This post is part of a learning series exploring good practice, examples, or new applications of MSD.

Thank you to Jim Tomecko for this contribution.

In the early days of Market Systems Development, Rob Hitchins, Aly Miehlbradt and myself were invited by the Swiss Development Corporation to give a three-day introductory seminar on MSD to a group of senior and mid-level donors, that took place in the small rural town of Notwill in Switzerland. Naturally, we had come armed with doughnuts, diagnostic cones and all manner of diagrams to explain the ‘nuances’ of MSD while expecting significant push-back on the whole idea. Keep in mind, that as a development community, in the early 2000s, we were, by and large, still stuck in a supply-oriented paradigm where the definition of sustainability was simply that, “at the end of the project the government/partner will take it all over”. The term ‘private sector development’ implied easy credit, subsidised advisory services, specialised infrastructure and preferential access. Moving towards the idea of supporting an embryonic and now more competitive private sector with a goal of stimulating more inclusive impact by upgrading and restructuring their transactions with their smaller suppliers and consumers to create value on both sides of the transaction was pretty novel!

So, we were prepared. We needed a sound theoretical base to persuade the people who had decision-making powers over massive resources in a wide range of sectors that MSD offered them better, more sustainable outcomes than the standard recipe that most donors had been using in their respective endeavours.

We were not long into our introduction to the seminar with diagram of doughnuts within doughnuts (remember them?) when a lady at the back of the room stuck her hand up and said, “Isn’t what you are talking about just good development?” Indeed, it was! A good lesson to all of us facilitating the seminar that not all donors were as ill-informed as we may have suspected. As it turned out however, that lady was the only one in our audience for whom the penny had dropped on this first day.

But the reason that I tell this story is, that amidst all the ‘hype’ of theories, best practices, the latest research etc., that surround MSD, we have to keep reminding ourselves, as practitioners, of just what the basics of ‘good development’ are.

I’ve spent over half a century in the development world working with multi-laterals, bi-laterals, GOs and NGOs and if I were to distil this time and experience down to a few lessons, lessons that I cling to and keep me on a path that I still think has heart, here they are. The points I make below may seem, to some, a bit simple and reductionist but, hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Know your market ‘system’: Establish parameters that set borders. In a previous blog, Rob Hitchins spoke about ‘framing the limits of your system’, this is essential whether your system is geographical, gender based, sectoral (agriculture, health, education, etc.) or income oriented. The borders may change as one gets to know the system better, but a starting point on this is better than no starting point. Investing in thinking this through will yield later benefits. Some of these borders may appear to be fixed by your client, but I was never afraid to tinker with them. I always worked on the assumption that it was better to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission in advance, particularly if, in the course of breaking a few eggs, you could establish a solid case for a better result.

Make people more important than markets: We overuse the term markets; markets react to how people behave in and around them; know who these people are and test your assumptions as to why they behave the way that they do. Only by understanding their incentives is it possible to intervene in a potentially positive way. Often enough it is people in organisations rather than organisations, no matter how committed these organisations may be to a goal on paper, that make the difference in doing something new and positive. Find these people. Somewhere, in this discovery process one will also find ‘pro-poor’ target groups that can benefit from your interventions.

Find something that ‘really’ makes a measurable difference to these pro poor target groups: Be honest, and don’t be afraid look outside the box; I know this is a cliché, but it needs to be said – don’t be the hammer in search of the proverbial nail! Improvements come from change and change usually involves doing something new or having access to new information, a new good or a new service. This new ‘something’ may not be new somewhere else (so look outside your own box to see what others have tried and benefitted from) but if it is new for the people you are trying to help, you probably have a ‘winner’. Your ability to identify something that really makes a measurable difference is probably the main reason you were hired in the first place. Applying your experience from outside the box inside the box is often what is called ‘creative’.

Test the potential solutions: Don’t get fixed on only one way to approach the problem. In small, controlled or even lab-like conditions, test your range of solutions to see if any of them work. Keep in mind, that ‘working’ means finding a measurable change that really matters to the target group. This implies that you already have some idea of base-case conditions you are addressing, how to measure them and what short-term results you could expect in your impact logic. One undoubtedly does not have all the data points you could wish for, so it is essential to just pick a couple of ‘lead’ indicators that are sufficient to let you know if you are on the right path or not. Small, targeted surveys, if done well, are just enough to move to the next level of action.

Find and motivate partners that have a role to play in delivery of the solution: If the solution is deliverable in a reasonable market, a nudge in the right direction to a private firm that, up to now, may not have spied this opportunity, may be sufficient to initiate action. If, however, demand is particularly weak I then consider my primary and long-term aim to be awareness or demand stimulation, combined with modest supply side incentives. The term ‘right sizing’ the intervention has been used to get the balance between demand and supply. Keep in mind that in weak markets three intervention cycles may be needed to establish a sustainable feedback loop. Simply presenting a logical solution is seldom enough, repeated demonstrations, particularly in agriculture, are an essential part of positive change.

Optimise your interventions: Monitor feedback on your actions, in your defined system, in the short- and mid-term to enable a re-allocation of your resources to those areas that you now feel have the most promise, i.e., those things that really make a measurable difference to your target groups. This may involve admitting failure, parking an idea that has yet to mature or scaling up something that is starting to gain traction. This is your portfolio, cultivate it; add nourishment when needed, weed when you must, harvest when you can, and expand when the time is right. Some people call this ‘adaptive management’, I just call it good development.

You may have noticed, especially from someone like myself who has spent the last 15 years promoting results measurement (mainly the DCED Standard), that I have not included a separate point on ‘impact assessment’ or whatever we want to call it these days. This is because if we have any claim to call ourselves good development practitioners, then leaving our targeted system in a condition better than when we found it and being confident that we helped this transformation, means that we have to know with reasonable certainty that we made a difference. We can only do this by honestly measuring (and I am not talking about huge surveys, but smart data collection) at every significant step along the way. Most interventions only have a couple of these steps so it is essential to know what and where they are and what you should be measuring to determine if you are indeed really making a difference.

When I look at some of my development heroes, people that I think have made a difference in this world, they have always found something that has really mattered to poor people and have devoted the largest part of their lives to finding out how much it matters to them and how it can be delivered at a scale that makes a dent in the problem. Few of us can reach the same global scale that some of these heroes have achieved, but if we follow a few simple principles of ‘good development’ we can make a difference in our own way in our systems.

Leave a Reply