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How Chasing Fixed and Large Outreach Targets Hinders Scalable and Sustainable Impacts

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi, Rubaiyath Sarwar – 21. December 2017
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Indirect impacts – results that go beyond initial, direct targets of projects – are important. For these impacts to happen, scalability and not just scale is crucial. Yet many projects are often trapped in chasing numbers to achieve targets. In this blog post, we use our experiences of working in a number of countries to show why and how this needs to be addressed in order to achieve results that go beyond ‘islands of success’.

Scalability and not just scale

A systemic approach – also known as market systems development – is about scalable (larger and qualitative) and sustainable (durable) impacts. Scale is measured by a definitive target. A project can scale up an intervention that aims to reach 1,000 ‘beneficiaries’ during a pilot stage to 10,000 beneficiaries during a scale-up phase. Any project can do it. In fact, all projects do it – whether following a systemic approach or not. This requires replicating activities to an expanded territory, increasing activities or having additional partners. In doing so, a project can reduce its cost and reallocate funding to activities during the scale-up phase. However, this still does not prove that a project’s impact is scalable.

Scalability ensures an intervention will reach out additional beneficiaries (in the same or in an expanded territory) without a project’s support. This also concerns not just numbers but also improved qualitative changes (e.g. not jobs but quality jobs). The difficulty is a project cannot define a timeline for scalability. Nor can it be hundred percent certain – only a small proportion of interventions reaches scalability. A project can forecast results and experiment with a variety of innovations early on.

Problems start cropping up as soon as a project has targets fixed up from the start. This forces it to simply chase targets by developing strategies and activities merely to ensure it reaches some targets. This is where many projects stray off from key objectives of a systemic change – the ability to stimulate and achieve scalable and sustainable impacts.

Asking key questions  

To understand why and how projects chase fixed targets and miss out scalable and sustainable impacts, let us ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How many of a project’s interventions rely on training, demonstration or group formation activities?
  • How many of a project’s interventions are implemented through lead firms?
  • Does a project have interventions managed in silos such that the beneficiaries of one intervention are different from the beneficiaries in another intervention even though the constraints that a project identified are affecting everyone?

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then we would generate scale, reach project’s targets, but we are unlikely to stimulate a systemic change – scalable and sustainable impacts. Let us explain why this is the case using three examples.

Interventions are primarily focused on training, demonstration or group formation activities

We are not saying that projects should not have training, demonstration or group formation activities. The problem is the lack of critical reflection by simply taking activities as a solution to key constraints identified during an assessment – an easy and quick route to scale. Projects dish out money, monitor and report results for training or demonstration activities. They organise 20 trainings, support 20 demonstrations, and they straightaway have 1,000 beneficiaries reached, assuming that each training or demonstration was attended by 50 beneficiaries.

To be fair, a project working with or through actors – training providers, private sector companies, etc. – can indeed claim that it is facilitative (i.e. not doing all activities by itself). This is one of the core principles of a systemic approach. However, this does not necessarily contribute to scalable and sustainable impacts without addressing constraints that prevent actors from performing their functions and continue doing so in a better way. If the actors have not done so, there must be an underlying reason for that, and that is where a ‘systemic constraint’ lies.

Most interventions are delivered in partnership with few and select large-scale private sector enterprises or lead firms

A systemic approach is not necessarily only about private sector enterprises. Projects often do a rigorous analysis and then conclude that an intervention needs to be delivered through a lead firm. They afterwards end up with a lead firm-driven solution and deliver it through the one that is the ‘best’ among others. This ignores why other actors are not as competent as the one projects select to partner with. The assumption is, projects can create a ‘demonstration effect’ through ‘proof of a business case’ to stimulate others to crowd in. How are we ensuring that our support to the most competitive private sector enterprise is not creating entry barriers for the weaker ones? Copying-in or crowding-in will take place only when the collective problem is addressed. Simply partnering with lead firms can reduce the likelihood of facilitating systemic change and restrict our actions to solve the challenges of actors (e.g. lead firms) that we partner with.

Apart from the lead firm-centric approach, we also have the idea, as mentioned above, that market systems development is about working only with the private sector. It is not. The approach provides us the framework to work with any actor in a system – be government or NGO or civil society organisations. Thus, we should care more whether our interventions are systemic – that is, we work with the ones who are relevant to a constraint (s) to be addressed.

Interventions are run in silos

Let us assume that two interventions reach the same beneficiary (e.g. in livestock: breed and fodder improvements; in employment: skills development and labour market information). We expect the beneficiary to improve income or employability. But if the interventions reach other targets, there will be two types of beneficiaries. So the easy solution to reach scale is to separate the two beneficiaries. If a project does not take actions to ensure that the interventions eventually reach out to both beneficiaries, this may actually never happen. A farmer or a young person accesses improved breed/skills challenge but is unable to access improved fodder/relevant labour market information challenge, and vice versa.

Usually the assumption is the market will automatically adjust in the long run for the farmer or young person who was reached through the intervention on improved breed/skills to have access to improved fodder/relevant labour market information. In reality, this hardly happens without an external facilitation. Most projects’ exit strategy often fails to acknowledge this fact. Eventually, as the farmers/young people fail to realise the full benefit, the sub minimal impact from one intervention wanes their interest in a product or service that was promoted through that intervention.

What can be done about it?

We cannot possibly take away the fixed targets of projects set during design – they are contracts that we enter with funders. We need the targets to deliver minimum results that are expected. We also need the targets to be accountable and to have a goal. However, it is highly important to be cautious of the fact that the targets can confine our efforts to deliver scalable and sustainable impacts. Achieving targets and ticking boxes in a log frame is easy, but ensuring that impacts continue, expand and improve beyond the life span of a project is difficult. We need to sign up for that difficult pathway.

There are a number of tools to use for ensuring scalable and sustainable impacts. For example, the Adopt (A)-Adapt (A)-Expand (E)-Respond (R) is an excellent tool to analyse the prospects for scalability and sustainability of impacts. But this is hardly used to design interventions and mostly applied during evaluation of projects’ success in achieving systemic changes. The tool simply asks the following questions:

Adopt: If a project left now, would partners return to their previous way of working?

Adapt: If a project left now, would partners build upon the changes they have adopted, without the project?

Expand: If a project left now, would target group benefits depend on too few people, firms, or organisations?

Respond: If a project left now, would the system be supportive of the changes introduced (allowing them to be upheld, grow, evolve)?

Results chains – visual tool to show what a project is doing, and why – are also helpful to design interventions. But these are largely used for monitoring rather than design and management of interventions.

In addition, we hardly undertake a financial analysis of interventions to understand how much investment should we make from our side, and why and what would be the returns from it. Even for projects that have financial analysis as a requirement for intervention design, the complexity of doing it means it is undertaken as a parallel activity just to tick the box.

Finally, we spend years on implementing a solution and merely a few days to design a solution. This has to change. We need to embrace the innovator’s mind-set to design our interventions. We think this is largely overlooked as a skill that is required of a project’s team. Innovation is not easy; it requires creativity, intuition and a risk-taking aptitude that has to be harnessed or rewarded in a project. The fact that we have signed up to facilitate scalable and sustainable impacts is a sign of commitment. Let’s live up to that.

Additional sources


Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
Md. Rubaiyath Sarwar (MBA) is the Managing Director of Innovision Consulting, an international consultancy with its bases in Dhaka, Bangladesh and London, UK. Rubaiyath works as a researcher, technical consultant and advisor for market systems development and extreme poverty alleviation. His experience cuts across agriculture, health, industries, finance, water, sanitation and hygiene market systems. He has over 13 years of experience in consulting for major DFID, USAID, SDC, EU, GIZ projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Yemen. Rubaiyath is a senior technical consultant on market systems development for DAI Europe, a leading international development agency in the world. He is also serving as the steering committee member for the IFAD Funded Value Chain Capacity Building Network (VCBN) for Asia and the Pacific.
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