Blog / DevLearn Digest 10 Are you a systemic change Visionary or Pragmatist?
12 September 2023

DevLearn Digest 10 Are you a systemic change Visionary or Pragmatist?

DevLearn Digest 10: Are you a systemic change Visionary or Pragmatist?

Dear all,

We have an exciting DevLearn Digest for you, with three components! Firstly, we have launched applications for our November online training. Secondly, we are running free training on using data for storytelling with the DCED. And thirdly, our regular DevLearn Digest is on the ever-popular topic of systemic change. Enjoy!

Online Training – November 2023

Apply now for our November 2023 training courses! We run two courses, on Market Systems Development (MSD) and Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL).

In the MSD course, you will learn the core concepts of market systems development and provide simple, practical tips to enable you to implement them in your context. In our MEL course, you will learn how to measure and use results in an economic growth programme.

Both courses last for a month, and require approximately one day a week work from participants. Online training is flexible, interactive, and fun, and our courses have been taken by over 1500 practitioners, consultants, and donors. Sign up on our website now.

Free Online Workshop – Using Data for Storytelling – Thursday 14th of September

I am running an upcoming online training with the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED); Using Data to Tell a Story. It will take place 10:00 – 12:00 BST on Thursday 14 September and is free to attend. Please note that this is in two days – apologies for the late notice!

As MEL professionals, we spend a lot of time working out how to collect and analyse data, but important insights can be lost if this data is not summarised and communicated well. In this workshop, With Nabanita Sen Bekkers of the DCED, we will examine how to summarise and present data, practice storytelling through an exercise, and hear from other practitioners experiencing similar challenges.

This two-hour workshop requires confidence in using and analysing data through Microsoft Excel, including through the use of pivot tables or formulas.

Register via this link:

Are you a systemic change visionary or pragmatist?

Whenever I need a reminder of why I love my job, I read a proposal for a market systems development programme. Try it yourself – the FCDO website is full of them. For example, MADE Nigeria aims to ‘change the incentives that the market system provides to participants so that markets grow and work better and more fairly for the poor.’  NU-TECH Uganda will ‘support the North’s transition from an isolated, conflict-affected and economically lagging region, with high vulnerability to climate change, into a dynamic wealth creating economy.’  And so on.

After a while, I find that my mood becomes dangerously positive. I become so inspired by the boundless possibilities of market systems change, that I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. To ground myself, I go and read some post-completion reports, to see whether these lofty goals were achieved. For example, the NU-TECH Uganda report noted a few ‘early positive signs’ of systemic change, but concluded that ‘observing systemic change would require more time and scale.’ For MADE Ghana, the report notes ‘instances of systemic change’, such as service providers training about 2,500 beekeepers. An important result, but not necessarily transformational. 

It’s no surprise that the incentives of our sector encourage wildly ambitious claims when getting funding, and neither MADE Nigeria nor NU-TECH Uganda are particularly exceptional in this regard. (They do, however, have a donor with an unusual commitment to transparency). 

But I think the discrepancy between the grandiose ambitions and the milder reality also reflects an underlying tension in how systemic change is conceived. On the one side, you have the visionaries – systems thinkers, complexity gurus, and innovators – who think in broad brush strokes about how to transform systems. The ILO Labs, for example, called for a return to the ‘ambitious, holistic, transformational vision of market systems development’. A consultancy firm, FSG, ask practitioners to ‘advance equity by shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.’ These are the people who typically write the business cases. 

On the other side are more grounded, pragmatic types, who struggle to turn grand frameworks into simple, measurable tools. For years, they focused on ‘copying’ and ‘crowding in’ as straightforward, easy-to-measure indicators of systemic change. A case study in 2015 of systemic change in Growth and Employment in States Nigeria (GEMS1), for example, made a great contribution to the practical challenge of finding ‘indirect’ farmers and establishing attribution to GEMS1 – but said little about its transformational ambitions. More recently, practitioners have focused on variants of the ‘Adopt Adapt Expand Respond (AAER)’ framework, which allows for systemic change to be sliced up, counted, and controlled. These pragmatists are charged with writing the post-completion reports. 

Which is right? By temperament and training, I am on the side of the pragmatists. I tap my foot impatiently when I hear the phrase ‘transformational change’, and squirm uncomfortable at the thought of ‘addressing the root causes of poverty’. Under pressure, I would question whether ‘systemic change’ is really a useful framework for thinking about development. The abstraction can substitute for thought, rather than generating insights – ‘systemic change’ sounds so vast and impressive that people stop thinking about what it might actually mean. 

But perhaps this is why I work as a consultant rather than a team leader. I do think that the best programmes are rooted in a vision – an idea of how society can function better for people living in poverty. Much as I love the AAER framework, and appreciate discussions around incorporating systemic change into results chains, neither offer an inspirational narrative that can inspire action and drive change.

Instead, a good programme relies on creative tension between the visionaries and the pragmatists. The visionaries – often in senior management– try to paint an inspiring picture of the systemic change that a programme can achieve, using such broad brushstrokes that measurement becomes impossible. The pragmatists try their hardest to bring them down to earth – using frameworks, indicators, and sceptical glances. With too many visionaries, a programme can become unmoored from reality and fail to achieve anything. But with too many pragmatists, a programme can become so obsessed with the details of reality that it fails to achieve anything useful. 

So, take a minute to consider whether your programme is driven by pragmatists or visionaries. Do you work on a programme with a broad vision of what it wants to achieve, but little detail? Or is your programme focusing on workplans, budgets, and indicators, but with little longer-term vision? Consider who in your team is driving these trends, and whether you need to strengthen one side or the other. In that way, you might get the best of both worlds.