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  • Christina Grunewald & Ailsa Buckley

Seeking The Holy Grail: Projects Impact Positively on Climate Issues, but Is the Change Systemic?

Updated: Feb 12

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):

This blog provides practical insights and lessons on how to think about the integration of climate change objectives into MSD approaches. While not specifically covered in the blog, it is useful to highlight that in addition to encouraging context specific and time bound solutions, it is critical to also try and catalyse an ability in systems to change over time in response to emerging and increasingly threatening impacts of climate change. The complexities of social and market systems often means that substantial change is iterative and meandering, and climate change is going to require substantial change. As the blog points out, leaning into the messiness of systemic change is critical, which is why climate change efforts and MSD approaches need each other.


Many projects impact positively on climate issues but is the change systemic?

In 2022, Swisscontact designed a stocktaking effort to learn about projects with a strong climate change mandate and an explicitly systemic approach to achieving those objectives. We wanted to capture what this meant to positively influence the design and implementation of new projects. We felt we were on a quest for a hidden holy grail.

On the trail of the grail

We found projects with a strong mandate to tackle climate change: with objectives that speak directly to climate change mitigation and/or adaptation, with deep climate and environment expertise within the team and often with a strong connection to government actors. But many didn’t integrate a systemic lens and others varied in their application of MSD. In contrast, we also found many projects with a strong systemic change orientation but with a less explicit focus on climate change. These were often focused on specific economic opportunities for target groups, with a strong application of MSD principles. In these situations, their climate change objectives were often being 'retrofitted' to an initial design, in response to various pressures, including donors as well as real world threats and opportunities created by climate change itself.

Finding the true grail

What we really hoped to see were projects with a clear climate change objective that are successfully applying a theory of change for how that can be systemic, sustainable and scaled. And we found ones that have a strong application of MSD principles and processes, with a recognition of unique features of climate change, and that have a mix of expertise in the team: climate, MSD and other domains.

The mysteries of the grail uncovered

Our ambition is to distil key insights about project-level systemic responses to climate change that are clear and accessible. We found 3 key touch points to start with…

Articulate an explicit strategy…

The project must be focused on systems change that addresses climate change mitigation or adaptation (or both). The underpinning theory of change guiding how the project analyzes systems and develops interventions must be clear. Articulating climate change objectives and defining their importance in relation to other objectives helps projects prioritize and invest in the analysis required to uncover systemic solutions. For example, the CALAC+ project in Latin America targets systemic change in urban transportation systems, with the dual objectives of improving human health and mitigating climate change by reducing emissions from diesel bus fleets and other heavy machinery uses. A climate change ‘strategy’ linked to a clear and realistic vision of how the system can function on its own is critical to long-term sustainability of climate change outcomes.

…backed by analysis of incentives and roles…

It is critical to understand why the systems in question are not addressing climate change already; and the underlying constraints in supporting systems that are holding back change from happening. Systems mapping helps projects to understand system structure and dynamics. Projects must identify the opportunities to motivate actors to respond to climate change and be clear which actors have capacity and incentives to drive change. This means assessing the performance of key roles and functions; andanalyzing capacities and incentives of key actors to play those roles and functions differently or better in the future. Projects must engage directly with system actors to support behaviour changes that ultimately lead to systemic change. For example, the MDF project has built the skills and climate literacy of its business advisors to assess climate risk and translate those into concrete opportunities for market actors in their local context. This includes responding to price and reputational risks by increasing efficiency and reducing operational costs, as well as gaining reputational benefits from investing in community resilience and being a leader in the growing market for climate-resilient solutions​.

…and supported by an internal change management process

Integrating climate change and MSD means bridging two worlds. Team members with different skillsets need to work together, and to sharpen their own skills and knowledge to be able to understand each other. Projects have used various tactics to shift their own internal approach, but one common approach was to ‘audit’ portfolios of interventions with a climate change lens. An outside climate expert who grasped MSD, worked intensively with sector teams so they could learn to assess their own portfolio of partners and make changes in everyday practices, such as MRM systems, results chains, intervention concept templates, plus regular strategic reviews and pause and reflect sessions. Without a climate lens being reinforced here, especially by senior leaders, all hope of grasping the grail is lost.

We found the grail, but the quest is not over

We know that the true ‘holy grail’ is a project with a climate change objective and a theory of change to deliver systemic, sustainable and scaled change, that is both well defined by the donor, and baked into its design. So, our journey continues to further unshroud the mysteries and implications of our coveted treasures.


Christina Grunewald

Christina is the Head of Climate Change & Food Systems at Swisscontact, She has 15 years’ of experience working at the interface between environmental protection, climate change and economic development in different contexts including development cooperation, social enterprise promotion, local economic development. As an environment expert she has technically supported project teams mainly working in agriculture in South and Southeast Asia, Sub-Sharan Africa, and Eastern Europe.

Ailsa Buckley

Ailsa is the Global Guardian for Inclusive Systems Development at Swisscontact. She is a Private Sector Development Expert and has been designing and implementing projects for over 30 years in East Africa. She innovates and delivers assignments in market development and has extensive experience in systems development approaches and in capacity development for systems thinking and practice.

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