Am I (Really) a “Market Systems” Thinker? It’s Easier Said Than Done

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 20. April 2019

Am I (really) a “market systems” thinker? It’s easier said than done. I was, again, at the 2019 Market Systems Symposium in Cape Town. I documented my experience of last year’s symposium. While getting the most out of any symposium or conference is a challenge, there’re so many high-quality conferences and compelling reasons for attending them. I felt the 2019 symposium was by far better than the 2018 one.

Among the many relevant sessions, there was a creative poster at this year’s symposium, as shown in the cover picture for this blog. Everyone was taking a picture in front of the poster and I also joined the crowd. Beyond picture taking, the poster listed ten key features that supposedly describe what market systems thinking is expected to involve.

With a second thought, I wasn’t quite sure whether I embody these ten features to be “qualified” as a market systems thinker. To begin with, I don’t know why there were ten features; I also don’t dare to make a reference to Moses’ Ten Commandments! Here are the ten features:

  • See what is below the surface; find points of leverage; look for patterns in behaviour
  • Feel comfortable with change; constantly adapt to market signals; celebrate learning; constantly adapt to market signals;
  • Facilitate and catalyse change; committed to durable systems change; embrace testing and trailing

While I'm committed to the above ten features, I felt walking the talk isn’t that easy. Below I list few reasons alongside selected features of market systems thinking.  

Facilitate and catalyse durable systems change

Increasingly many implementors of development initiatives are embracing – at least from their declarations and reports – the market systems development approach. The Symposium was proof of such emerging trends. It wasn’t dominated by “the same old faces, with a few more wrinkles every year, using [confusing] jargon to present the same old stuff.” There were diverse organisations and people and not just the usual suspects that have been at the forefront of promoting the approach. This’s definitely encouraging, as it provides increased momentum for doing development differently.   

We need, however, to be sincere and critical.

First, listening to several discussions, presentations and informal discussions gave the sense that the level of understanding of the market systems development approach is quite different. This’s problematic and worrying, and I am not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. For example, the approach isn’t just about private sector engagement or development. It doesn’t exclusively focus on “markets” in the economic sense. Development cooperation is a multi-stakeholder endeavour. Increasingly, this’s becoming apparent. It involves not only the private sector, but also public-sector actors and civil society. We need to ask ourselves: who is best fit to do under what kind of context?

Second, there were impressive cases demonstrating good practices and successes. The cases and the extensive discussions were eye-opener. Yet, most of us seem to be less concerned about a major problem – the evidence on impact of the market systems development approach is thin! This is a very, very big elephant in the room. The BEAM Exchange and ITAD worked on developing the evidence map of different initiatives. The conclusion is that “we still need to expand the evidence base to better answer in-depth questions about who benefits and how, and in what circumstances the approach can be most effective.” For this reason, the Eastern Europe Unit of HELVETAS, covering several countries, is currently preparing a regional impact assessment of labour market systems projects to know what works and what doesn’t and why.  

There's also another, apparently abstract and small but crucial challenge: the lack of consensus on what constitutes systemic change. Most projects seem to struggle to define concretely what it means and how to support it.    

See what is below the surface

This means conducting proper analysis before moving into actions. It involves understanding of relationships and social norms within a system. With the risk of overcomplication, the purpose is to have a better insight regarding constraints and identify opportunities.

In reality, we often conduct one-off or long and boring studies which we never bother to look back once we’re done or update the studies later for that matter. This problem is especially true with dynamic sectors such as ICT in which trends quickly change and development practitioners need to keep abreast of changes.

In addition, one can dig deeper to find root causes, but several different interconnected and interdependent elements and structures may be the reasons for the failure or underperformance of a system. For example, why the education system isn’t producing skilled young people in Kosovo; why the tourism sector isn’t  attracting more visitors and hence employers invest and create more jobs in Bosnia; or why young people and their parents aren’t having relevant and attractive information to decide what to study or which career path to choose in Albania.  

Look for patterns in behaviour

This, I guess, refers to good understanding and identification of formal and informal norms and values of actors or partners in (not/under) performing their functions. The norms and values are about relations, interactions and connections between people, organisations and other networks. Understanding how social norms work and navigating them carefully for effectively influencing positive changes is highly important. How often are we paying good attention to such factors?

Long-term change in behaviour is rarely a simple process. As our experience from 15 projects globally shows, most monitoring and results measurement systems are designed to capture quantitative data. This means that, narratives (qualitative data) fail to “understand existing perspectives, beliefs, decisions and norms, or the way these are changing in response to interventions and other environmental factors.” In other words, we often pay more attention to formal and quantitative (observable) changes.

Of course, there's good progress mainly in health interventions (e.g. water and sanitation, HIV) but not in other initiatives. Let us take change in gender relations, be it for income or employment impact. Men and women don’t exist in isolation from surrounding informal rules and social norms. In other words, it isn’t simply the interaction between men and women that determines the outcome of gender equitable relationships. Complex networks of social norms are often at play. Another example is in the skills development area. In the Balkan region, a pattern has been emerging in the skills development area in which more and more training providers play critical role on job matching. Such a trend is also playing an important role of lowering the risk of unemployed youth to invest in new training programmes, as training providers are involved in ensuring the job placement of trainees.

Celebrate learning, including the “oops moments”

Most conferences, unfortunately, lack honest inquiry where successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated and presented. One of the new introductions by the Symposium was consultations on several topics. Even though participation was quite low, topics such as “taking learning seriously” were important.

There’s a reason why I’m focusing on learning. Development initiatives suffer from the deficit of ensuring that learning is durable.

First, learning is taken as an add-on and not part of our work. Therefore, the culture of learning is weak. Fear, embarrassment, and intolerance of failure drives our learning underground and hinders innovation. Learning and innovation is helped or hindered by the surrounding system. Therefore, the importance of learning and innovation from oops moments have more value when individual experiences are linked to organisational culture.

Second, even if learning happens, it’s just owned by development projects. There’re scant cases of development projects working with actors such as universities. This means, organisations and leaders will need to proactively nurture learning and innovation to be owned by systems actors in the countries where we work. Without this, the experiences will remain limited to few individuals who dare and feel safe to share their knowledge and learning.

One last word…

It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily grind that development practitioners lose motivation or excitement for their job or interests. Taking a break from our day-to-day responsibilities creates new settings for developing ideas. Conferences or symposiums can be rejuvenating by being inspirational and offering energising opportunities. Listening to other people share their ideas and feeling their enthusiasm gives us the energy to tackle new challenges. In other words, conferences can be an important reminder that we are not on our own.

Hats off to the organizers of the Market Systems Symposium! And look forward to the 2020 sessions….

Additional Readings

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies