Designing for Transformative Change

May 6, 2016

A theory of change is fundamental to project design; it posits the changes that need to happen for a project to address problems and achieve a given purpose. For an agricultural market systems project that aims to reduce poverty, the theory of change can help to define the boundaries of the system and the systemic changes needed to achieve outcomes that ultimately lead to project goals, such as poverty reduction.  

For 50 years or more, agricultural economists have theorized about how investments in agriculture can lead to reductions in poverty. While these theories have been elaborated over time by different researchers focused on different contexts, they all emphasize the importance of a transformative processes. 

I want to explore the implications of agricultural economists’ theories of change for the design of market systems projects. These theories suggest a focus on a broad process of systemic or transformative change that include:

  • Increased productivity, defined as the transition of labor from lower to higher return activities
  • Diversification into higher-value commodities and/or agricultural value addition
  • Diversification into higher value non-farm activities, including non-agricultural activities 
  • Shifts of labor out of agriculture into higher-paying activities

For project design related to agriculture, a focus on these systemic changes—rather than on a better-performing value chain or improved yields—suggests that designs need to focus more broadly on both intensification within individual agricultural market systems and diversification with a focus on a transition from lower- to higher-value activities. For example, in Kenya this has played out with projects focused on improving maize productivity in order to free up land for other, higher-value commodities. In Bangladesh, projects are focusing on intensification of rice production to help facilitate shifts into higher-value crops and enterprises. Thus, by widening the scope of the design to the process of diversification, the focus of project design examines the inter-relationships among agricultural value chains as well as non-farm enterprises and employment as the boundary of a system in which changes involving diversification can take place. 

To contribute to poverty reduction, market systems interventions need to ensure that narrower changes in firm-level or smallholder behavior contribute to this broader process of systemic change (i.e., transitioning from lower- to higher-return activities). In other words, they need to ensure that their efforts to grow new businesses and jobs produce opportunities that have higher returns than the low-input, low-return agriculture that many are seeking to escape. Supporting this transition will take time; it may be generational. For example, Ethiopian farmers eking out a living on very small and degraded landholdings asserted that they would never leave agriculture. They also said their children were already looking for more lucrative opportunities that included value addition or were outside of agriculture. While projects can and should help those unwilling to leave livelihoods with little future, they should also focus on supporting youth who are interested in developing a more viable future for themselves.