Category Archives: my work

A new framework for assessing systemic change

Over the last year or so I was hired by a large market systems development programme in Bangladesh to develop a new framework for assessing systemic change for them. We did an initial feasibility study and then a larger pilot study. The report of the pilot study has now been published. Rather than to bore you with the whole report, I would like to share the conceptual thinking behind the framework and the framework itself in this post. In a later post, I will share the methodology. This is not the end of all wisdom and the silver bullet framework everybody has been looking for. For me this is an important step to bring my work and thinking over the last couple of years together into something practically applicable. But this work is not done as I am embarking on a longer research project on systemic change. So there is more learning to come and with it more development of this tool. Please share your thoughts, which would help me to further improve the framework. Continue reading

Mesopartner Summer Academy 2016

Mesopartner Summer Academy 2016 in Berlin

This week we have announced the Mesopartner Summer Academy 2016 on Territorial Economic Development. This year, the academy will have a special focus on green economic development in territories. The academy will take place from 4 to 6 July in Berlin, one of the most exciting capitals in Europe with a rich history of economic transition and development. I will be there an I hope to meet some of my readers as well. Continue reading

Complexity informed Theory of Change

results chainWe know that current development challenges are complex. But not all elements of a development programme are necessarily complex. How does a theory of change look like that shows us which aspects of a programme are complex and which aren’t? How does this help managers to develop appropriate strategies for interventions and focus their attention?

I have been thinking quite a bit about monitoring and how to find a monitoring framework that works in programmes that are facing the complexities of the real world (and I blogged about it before here and here). More and more monitoring guides speak about the complexities programme managers and staff face ‘out there’ and some guides even venture as far as to say that change in the real world is not linear or predictable. The new BEAM Monitoring guidance, which I co-authored, for example, states that ‘a market systems programme is unlikely to achieve its goals in a simple, linear way. It may be difficult to fully understand (at least in advance) how causes and effects will work at a system-wide level. There may therefore be significant uncertainties about how the overall market system may be re-oriented to serve poor people better.’ Continue reading

Systemic Insight – a new offer for programmes and organisations facing complex challenges

Systemic InsightSince I have become an associate with Mesopartner in 2012, I have engaged in intense discussions with the partners around how to translate insights from complexity sciences and other quite diverse fields of research such as cognitive sciences, behavioural economics or new institutional economy into better ways in which we can support our clients who face complex challenges. The results of these discussions is Systemic Insight, a platform, approach and product focusing on supporting economic development programmes.

Recently, we added a page with concrete service offerings for programmes and development organisations to Systemic Insight. They include capacity building on making better decisions under conditions of uncertainty, translating results of analysis into action when facing complex challenges, supporting programmes that are stuck, and building up monitoring and learning frameworks for adaptive programme management. This also includes the use of SenseMaker®, a an approach for doing narrative research combined with a piece of software that we have started using more and more frequently.

Shawn, my main co-conspirator around Systemic Insight, and I also wrote an article that was recently published in the IDS Bulletin. You can find a brief description of the content, the abstract, and a link to the article page on the Systemic Insight Blog. The title of the article is Explore, Scale Up, Move Out: Three Phases to Managing Change under Conditions of Uncertainty and the main message is that economic development is about introducing options into local economies, not bringing solutions from the outside.

In the near future, I will focus my (re-invigorated) blogging activity on Systemic Insight. I have done some really interesting work recently and I am keen of sharing some ideas and insights with our readers. Shawn and I also want to share some of the principles and heuristics that guide our work. So please head over to Systemic Insight and subscribe to the blog! I am looking forward to your comments!

Adapting Development – applied to my current work in Myanmar

adapting-devt-coverDo Development Differerently:

  • work in a politically informed, politically smart and problem-driven way
  • take an adaptive or entrepreneurial approach, and
  • take action that is locally led.

These are the central pillars of the Doing Development Differently manifesto. An excellent new report of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor uses these three principles to make the case for why more of the same is not enough in development. The authors analyse current trends and make projections that clearly show that if we continue with more of the same, “it will be decades – if not longer – before the world’s most disadvantaged people have access to basic services of adequate quality.” They describe how development that follows the principles needs to look like and what needs to change in development practice (including agencies) to be able to apply the logic. Duncan Green has written a good review of the paper on his blog. I do not want to write another review but think through how I could apply these principles to my current work in Myanmar.

The context: a rubber sector development project in Myanmar

I have had the privilege to work with a new project in Myanmar that aims to support smallholder farmers in the Southeast of Myanmar who grow rubber. The project is designed as a market systems development project built on the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach with an added component that looks at land rights and land tenure security.  Its aims are multidimensional, as it is also supposed to contribute to peacebuilding in the region, where still multiple armed groups are present.

My job was to train the team on market systems development approaches and coach and support them during the inception phase of the project, where they set out to analyse the rubber sector, its central actors, and major constraints. Beyond the the aim to developing the rubber sector and working on land tenure security, the project also integrates a cross-cutting focus on women economic empowerment (WEE) and gender based violence (GBV). 

On my last trip to Myanmar I supported the team in developing the design for the project. What we ended up with is some sort of a hybrid between what I call a facilitation approach (mainly for rubber market development) and a more direct approach focusing on the land component and WEE/GBV. Facilitation for me is to work through and with local actors wha are willing and able to lead change initiatives. Change needs to be driven and owned locally, not by the project. When you do facilitation, there are certain principles that you need to follow when working with local partners. For example, there is a clear need for a buy in of the local partner into the change, i.e. his/her own investment is needed up front before the project extends any support. The potential partners are, hence, limited to the ones that are ready to invest in new ideas and models.

For the land component and the work on WEE/GBV we planned quite direct interventions. Although the plan is to work through local partners (mainly civil society organisations), these organisations are basically mandated and paid to implement project activities like awareness raising events, trainings, etc.

I’m not totally happy with this but wasn’t really able to formulate a better way of doing it at the time.

Reading the “Adapting Development” report on the plane on my way back from Myanmar, I have been thinking on how more hands on components could be implemented in a way that followed the three principles listed at the beginning of this post –  and be more in line with the market facilitation part. To illustrate my thoughts, I’m picking the land component here as one example to think this through, while in the project this could also be applied to the GBV or WEE components.

Work in a politically informed, politically smart and problem-driven way

This is what the ODI report has to say about this principle (p. 8):

Such an approach tracks down problems, avoids ready-made solutions and is robust in its assessment of possible remedies. Too often, diagnosis only gets as far as uncovering a serious underlying challenge – often linked to the character of local politics. … It is difficult to identify workable solutions to such problems, and attempts to do so often focus on the wrong things. Doing things differently means understanding what is politically feasible and discovering smart ways to make headway on specific service delivery issues, often against the odds.

There are two things we diagnosed as problematic in the rubber sector in Myanmar. People don’t know about their rights and/or they are not confident enought do apply them to get their land titles or enforce their ownership once they have it . Secondly, if they get the propoer land titles, this still does not protect them from land grabbing by the government – a serious gap in legislation.

What I feel we came up with as a remedy would fit the category of ‘ready made solutions’: The activities focus on building the capacity of local community based organisations to train farmers, public officials and raise their awareness about land rights. What could we do instead? We need to find local partners who are ready and able to drive change in a politically smart and locally adapted way. Local partners are much better at this because they know the specific political reality of their village or township. So instead of approaching them with a plan that is done and tell them what doto do, they can help us deepen our diagnosis based on that knowlege and their continuous interaction with the local system. Continuous diagnosis is essential in order to be politically informed. Together with these partners, we can discover smart ways to make headway on the issues of land title provision and also on advocating for more smallholder-friendly land legislation. This can/should not be driven by our own ideology, but rather be genuinly informed by local political reality and hence inherently pragmatic.

Take an adaptive and entrepreneurial approach

From the ODI report:

Because development problems are typically complex and processes of change are highly uncertain, it is essential to allow for cycles of doing, failing, adapting, learning and (eventually) getting better results. This requires strong feedback loops that test initial hypotheses and allow changes in the light of the result of those tests. 

Currently, we have a plan that covers all activities for the first 30 months of the project. Besides the need to develop the plan in a politically smart way adapted to local reality and not as a one-size-fits-all townships solution, we also need to be ready to adapt and be pragmatic with our interventions over time. The solution cannot be designed in advance and then implemented by the project. Being entrepreneurial and politically smart means that the aim of the project is to develop the solution together with local partners over time.

Monitoring in complex systems: from spotlight and indicators to sensor networks and landscapes

I have been thinking a lot about how a monitoring framework could look like that takes into account the quirks of a complex system. One of the central things, I believe, is that we need to find alternatives to measuring only where we believe that change will happen towards an approach to gather data more broadly.
Continue reading

Join me for the 10th Mesopartner Summer Academy on Systemic Change

Mesopartner Summer AcademyAlso this year I will be training at the Mesopartner Summer Academy, which takes place in Berlin from July 7 to 11.

The focus of this year’s academy will again be on systemic change in economic development. We will unwrap systemic change in economic development. Complexity thinking has in the last couple of years become more and more the basis of our work. So this will guide also the inputs during the academy. We will introduce the Systemic Insight Approach (see and some general considerations about change in systems. Then we will run two streams, one with a focus on territorial (sub-national) development, the other with a focus on industrial development (this e.g. includes things like Value Chain approach). On Thursday, there will be shorter sessions with a number of electives like supporting green development, bottom up policy development, competitiveness and innovation, complexity in economic development more in depth, etc.

I would be happy to see some of my readers at the Academy. There is an early bird discount for registrations up to 24 March!

More information on the 10th Mesopartner Summer Academy 2014.