What does social anthropology have to do with market systems development? Could market systems development provide a framework for applied anthropologists seeking to translate their findings into action? Could the research that social anthropologists produce solve problems market systems development professionals regularly face?

These were the questions the Springfield Centre explored at the 2019 Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA) conference in Portland, Oregon. The theme of this year’s conference – ‘Engaging Change in Turbulent Times’ – attracted over 1700 participants from 28 countries, all with an interest in the intersections of anthropological research with applied practice and activism.

Among this vibrant group of (primarily academic) anthropologists the Springfield Centre found an engaged audience for our workshop on Market Systems Development: Using Applied Research to Achieve Systemic Change, Sustainability and Scale in International Development. This workshop began by introducing the market systems development (MSD) approach, as none of the workshop participants were yet familiar with it. Although MSD is research-oriented and is designed to promote inclusive, sustainable and systemic change by designing interventions based on holistic, contextualised analysis, few applied anthropologists have worked with it and none, to our knowledge, have yet conducted research about it.

The workshop proceeded to explore how MSD challenges mainstream development and the extent to which it addresses anthropological critiques of development. After considerable debate, the majority of participants concluded that although anthropology has a long history of producing valuable insights into misapprehensions between various aid actors and of highlighting problematic power relationships in development, attempts to apply anthropological research to development practice have too frequently defaulted to simplistic models.

“Recommendations for practice” in applied anthropology need to move beyond ‘direct delivery’ models of external donor-funded intervention (which are unsustainable) or suggestions that stakeholders work against their existing incentives (which are unimplementable). This is where MSD has a lot to offer. MSD has tested approaches to translating research insights into interventions that work within and through the economic, social and political systems that already exist. By using an MSD lens, anthropologists could make stronger arguments for how their insights should be applied within development.

Meanwhile, greater engagement from anthropologists has the potential to improve MSD practice too. Many MSD programmes are looking for better ways to build rigorous quantitative and qualitative research methods into their analysis and measurement. Increasingly, programmes recognise the need to better understand social as well as economic realities, and to design programmes that respond to local conceptions of vulnerability and poverty instead of imposing external definitions. Anthropologists are well-equipped to advise on how MSD frameworks should be adapted to different social and political contexts and to advocate for more participatory approaches to programme design, as well as to build capacity in using research methods effectively.

In order to equip workshop participants to build useful bridges between these disciplines in the future, the rest of the workshop was spent on introductory technical training in MSD methods and frameworks. We discussed the different between effective development activities, which should always be temporary, and effectively functioning “markets,” in which changes that lead to inclusivity are done by permanent players because of their own incentives. Tools such as ‘market system mapping,’ the ‘sustainability analysis framework’ and the ‘systemic change framework’ were introduced alongside case studies from diverse sectors such as tourism and rural media.

Feedback was positive, with several participants immediately applying MSD concepts to their work and to that of other conference participants. Through exercises and discussion, the rich potential of collaboration between social anthropologists and development professionals using systemic approaches quickly became apparent.

I really appreciate you offering the workshop at the conference, and I feel like I learned a lot. My view of development and donor-funded projects has definitely shifted, and I hope to keep these ideas in mind during future endeavours. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to attend the full 2-week training and immerse myself further in these concepts and exercises. Thank you again for sharing your time and passion with us!

 This workshop was led by Dr. Rachel Shah, a Development Anthropologist working as a Consultant for The Springfield Centre. Please feel free to contact her on rshah@springfieldcentre.com

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