Editorial: New approaches to old problems: systemic change as a unifying objective

Systemic approaches to development have, over the last decade, gone from a niche concern to what is arguably a paradigm shift, in discourse at least. In academia, the

global value chains literature has shifted focus to align behind global production

networks literature in being more inclusive of the multidirectional flows and

institutional dynamics of systems (Hess and Yeung, 2006; Coe et al., 2008; Bair,

2008). In practice, donors have begun to align behind systemic approaches demonstrated by USAID’s shift from Value Chains to Value Chain Systems (USAID, 2014)

and the £1 bn of programmes commissioned under a systems banner over the past

decade (authors’ analysis of programme documents). The systemic approach to

development intervention is grounded in the works of Polanyi, Porter and New

Institutional Economics, and has analytical synergies with work on complex

adaptive systems (Hall and Clark, 2010; Ramalingam et al., 2008, 2014). However,

this journal has played a significant role in the conceptual development of the

operational side of market system approaches, and their principal articulation,

Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) (Elliott et al., 2008; Bear et al., 2003; Hitchins

et al., 2004; Taylor, 2013; Bekkers, 2008; Bear and Field, 2008; Jones, 2012; Hitchins

and Jain, 2011; Johnson, 2009), codified in the Operational Guide (DfID and SDC,

2008; Springfield Centre, 2015).

Fundamentally, the consensus which has emerged relates to the objective of

ensuring that approaches to addressing development goals including poverty

reduction, improved nutrition, and gender equity, achieve sustainable (Taylor, 2014)

impacts at scale. A ‘system’ or ‘market system’ centres on a series of interconnected

supply–demand transactions, each of which is supported by other functions and

governed by formal and informal rules. Each of the supporting functions and rules

as well as the roles of supply and demand are performed by a range of public,

private, and civil society actors. The concept of a market is useful as it highlights

the generation of outcomes through the incentives of the different players

involved. However, these incentives go beyond economic incentives to include

social and political motivations, and the markets terminology may be part of the

reason behind the confinement of systems thinking to productive sectors, which

this issue seeks to address. The paradigm emerged from some early development in

financial services and quickly spread into a number of primary production-focused

agricultural sectors. However, some of the sectors that have the greatest impact on

the lives of the poor, and where the most donor money has been directed, have

not embraced a systemic approach in the same way despite experiencing some of

the greatest challenges to sustainability and scale of impact. This issue examines the systems of provision for health, education, water, and financial services from

a market systems perspective; in doing so it steps into new territory, tackling some

important, and perhaps contentious, issues.

Three of the papers included in this issue examine systems in health, education,

and water which have received significant donor money for many decades. The

papers examine the evidence on how effective these interventions have been and

find that results have been, at best, mixed. The papers bring to light a critical issue in

intervention design: a predetermined focus both on the recipients of funding – often

public sector organizations already involved in the delivery of poor outcomes or

international organizations that are temporary and external to the system – and on

the method for delivery – commonly direct transfer of funds, hardware, or training.

The papers on health and education apply case studies to examine how a more

systemic approach could overcome some of the challenges faced by traditional

approaches. Bourque and Mitchell then use the appraisal of previous programming

as a departure point for a more practical consideration of how a systemic programme

in the water sector might be designed.

There are other important contributions made by these papers which are of

relevance to the wider literature on systemic approaches for development. Lomax’s

paper looks at systems of treatment and systems of transmission in health. This

characterization provides a lens which might be employed elsewhere to understand

where a development programme might want to lessen or eliminate a transaction.

Ordinarily, intervention in market systems seeks improved price, quality, or quantity

of a given transaction with respect to the poor, where the poor engage in the market

as either suppliers or consumers, whether the transaction involves agricultural

goods, healthcare services, or the right to vote. Here, the paper presents a way of

understanding situations where a positive developmental outcome is realized by

disrupting this transaction, and the ‘supporting functions and rules’ are things

which perpetuate the negative outcomes currently being realized.

Taylor et al.’s paper on the education system in Nigeria provides a useful and

generalizable five-point framework for understanding the rationale and objectives

of donors intervening in systems. Cognizance of these dynamics allows funders

to make an honest appraisal of what they hope to achieve by pursuing a given

type of intervention and, through the example presented on education, how taking

different approaches to intervention might deliver against these mixed and often

inconsistent objectives.

Over a decade after a systemic approach to financial sector development was

first applied programmatically, Porteous and Zollman re-examine work in the sector

to date for the final paper of this issue. While systemic programmes may have

focused on finance, they have not, the authors argue, gone beyond simple product focused markets which aim only to deliver products to people, rather than ensuring

that they are utilized or that these products change other behaviours culminating

in poverty reduction. In doing so, the authors argue for what is effectively a new

sectoral focus for systemic approaches on financial health. In common with the

other papers in the issue, this necessitates a broader and less dogmatic focus

including the provision of a number of merit goods; in this case household level financial literacy, regulation, and the role of civil society. The result of this shift

in focus is an extension of the theory of change beyond access to finance – which

is commonly where programmes stop their measurement efforts – towards welfare

changes and an example of how a methodology for measuring these welfare

changes might be employed.

The contributions to this issue argue that the focus of development to date on

who should perform a function or enforce a rule rather than what that role should

be and how it might perform better is one of the primary reasons for the challenges

to sustainability and scale of impact. Overall, this issue represents a significant

contribution to the literature on new directions in development programming. The

broad scope of the issue allows for general reflection on the purpose of development

aid and how it might be used to deliver more sustainable and larger-scale outcomes

to improve the lives of poor people.


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* this article was published as Taylor, B. & Donovan, J., 2016, Editorial: New approaches to old problems: systemic change as a unifying objective, Journal of Enterprise Development and Microfinance 27(1).

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