Push/Pull: Just Another Buzz Word?

February 17, 2015

If you pay attention to development chatter, you may have noticed the terms “push” and “pull” appearing in various U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) solicitations and strategy documents, online practitioner communities, and learning pieces over the past five years or so. Those of you based in the field may have even found your headquarter-based wordsmiths reframing your project activities as push strategies or pull strategies in quarterly reports or marketing documents.

What does “push/pull” really mean, though? Is it just another buzzword, or is it a promising strategic approach? I would argue the answer lies somewhere in between the two—with the difference being in the quality of implementation.

In many ways, push/pull is a fancy name for a very logical way of looking at a long-standing development problem—how can we bridge the gap between the extreme poor and market systems? Push/pull is one model (among many) that attempts to bring some structure to tackling this problem. More formally, a push/pull approach is a market-oriented, pathways-based approach to poverty reduction that seeks to strategically link efforts to support transitions out of poverty for the extreme poor and market development initiatives. Anchored by a theory of change, it utilizes both push strategies (which build capacities, such as assets, skills, networks, and behaviors, of the poorest to engage in markets) and pull strategies (which expand the diversity and quality of accessible economic opportunities) to drive more beneficial and sustained inclusion of the extreme poor into market systems through a dynamic process of change.

Some will recognize push/pull terminology from the business world. Those involved in work in semi-arid/arid lands will know these terms as descriptors of the factors that influence migration. More recently, the terminology has been applied in the inclusive economic development space, with USAID/Ethiopia and many of its implementing partners being pioneers in the application and critical analysis of push/pull. 

Push and pull strategies were referenced by several USAID Missions (e.g., Ethiopia and Kenya) in their Feed the Future five-year strategies. They also were endorsed in the Second Food Aid and Food Security Assessment report. Many organizations have further adapted and contextualized push/pull for their own purposes and operating environment. 

In 2014, USAID asked the Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project to explore examples of push/pull models, and how they could contribute to USAID’s broader objective of more inclusive market systems. As a start, LEO put out a call for project examples through the SEEP Network’s working groups Strengthening the Economic Potential of the Ultra Poor (STEP UP) and Market Facilitation (MaFI). We had over 50 responses, with many interesting insights from a variety of programs—some of which we are currently documenting further. One key takeaway, however, was that there were widely different interpretations of what push/pull meant as well as wide variety in the scale, sustainability, and inclusiveness of impact. This insight underscored the need for greater clarity around push/pull.

LEO recently published a framework document that aims to outline some key characteristics that define a push/pull approach. Among these key characteristics are: 

  • Developing and then operationalizing a robust, pathways-based theory of change for transitions out of poverty 
  • Paying close attention to behavior change, aspirations, and relationships
  • Sequencing, phasing, and layering activities or components over time to gradually support a change process 

The framework document also includes snapshots of experience from specific projects and explores some of the challenges faced in implementation. Click here to read it and let us know in the comments below what you think. The SEEP Network also dedicated one of the tracks at its 2014 Annual Conference to push/pull, and you can read a write-up from those sessions here.