“Systemic Change? What Are You Talking About?”

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 13. July 2019

Two months ago, I was in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and I had an interesting exchange with Hana Imsirovic, Project Assistant of Moja Buducnost. A highly active participant in the political and economic spheres of the country, Hana was excited to join the Moja Buduconost project – to learn and contribute to employment and income opportunities of young people in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Yet, what caught Hann off guard was what she heard from her colleagues and others involved in the project: systemic change! She recalls her first reaction: “it was too abstract for me. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about…”

Hana reminded me of Elizabeth Mhangami, another development practitioner, that I met at the Market Systems Symposium in Cape Town in April 2018. You can read my exchange with Elizabeth here.

Hana’s and Elizabeth’s experiences are part of a development narrative in small projects in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Zimbabwe, respectively. Their inquiry and confusion echoes what happens at regional and global levels among practitioners applying systemic approach, also known as market systems development. There still seems to be a lack of good understanding of systemic change despite over a decade of rich experience of using the approach across different countries and contexts.

But why should we care about concepts like systemic change? Why don’t we just implement projects and support disadvantaged and excluded groups?

First, the lack of a common understanding has its own implications. For example, it “negatively influences how programs are funded and designed and also poses challenges to program monitoring and evaluation.” The concepts and terms that we use, argues Sarika Bansal, “shape the stories we construct of people and places, and ultimately, the policies and decisions we make.”

Second, the inability to clearly explain systemic change will more and more push the discussion to just about impacts – jobs, income, etc. – putting aside other essential elements that’re key to bringing about the impacts. As I saw in some instances, this may increase the tension between short-term and long-term results.

What’s systemic change anyway?

It’s clear that most projects struggle to define concretely what systemic change means and to find ways of supporting change. It’s ambiguous and difficult to grasp – “abstract in tone, polemical, and more concerned with diagnosing what is wrong than with offering concrete solutions.” Indeed, there’ve been a recognition of this challenge and several attempts to explain what systemic change is (and isn’t).

A quick assessment of available materials and experiences suggest three key aspects of systemic change.   

1. It’s about sustainable and scalable impacts

A central feature of a systemic change is “that’s at least sustainable and large-scale impacts”. The change should be owned by actors, be it government agencies, private enterprises, civil society organizations... It should also have a wider and larger impact both in scope and quality. In other words, it goes beyond few farmers, young people, enterprises, municipalities...  

I believe durable solutions that are more than islands of success are at the core of development challenges. And these challenges aren’t new; what has been lacking is an effective way of stimulating the changes.

The starting point for stimulating those kinds of changes is having a feasible and relevant vision by any development initiative. This requires taking stock of our current work and developing a realistic picture of how this will translate in the future once our initiatives or projects are over.

Let’s take an example from a governance or an advocacy system in agriculture. For pharmaceutical industries and millions of landless people in Bangladesh, medicinal herbs offer an opportunity for improved income. But governance of roadside and fallow land prevents better access and use for producing adequate and high-quality herbs. By addressing underperforming advocacy capacity, it was possible to create a coalition of local government bodies, enterprises and local communities to bring about lasting and large impacts. More local governments, more private enterprises, more local communities are involved in producing and processing additional species of medicinal herbs even after the end of the project.

The same can be said of the experience of the Indo Swiss Project Sikkim (ISPS) in India. Thirteen years after the end of the project – without any explicit claim of using a systemic approach (!), business among the 1,000 dairy farmers is thriving.

The point is what we do is less important than how we do it to improve inadequate, mismatched, or absent systems.      

2. Change is about the dynamic structures of a system

Now this seems to be complicated. With the risk of oversimplification, what this means is the rules, norms, customs, practices, power dynamics, relationships and resource flows around a system, which can be in an education system, a governance system, a health system, etc.

What’s important is to understand what shapes the material conditions as well as behaviors or practices of people – individuals, businesses, public sector agencies, civil society organizations within a system.  

Let’s take the serious challenge of creating decent jobs for millions of unemployed young people. Among others, labor market unresponsive and outdated curricula in the education system is one of the root causes. This might be a question of capacities or lack of awareness about the importance or possibility of bringing about changes. It’s also the case that young people don’t necessarily choose what to study, at least in most developing countries or countries in transition. Perceptions and norms of parents or communities shape what young people pursue (to study or work).    

Another example is women empowerment. Often a strong narrative exists in countries that experience high level of gender inequality that defines women’s and men’s roles, and dictates responsibilities in households, markets and public life in their communities. Social norms shape and sometimes reinforce gender inequalities of power – that women can only receive information through their husbands and have little to contribute to decision making. In other words, both men and women don’t exist in isolation from surrounding informal rules and social norms – and these constitute a dynamic structure of the system the needs to be improved or changed.

3. Change requires enhancing processes  

An education, a health or an advocacy system isn’t static. All systems continuously evolve. Yet, this may not be in a positive or meaningful way mainly benefitting disadvantaged or excluded groups. In this line, Shawn Cunningham and Marcus Jenal argue that “rather than seeking to ‘make’ change happen,” development initiatives should focus on “creating access for all levels of the society to contribute to and shape this process”.  

This raises the question of: why the education, health, advocacy, etc. systems in developing countries or countries in transition need projects (from outside) to come in and support durable and large-scale changes? Why do municipalities, universities, private companies, civil society organizations need others for changes to happen? The role of development projects in achieving systemic change should therefore be complementary and facilitative, and not as interventions that treat complex problems as simple input-output models.

Let’s take once again labor market systems. For creating employment opportunities, a project may contribute to introducing or improving (hence the term “innovation”) market functions that support private sector growth. It’s indeed target employers that possess the motivation, know-how, and resources to make changes to their business practices and secure more clients/customers and increase sales, revenues, and profits. These contributions by a project in enhancing processes can be referred to as “systemic changes”.

Beyond labels and jargons

“Our approach aims at bringing about catalytic change. We use innovative and disruptive ideas that stimulate crowding-in.” If you read this more than once and if it makes you say “huh?”, then you got my point.

I’m still unable to convincingly explain what I currently do to my ex-colleagues in Toyota Motors. Next week, I’ll once again be in Bosnia & Herzegovina and meet Hana. Her questions are a reminder of how most development approaches, including systemic approach, suffer from the deficit of clarity and shared understanding.

The good news is there’s a lot of progress in improving our understanding of the principles of systemic approach and their applications.

It’s important that we go beyond being obsessively concerned about concepts like systemic change, markets, facilitation, etc. The point should rather be to understand what they mean (and don’t mean) and improve their application across different contexts.

In addition, systemic change doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. Development projects are becoming complex not because of size, cost and duration, or the challenge of integrating advances in technology. It’s mainly because the systems in which development work takes place are complex adaptive systems.

Successfully contributing to a systemic change will require an inclusive culture and collaborative environment, adequate investment, and human capital development strategy for creative minds and passion of people with a purpose.

Clear thinking is the basis of generating good ideas and making a difference, and of course telling good stories.


Additional sources


Cover picture: courtesy of Startup Stock Photos


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