos, podcasts or blogs.

  • Facilitated discussions with representative groups via in-person events, video chats or webinar events to ground truth and/or validate data, evidence, designs and/or theories of change.

  • Participatory design/codesign sessions that integrate human-centered design concepts to ensure our learning solutions address local contextual realities as well as the needs of local communities.

  • Content strategies designed around communities of practice and/or strategic events, including activities like The Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting Case Competition.

In short, we can use data, user feedback and direct outreach to our local partners and other key audiences to continue to refine Marketlinks and other learning platforms as online market spaces for people to connect, share and work together to further the MSD global agenda.

So, I’ve come to the end of this blog, but I hope not the end to this conversation. How might we facilitate more robust, inclusive and accessible learning systems? What role can technology and design play? What role do donors, contractors and local partners play? These are all complex questions, but if you’ve made it this far, then I know you are willing to embrace the challenge that is market systems development.

Please join the conversation and my session, "Learning Showcase: Market Systems Learning Approaches: Taking it to the Next Level," at the Market Systems Symposium on Monday, May 9 at 12 p.m. ET!

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