Feed the Future
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Systemic Change: Means or Ends?

Authored by

Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn
Research Economist

Elizabeth G. Dunn is a research economist specializing in market-based solutions to poverty.

For 25 years, her work has focused on inclusive growth opportunities for low-income households, with an emphasis on smallholder agriculture, micro- and small enterprises and value chains. As the technical leader for research and evaluation studies in more than 20 countries, Dr. Dunn has collaborated with bilateral and multilateral donors, non-governmental organizations, governments, and the private sector. Under the U.S. Agency for International Development Leveraging Economic Opportunities project, she leads research to improve monitoring and evaluation for interventions that facilitate inclusive market systems. She earned a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a faculty member in Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri for 10 years prior to founding Impact LLC in 2000.

It’s easy to understand the growing interest in systemic change among donors and implementers of programs that facilitate inclusive market systems. Within these private sector development programs, which rely on market incentives to achieve economic growth and poverty reduction objectives, many people see systemic change as the key to unlocking both scale of outreach and sustainability of results. In other words, systemic change within the market system is considered an essential step toward expanding economic opportunities for poor and disadvantaged groups in large numbers (at scale) and in ways that continue to provide benefits after a development project has ended (sustainably).

And while people generally agree about the pivotal role of systemic change in achieving scale and sustainability of results, there doesn’t seem to be a single definition of systemic change in common use across the market systems development community. Several definitions stress the transformative nature of systemic change in the sense of being pervasive change that affects underlying causes or many elements/component parts of the system or both. Some definitions highlight the idea that systemic change may involve both the structure and dynamics of a market system. If we think about interconnected value chains in agricultural market systems, then structural changes might include market participation by new types of farms or firms, new functional levels that add value, or deepening of supporting markets for inputs and services. Market system dynamics, on the other hand, is something that occurs largely in the network of relationships between market actors—in the connections and transactions through which flow products, payments, inputs, services, information, technology, credit, training, and more.

Evaluation emphasis for market facilitation projectsIn our recent review of literature on evaluating systems and systems change, we found some discussion of systemic change that placed little emphasis on its connection to development outcomes. 

Systemic change is not always good, and not all types of systemic change are useful for improving outcomes for target beneficiaries. For me, it’s helpful to keep in mind that systemic change is not an end in itself but a means toward achieving development outcomes related to inclusive economic growth with poverty reduction. (And, as the graphic suggests, it’s also helpful to remember that external influences may contribute as much or more to systemic change than project activities.)

So, if we think systemic change provides a logical pathway to scale and sustainability in development outcomes, then it makes sense for us to learn more about it. We might want to start by considering some of these questions:

  • How can we know if systemic change has occurred or is occurring? 
  • How long does systemic change take, and when should we see development outcomes?
  • What types of systemic change are more effective in achieving development outcomes?
  • How can information on systemic change be useful for adaptive project management?

What questions do you think we should be asking about systemic change?