A Three-Day Journey with a Development Practitioner at a “Market Systems Symposium”

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 04. April 2018

In our last blog, we discussed about the value of attending conferences. We were in Cape Town for another conference called “market systems symposium 2018”. There is no denying that conferences are founded on content and delivery. This becomes even more important especially in understanding, applying and explaining “systemic thinking”, which is known by its different labels – Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P), Market Systems Development (MSD) and Inclusive Systems….

This blog is about a conversation between two development practitioners interested in systemic thinking. It highlights how jumbled and abstract ideas block our ability to explain and communicate well what we do in applying principles of systemic thinking. We struggle, daily, to make our communication understandable, beyond the objective of public relations, on how our work in development cooperation is relevant and how it contributes to addressing poverty and unemployment in the long-term and at large scale.

“I am sorry, but what is M4P?”

Participants of the symposium in Cape Town were largely development practitioners, including some from donors and consulting firms. Responding to the usual criticism levelled at boring and less relevant contents of conferences, organisers of the symposium vowed to make it “not business as usual” through providing “quality exchanges between recognised experts and experienced practitioners”. Did the symposium live up to its expectations? To answer this question, I followed, throughout the three-day symposium, one of the participants, a social entrepreneur, who has never heard of M4P, MSD or its other variants.

On day one, participants were asked to tell what they expect from the symposium. This started well. One could see a clear thread emerging – from generating evidence to knowing the limits of applying systemic thinking, ensuring inclusion of poor and disadvantaged women and men, as well as communicating well on what we do and how we do it. Elizabeth, however, was not clearly at ease. After one speaker ended describing his expectations, Elizabeth quietly inquired, “I am sorry, but what is M4P?”.

Beyond labels, this characterises the challenge we face in communicating well what systemic thinking is and what it is not. As a development practitioner coming from the private sector, I often struggle to explain to my ex-colleagues at Toyota what I do, how I do it and why. The usual response I get is “why don’t you come back to the private sector?”

Systemic approach is not entirely new. The approach puts lessons from decades of development work into a set of principles 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 such as value chain development. It is, with the risk of oversimplification, about “making common sense common” through four key principles:

  • Having a vision from the start of an initiative or a project on longterm (sustainability) and large and quality (scalable) impacts
  • Understanding root causes and not symptoms through good analysis which is guided by the “spirit of curiosity” by asking critical questions to identify potential drivers of change and partners for implementation
  • Defining the roles of initiatives or projects as temporary players in supporting other actors – from the public to the private sector and civil society – to assume their roles in a better way
  • Knowing what works and what does not and why through having a rightsized and practical monitoring and learning system     

The symposium was well organised. The methodology was highly useful, giving more space to participants to engage in conversations on their work. Yet we had mixed feelings about the relevance of the symposium to development practitioners, as most of the topics seemed to lack good ground work and careful preparation. Conceptual discussions are needed but they should not cloud the understanding and application of systemic thinking. After all, we implement projects and ensure quality impacts. It is good to remember that in theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.[1]

The case for “evidence-informed” communication

In many of the initiatives/projects applying principles of systematic thinking, changes happen quickly and strategies need to be adapted continuously. For this, monitoring and results measurement needs to adapt to such working environment. Having access to reliable and timely information through a monitoring and results measurement system is thus crucial for generating credible evidence.

How can development initiatives/projects use data/information for making decisions? How can a monitoring and results measurement system enable us to generate evidence and use to improve our work and communicate well to others? These were some of the most important issues that we expected to be covered in the symposium. The session spent time discussing terminologies in monitoring and evaluation. This, we felt, took us away from having relevant conversations on how to design and implement right-sized and functional monitoring and measurement adaptable to systemic thinking. Our feeling was shared by another participant of the symposium who was “astonished that many definitions used in M&E are taking us away again from systemic thinking”.  

Knowledge management & learning – at the heart of our work and not an add-on

We were happy to be part of an interesting discussion on “telling good stories” to a range of stakeholders. The presentation by the USAID team on the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) framework was quite relevant, highlighting the challenge of how knowledge management and learning does not happen regularly or systematically and is not well resourced.  

We learnt how different projects/initiatives involved isolated activities or were treated as “add-on” activities without a clear unity of purpose for knowledge management and learning. Resources were also thinly distributed and responsibilities have been unclear. There is enthusiasm and emerging evidence on the relevance of applying systemic approach. However, there are also many sceptics who question if the approach really contributes to addressing development challenges. Knowledge management and learning helps to increasingly reflect on the relevance of systemic thinking and improve its applications through feeding that knowledge and learning back to inform decision-making. Thus, investing in and improving the “culture” knowledge management and leaning becomes crucial.  

Additional sources


Cover picture: @ashleybatz


[1] A quote attributed to Jan van de Snepscheut

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