Do you need a new approach to respond well to COVID-19 or can you use MSD to respond to COVID-19? Here, Rachel Shah gives The Springfield Centre’s take on this, explaining that contrary to those who argue that sustainability-oriented approaches are not suitable for crisis-responses, in fact market systems development is marked by characteristics that are remarkably well-adapted for current circumstances. We are well placed to use the tools we already have.


So, we are now several months into the COVID 19 crisis and it’s an understatement to say that its effects have been far-reaching – on the people we ultimately hope that development programmes will benefit, on the partners we work with and in the countries that we’re working in and of course on the industry of development itself. And at this point we’re starting to hear more and more about some of the different ways that development programmes and aid organisations are responding, and we’re also starting to hear some calls for new tools or even new approaches to enable programmes to better respond to the COVID 19 crisis going forward. You might have heard similar things.

Do we need a ‘COVID 19’ approach?

So this video is to respond to a question that is coming out of the current situation, which is: “Do we need a COVID 19 approach?” and, relatedly, a question about which there has long been some debate: “Is market systems development well suited to responding to crisis situations?”

Obviously, it’s a pertinent time to be asking that question, particularly if you’re managing or funding or implementing a market systems development programme. So, our view at the Springfield Centre is no, we don’t need a new COVID 19 approach. We’re all for using different approaches for different purposes but what is needed now is not a new tool, no matter how innovative it may be. On the contrary, aid organisations need to be able to respond rapidly to what is a devastating situation and, in doing so, to really carefully consider future impacts and, in particular, to learn from previous experience, where rapid influxes of aid have actually caused further distress and damage and made recovery more difficult.

So rather than reaching for new approaches that are untested and unfamiliar, let’s consider first what might be needed to respond well to the current situation and how well our existing approaches might be suited to current circumstances.

Local, and led by on-the-ground intelligence

So firstly, to some extent, our approach needs to be local. If we’re international players, international organisations, we often can’t implement directly due to the restrictions on freedom of movement, and nor, in most circumstances, is it a time to be building relationships from scratch with local players. Market systems development programmes have a real advantage here because we tend to have long-term relationships with permanent market system players that are there, that are local and that will, to some extent or other, be involved in delivering services and goods as needed and as required and as possible to the people in need. So obviously they have a level of access which is critical, but also they are the players who will be key to recovery going forward and so it’s really important to work with them and strengthen them, rather than trying to bypass or undermine them in delivering ourselves. And another advantage of this is that market systems development programmes, by working with local partners, are led by on-the-ground intelligence and in the current circumstance there is such a paucity of data, it’s really difficult to collect any more data and there’s so much we don’t know, so permanent market system players are best placed to advise, both on immediate response, and also to track trends over time that can inform longer term decisions.

Inclusively opportunistic

Secondly, it’s been widely stated that whatever happens as and when we emerge from this pandemic, it will not best be characterised as going back to normal and this sense is I think further cemented by what I personally see as the long overdue momentum behind calls for racial justice. An important question for aid and development actors to ask is what might the new normal look like, and who will it serve. Market systems development practitioners have an opportunity to look for the ways in which current disruptions to systems open up avenues for building or rebuilding more inclusive systems. In a sense, market systems development, or MSD, is inherently opportunistic. Of course, that can sound bad and it’s not that we would want to turn away from what’s wrong with how systems are currently operating or from the suffering caused by disease and disaster, but MSD is always looking for opportunities within dysfunctional markets that can change the way those markets work so that they become more functional for disadvantaged populations. So doing that in this current context doesn’t require new tools per se. The same questions apply:

  • where is the opportunity?
  • who is it relevant to?
  • what is feasible?


Thirdly, and this one’s really straightforward, MSD is flexible. It’s one of the reasons that you can’t really think about it as a set of tools. It’s more a way of working that is, by definition, adaptive, iterative, responsive, data-driven and of course that’s exactly what’s needed right now when we’re all trying to work out a way forward, and five year plans and rigid log frames have become meaningless. Flexibility has become more important than ever.


Fourthly, we need an approach that is recovery-oriented. There’s an indisputable need for immediate aid that alleviates the distress of those at the sharp end of the suffering that COVID 19 has caused but, just as importantly, there’s a need to ensure that aid doesn’t cause further disruption, undermining the potential for recovery, but instead builds towards it and enables those who are building towards it to do so better. This can be a fine line to walk and it’s often at the heart of conversations about the value of approaches like market systems development in crisis situations. We would argue that, at the very least, we have a responsibility to do no harm. This means avoiding undermining the very actors who are best placed to deliver short-term aid and to invest in medium and long-term recovery measures themselves. MSD’s approach to sustainability and to scale is to work with willing and able public and private market system actors to do just that.


Finally, I would argue that to respond well to the COVID 19 crisis requires a systems approach, systems thinking. Probably no surprises there for those who know me. But there are two aspects of COVID 19 that have illustrated in really stark terms just how important a systems approach is. Firstly, the spread of the virus has shown how interconnected we all are and secondly, the knock-on effect of the health crisis, not just on the health system, but on economic social and political systems, has again shown how interconnected we all are, and the systems that we live and operate and work in are. So, a response to a systemic crisis requires systems thinking and of course market systems development is just that. It’s in the name. It’s well placed to do rapid and practical pragmatic assessments of systems and how they’re connected and where the opportunities and constraints lie.

So those are some initial thoughts on why the approaches that we have might actually give us the tools that we need to respond well to the current crisis, to be adaptive, to be responsive, to be future-oriented, to be flexible and to be systemic in our thinking so that we are able to respond well.

If you want to read more about this, we’ve written an article about everything I’ve just been talking about, how MSD may be applicable in the current crisis. It has already been published on our blog post on the Springfield Centre website. And if you’re thinking, “Okay, so if the MSD approach is applicable, even in the midst of the current crisis, then how are programmes actually responding on the ground?”, then stay tuned to this channel and sign up to updates from our blog because we will be writing more on that. In fact, even just later this week, we’ve got an article coming out about that.

Otherwise thank you for listening. I hope this has been helpful and we look forward to hearing from you.

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