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Why We Reassessed Our Approach to Inclusive Market Systems Development

June 20, 2022

One of the most compelling things about a market systems development approach is that it encourages us to focus on and understand localized systems and relationships. By understanding the norms and beliefs of the actors with whom we’re working, the interventions we co-design will be more appropriate. At the same time, increasing economic integration across sectors presents opportunities to apply market systems approaches with broader and different sets of actors.

Recently, we at Abt have noticed important trends—the disproportionate economic impacts of COVID-19, increasing urbanization, growing income inequality, climate impacts, conflict, digital transformation, among others—affecting many of the contexts and communities in which we work. While we’ve responded to each of these in nuanced ways on a project basis, we’ve simultaneously pulled back to consider how these meso- and macro-level forces affect both the market systems in which we work and the approaches we prioritize as a result.

In some cases, these macro-level trends create similar impacts across geographies. In others, impacts vary. With this in mind, we’ve reinforced our emphasis on some key themes to ensure that our work to strengthen market systems is having the same impacts we seek from all our inclusive economic growth activities. These are: placing equity and inclusion front and center, working at system and actor levels, intensifying attention to human capital and supply, amplifying good governance, and advancing global learning. I build on a few below, and all of these are highlighted in our recently-released Abt Approach to Inclusive Market Systems Development.

Doubling down on equity and inclusion. For Abt, equity and inclusion comprise what we do, how we do our work, who we work with, where we engage, and the impacts we aim for. However, in most places, COVID-19 highlighted new, vast inequities: for some, food was increasingly difficult to access and prices got even higher. For others, new business opportunities emerged and those who were able to work from home or limit their exposure benefitted. Similarly, we continue to see conflict and climate impacts accruing differently among different populations, and those who are least prepared to deal with them feel the brunt of their impacts. Seeing these trends in action, we’ve expanded our definition of equity and what it means to promote equitable benefits.

Continuing both agent- and system-level engagement. Within a market systems approach, we acknowledge that interventions at the agent (e.g., business, farmer) and system (e.g., industry, crop) level influence one another. The trends we’re seeing further underline the interactions between agents and systems. We see the combined impacts of globalization and conflict leading to recent fertilizer and wheat shortages, causing some of our projects to pivot in order to work with different actors and partner in new ways. As a result of COVID-19’s economic impacts, we saw businesses that were excited to partner with us and with each other pre-COVID putting those plans for innovation and investment on hold. Their focus was on maintaining business as usual to the extent possible.

Increasing learning, including across sectors. Adaptive management and learning are core to market systems approaches, and to how we drive improvement as an organization. We incorporate inclusive metrics and learning agendas on our projects to contribute to the global evidence base and to drive improvements at the project level. Further, while our work strengthening market systems centers on inclusive economic growth, particularly in agriculture and related sectors, we incorporate learning from interconnected systems—such as health, education, or climate and energy.

In addition, we continue to learn from our local partners’ and experts’ experience applying market systems development across sectors. For example, what are we doing to strengthen health supply chains and their markets that’s transferable to inclusive economic growth through agriculture? What learnings from how we incentivize climate finance and investment can we incorporate in climate-resilient agriculture?

In all our market systems work, we will continue to focus on understanding local dynamics and ask ourselves how larger trends may be affecting—or may soon affect—these environments. Throughout, we will prioritize equity, understanding the interactions between agent- and system-levels, and cross-sectoral learning, among other areas, as we support inclusive economic growth through market systems development.

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