© Zenebe Uraguchi

On Systemic Approach: What It Is and What It Is Not

BY: Matthias Herr, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 02. May 2016
© Zenebe Uraguchi

There are enthusiasms, misperceptions, claims, and complexities about what a systemic approach is and is not. In this blog, we try to provide a brief account on the origin and key principles of systemic approach. The objective is to contribute to a better understanding of the approach and its effective application.

This blog post is one of the contributions on understanding and applying a systemic approach. We hope it will serve as a ‘reference’ to upcoming blog posts from a range of themes: environment and climate change, water and infrastructure, skills development and education, governance, rural economy and other related cross-cutting issues.


The above photo, taken in Southern Ethiopia in 2011, says, “Shame on us [Ethiopians] that we beg for aid, but we are able-bodied and we have fertile land! Let’s wake up!” It’s a development narrative in a small local community that also reverberates at national and international levels.

The development industry has come under increasing criticism over the past decades. We hear time and again questions like: is what we do really effective? How sustainable is the change that development organisations make? And how many people does our work really affect? Are we really addressing the root causes of development challenges, or just the symptoms?

These are good questions, but the discussion around them is often highly divided into two extremes. On the one hand, sceptics of development cooperation criticised past efforts; they described development cooperation as ‘dead’ and a ‘betray of public trust by ‘the lords of poverty’. Supporters, on the other hand, came to the defence saying ‘not everything is too bad’.

Trying to find more meaningful and practical answers to the above questions, other development practitioners and thinkers wanted to look for better ways of addressing various development challenges, such as poverty, hunger, exclusion, unemployment and others. Building on ideas and decades of field experiences, they looked for answers on how to effectively achieve long-term and large-scale impacts. In short, this was how systemic approach to development was born and further improved.

The approach simply synthesises good development practices into principles and frameworks to guide projects and development organisations towards achieving better results. In other words, the approach tries to (re)define the role of development agencies – from always doing things by themselves and thus substituting actors and players towards supporting individuals, communities, enterprises and governments in finding solutions to problems they face.

What systemic approach is not

It is not just another catchword or new label in development

Systemic approach is not entirely new. The approach puts lessons from decades of development work into a set of principles and frameworks to guide development projects in their design, implementation and results measurement. It tries to provide us a strategic framework for better results of development work. It is more substantial than simple tools and methods.

The terminology ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P)’ has long been associated with systemic approach. We think it is a well-intended selection but unwise use of a terminology. We encourage all development practitioners to look beyond labels and focus on the key messages and questions raised by the approach to have the mental flexibility to challenge our perceived norms and ideas of development work.

Let’s therefore look more closely at our work and ask ourselves if we care more about impacts beyond our temporary role, and if these impacts are more than ‘islands of success’.

It is not all about markets or the private sector

Systemic approach does not exclusively focus on ‘markets’ in the economic sense – that is, simply engaging and working with only private sector actors. It is true that the approach has mainly emerged from the field of private sector development and a focus on economic poverty reduction.

Yet it is not as such narrow; it offers all of us, irrespective of the areas or domains we are in, a lens through which we can view our work and understand our role in relation to our development partners and stakeholders, including poor and disadvantaged women and men. It helps us think critically to become better in achieving large-scale and sustainable outcomes in economic, social and political areas.

We usually associate the term market to a commercial exchange between supply and demand. However, in a systemic approach the term market refers to ‘transactions’ or ‘exchanges’ in a very broad way. Exchange is a basic feature of human daily interaction and can have various forms: a buyer (demand) purchasing products from a small-scale farmer (supply), schools (supply) offering skills to young people (demand), a municipality (supply) providing fresh water to citizens (demand), policy makers (supply) responding to women’s needs for participation (demand), communities (demand) asking for technical support (supply) in making better use of natural resources, etc.

Improving transactions/interactions between different parties is at the centre of our development efforts. Depending on our thematic focus, they take on different forms and involve different types of players.

It is not prescriptive of solutions to development challenges

A systemic approach does not have ready-made solutions to development challenges. It does not prescribe solutions, but encourages us to consider solutions that work best in a given context. It gives us essential frameworks and principles to guide us in our work by asking critical questions as mentioned above.

It is not purely theoretical and abstract, either. In fact, it bases itself on concepts from development thinking tested in practice and gradually improved. It does not say direct subsidy by itself is bad; it does not scorn relief work; it does not reject all that is not economic… But it encourages to ask ourselves if we have a vision in our work and initiative, whether we critically think if ‘our entry is our exit’ and if our role in development is to bring impacts which are more than islands of success.

What it is: our understanding

A vision from the start

No matter which system a development project is addressing – be it financial services, decentralisation processes or sanitation technology – there needs to be a vision how this system can work in the future for the benefit of disadvantaged women and men. Having a feasible and relevant vision requires taking stock of our current work and developing a realistic picture of how this will translate in the future once our projects are over. We believe it is helpful for our work to elaborate a strategy for the system in the future.
Projects’ roles are temporary and facilitative

If we link our vision to our role, then it is temporary. The problem of many development projects is that they do things by themselves and therefore become part of the system. We need to move to an idea of projects in development being temporary ‘think-tanks’ rather than mere implementers.

In every system, there are actors and players – be it in education, health, agriculture or governance. Our role is to facilitate to bring these actors to perform their functions in improved ways. The approach provides us analytical frameworks to understand the incentives (will) and capacities (skills) of the actors to take up new functions or improve their performance.

Projects do not exist in a vacuum, and they engage and work with a number actors – be it private companies, governments, civil societies, individual actors, etc. These actors/players are the ones who should own the initiatives from the beginning and improve it for better impacts. Therefore, innovative ideas generated, tested, supported and developed in the ‘think-tank’ should be taken further by those who are part of the different systems, and not by projects.

Root causes and not symptoms

A systemic approach helps us understand two key aspects of our work. First, it gives us frameworks to look into the wider system (and specific functions/parts in that system) which poor and disadvantaged women and men are part of. Second, it guides us to understand the main causes for underperformance/failure and not just their symptoms.

Research and analysis is thus an essential part of our daily work; it shapes our focus for intervention. A systemic approach provides us the strategic framework to do this by continually asking ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ It helps us ‘peel the onion’ until we find the main causes that gives us leverage for relevant and meaningful impacts.

Key principles of sustainability and scale

How do we ensure that changes and innovations we introduced would remain beyond the project period and continue to evolve and adapt to changing realities? This is concerned about sustainability.

How do we ensure that as many people as possible benefit from the changes and innovations we introduce to the local context? This is about scale.

Sustainability has various dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Development projects reflect these dimensions in their goals, e.g. improving the environmental footprint of consumption and production patterns, or contributing to healthy and liveable communities or wellbeing through social justice and equity, social capital, community resilience etc.). In all three dimensions, it is essential to achieve large-scale and long-term impacts.

A systemic approach is therefore relevant to achieve economically, environmentally and socially sustainable results. It provides guidance on ‘how’ these results can continue to grow and deepen beyond the project life. This also means how other actors (in addition to initial actors engaged by projects) own and improve the changes that projects have contributed to building and strengthening.

For example, how can a project that works in improving systems for infrastructure contribute to equitable access and usage opportunities and outcomes for all members, particularly poor and disadvantaged women and men? How can such a project ensure the externalities from an infrastructural development are not leading to environmental risks (e.g. waster generation, pollution, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc.)?

Therefore, a systemic approach focusses on institutional sustainability (the ‘how’) to achieve large-scale results. A systemic approach is strategic, as it helps us think about the above questions in the context of our projects and organisation. It does not give us the answers, but rather frameworks that make critical questions more explicit and help to structure our roles in development work.

If we are not prepared to answer the above questions, we continue to lament at what David Pyle wrote more than three decades ago:

‘How many times during the last three decades of intensive development efforts has a demonstration or pilot project provided ‘the answers’ to a development problem? Everyone is flushed with enthusiasm and optimism. The model that proved so successful on a small-scale is expanded with the hopes of benefiting a larger portion of the population. All too often, however, impact decreases or disappears completely [once the project phases out].’

Therefore, it is essential for all of us to have people with genuine commitments to critically reflect our vision and constantly remind ourselves if our roles in development will make meaningful contributions that are long-term and large-scale. It is not a rocket science, but hard to steadily put into practice in complex and interdependent systems that we always work.

Additional sources:

Senior Advisor Market Development, Head of EE Unit
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
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