On systemic approach: what it is and what it is not

Zenebe Uraguchi, 02 May 2016
On systemic approach: what it is and what it is not

Matthias Herr & Zenebe Uraguchi

There are enthusiasms, misperceptions, claims, and complexities about what a systemic approach is and is not. In this blog, we try to provide a brief account on the origin and key principles of systemic approach. The objective is to contribute to a better understanding of the approach and its effective application. This blog post is one of the contributions on understanding and applying a systemic approach. We hope it will serve as a ‘reference’ to upcoming blog posts from a range of themes: environment and climate change, water and infrastructure, skills development and education, governance, rural economy and other related cross-cutting issues.


What systematic approach is not

What it is: our understanding


The above photo, taken in Southern Ethiopia in 2011, says, “Shame on us [Ethiopians] that we beg for aid, but we are able-bodied and we have fertile land! Let’s wake up!” It’s a development narrative in a small local community that also reverberates at national and international levels.
The development industry has come under increasing criticism over the past decades. We hear time and again questions like: is what we do really effective? How sustainable is the change that development organisations make? And how many people does our work really affect? Are we really addressing the root causes of development challenges, or just the symptoms?
These are good questions, but the discussion around them is often highly divided into two extremes. On the one hand, sceptics of development cooperation criticised past efforts; they described development cooperation as ‘dead’ and a ‘betray of public trust by ‘the lords of poverty’. Supporters, on the other hand, came to the defence saying ‘not everything is too bad’.
Trying to find more meaningful and practical answers to the above questions, other development practitioners and thinkers wanted to look for better ways of addressing various development challenges, such as poverty, hunger, exclusion, unemployment and others. Building on ideas and decades of field experiences, they looked for answers on how to effectively achieve long-term and large-scale impacts. In short, this was how systemic approach to development was born and further improved.
The approach simply synthesises good development practices into principles and frameworks to guide projects and development organisations towards achieving better results. In other words, the approach tries to (re)define the role of development agencies – from always doing things by themselves and thus substituting actors and players towards supporting individuals, communities, enterprises and governments in finding solutions to problems they face.

What systemic approach is not

It is not just another catchword or new label in development

Systemic approach is not entirely new. The approach puts lessons from decades of development work into a set of principles and frameworks to guide development projects in their design, implementation and results measurement. It tries to provide us a strategic framework for better results of development work. It is more substantial than simple tools and methods.
The terminology ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P)’ has long been associated with systemic approach. We think it is a well-intended selection but unwise use of a terminology. We encourage all development practitioners to look beyond labels and focus on the key messages and questions raised by the approach to have the mental flexibility to challenge our perceived norms and ideas of development work.
Let’s therefore look more closely at our work and ask ourselves if we care more about impacts beyond our temporary role, and if these impacts are more than ‘islands of success’.

It is not all about markets or the private sector

Systemic approach does not exclusively focus on ‘markets’ in the economic sense – that is, simply engaging and working with only private sector actors. It is true that the approach has mainly emerged from the field of private sector development and a focus on economic poverty reduction.
Yet it is not as such narrow; it offers all of us, irrespective of the areas or domains we are in, a lens through which we can view our work and understand our role in relation to our development partners and stakeholders, including poor and disadvantaged women and men. It helps us think critically to become better in achieving large-scale and sustainable outcomes in economic, social and political areas.
We usually associate the term market to a commercial exchange between supply and demand. However, in a systemic approach the term market refers to ‘transactions’ or ‘exchanges’ in a very broad way. Exchange is a basic feature of human daily interaction and can have various forms: a buyer (demand) purchasing products from a small-scale farmer (supply), schools (supply) offering skills to young people (demand), a municipality (supply) providing fresh water to citizens (demand), policy makers (supply) responding to women’s needs for participation (demand), communities (demand) asking for technical support (supply) in making better use of natural resources, etc.
Improving transactions/interactions between different parties is at the centre of our development efforts. Depending on our thematic focus, they take on different forms and involve different types of players.

It is not prescriptive of solutions to development challenges

A systemic approach does not have ready-made solutions to development challenges. It does not prescribe solutions, but encourages us to consider solutions that work best in a given context. It gives us essential frameworks and principles to guide us in our work by asking critical questions as mentioned above.
It is not purely theoretical and abstract, either. In fact, it bases itself on concepts from development thinking tested in practice and gradually improved. It does not say direct subsidy by itself is bad; it does not scorn relief work; it does not reject all that is not economic…But it encourages to ask ourselves if we have a vision in our work and initiative, whether we critically think if ‘our entry is our exit’ and if our role in development is to bring impacts which are more than islands of success.

What it is: our understanding

A vision from the start

No matter which system a development project is addressing – be it financial services, decentralisation processes or sanitation technology – there needs to be a vision how this system can work in the future for the benefit of disadvantaged women and men. Having a feasible and relevant vision requires taking stock of our current work and developing a realistic picture of how this will translate in the future once our projects are over. We believe it is helpful for our work to elaborate a strategy for the system in the future.
Projects’ roles are temporary and facilitative
If we link our vision to our role, then it is temporary. The problem of many development projects is that they do things by themselves and therefore become part of the system. We need to move to an idea of projects in development being temporary ‘think-tanks’ rather than mere implementers.
In every system, there are actors and players – be it in education, health, agriculture or governance. Our role is to facilitate to bring these actors to perform their functions in improved ways. The approach provides us analytical frameworks to understand the incentives (will) and capacities (skills) of the actors to take up new functions or improve their performance.
Projects do not exist in a vacuum, and they engage and work with a number actors – be it private companies, governments, civil societies, individual actors, etc. These actors/players are the ones who should own the initiatives from the beginning and improve it for better impacts. Therefore, innovative ideas generated, tested, supported and developed in the ‘think-tank’ should be taken further by those who are part of the different systems, and not by projects.

Root causes and not symptoms

A systemic approach helps us understand two key aspects of our work. First, it gives us frameworks to look into the wider system (and specific functions/parts in that system) which poor and disadvantaged women and men are part of. Second, it guides us to understand the main causes for underperformance/failure and not just their symptoms.
Research and analysis is thus an essential part of our daily work; it shapes our focus for intervention. A systemic approach provides us the strategic framework to do this by continually asking ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ It helps us ‘peel the onion’ until we find the main causes that gives us leverage for relevant and meaningful impacts.

Key principles of sustainability and scale

How do we ensure that changes and innovations we introduced would remain beyond the project period and continue to evolve and adapt to changing realities? This is concerned about sustainability.
How do we ensure that as many people as possible benefit from the changes and innovations we introduce to the local context? This is about scale.
Sustainability has various dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Development projects reflect these dimensions in their goals, e.g. improving the environmental footprint of consumption and production patterns, or contributing to healthy and liveable communities or wellbeing through social justice and equity, social capital, community resilience etc.). In all three dimensions, it is essential to achieve large-scale and long-term impacts.
A systemic approach is therefore relevant to achieve economically, environmentally and socially sustainable results. It provides guidance on ‘how’ these results can continue to grow and deepen beyond the project life. This also means how other actors (in addition to initial actors engaged by projects) own and improve the changes that projects have contributed to building and strengthening.
For example, how can a project that works in improving systems for infrastructure contribute to equitable access and usage opportunities and outcomes for all members, particularly poor and disadvantaged women and men? How can such a project ensure the externalities from an infrastructural development are not leading to environmental risks (e.g. waster generation, pollution, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc.)?
Therefore, a systemic approach focusses on institutional sustainability (the ‘how’) to achieve large-scale results. A systemic approach is strategic, as it helps us think about the above questions in the context of our projects and organisation. It does not give us the answers, but rather frameworks that make critical questions more explicit and help to structure our roles in development work.
If we are not prepared to answer the above questions, we continue to lament at what David Pyle wrote more than three decades ago:

‘How many times during the last three decades of intensive development efforts has a demonstration or pilot project provided ‘the answers’ to a development problem? Everyone is flushed with enthusiasm and optimism. The model that proved so successful on a small-scale is expanded with the hopes of benefiting a larger portion of the population. All too often, however, impact decreases or disappears completely [once the project phases out].’

Therefore, it is essential for all of us to have people with genuine commitments to critically reflect our vision and constantly remind ourselves if our roles in development will make meaningful contributions that are long-term and large-scale. It is not a rocket science, but hard to steadily put into practice in complex and interdependent systems that we always work.

Matthias Herr is the Co-Team Leader Regional Unit Eastern Europe & South Caucasus, and Senior Advisor in market systems development.

Zenebe Uraguchi is the Programme Coordinator for Eastern Europe and Senior Advisor in market systems development


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Zenebe Uraguchi

Zenebe Uraguchi

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22 Comments for «On systemic approach: what it is and what it is not»

  1. Sabah Sheesh Ahmed

    07 May 2016 at 18:54

    The article is quite a stepping stone for understanding systemic approaches to development. Being a practioner, the thing I appreciate most about this approach is that it addresses the complexities of the social systems with necessary rigour.

    Looking forward to read the next blog posts of this series.


    • Zenebe Uraguchi

      09 May 2016 at 09:03

      Dear Sabah,
      Thank you for your comment. We are happy that you found this brief contribution useful. We will be grateful to hear your experiences of using/applying the approach – just simple stories how the approach helped you in your work. This way, we will be able to contribute more to better understanding and application of the approach.
      In the coming few days, we’ll be positing a blog on disaster risk management and systemic approach as well as applying systemic approach in governance projects. We look forward to hearing your and others’ inputs.
      Best regards,

      • Sabah Sheesh Ahmed

        11 May 2016 at 16:29

        > Dear Zenebe,
        Thanks for your reply! I am enjoying the insightful discussion the article has sparked! Will be following your posts.

        Best regards,

    • Mary Morgan

      09 May 2016 at 21:45

      > Hi Sabeh– When you say that the systems approach addresses the complexities of the social systems with necessary rigour” how does it do that for you? What are the tools you use to understand feedback, leverage points, in defining a boundary for your system and project? and what about adaptation, self organization and emergence?

      I find that in our field we are really weak with understanding the concepts of systems and complex adaptive systems so our rigour is impacted because we don’t know how to apply the concepts to market development and are not aware of the appropriate tools to do so. So just wondering how you apply systems and complex adaptive systems to market development and with which tools?

      • Zenebe Uraguchi

        09 May 2016 at 22:17

        Dear Mary, thank you. Very good questions. I’m also quite interested to hear the experience of Sabah.

        Best regards,

      • Sabah Sheesh Ahmed

        11 May 2016 at 15:39

        > > Dear Mary,

        Thanks a lot for pointing to the issue. It is also of my concern and the thoughts of identifying emergences in social systems excites me!

        I understand that current practices within this approach are not fully applying the concepts of complex adaptive systems. May be terminolgies haven’t crossed the boundaries yet.

        But the good thing is that the development projects are addressing the complexities at least in this approach. A simple but definite example is that the projects following systemic approaches tend to assume a facilitative role rather than doing things by themselves and disrupting the systems, hindering the development (I prefer the word evolution!) of service providers (be it private or public).

        For me it is a clear indication of change in mindset of people engaged in international development (even if it is a small fraction).

        My appreciation of systemic approach was in comparison with the contemporary development practices.

        Personally, I haven’t been fortunate yet to apply the methods of CAD to analyse the social systems. But I have been following the work of Marcus Jenal who has been working on it. Please check out the link below if you haven’t already.


        I guess unavailability and expensiveness of enough data, and short timeframes of development projects are currently the key roadblocks. Would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts.

        • Mary Morgan

          11 May 2016 at 20:25

          > Hi Sabesh
          Yes i am a colleague/friend of Marcus and know his work well. He has been a key proponent to getting the field to switch from the value chain approach to a complex adaptive systems approach — and he does bring focus to monitoring but he still is not providing us with articulations of the concepts of systems thinking through examples in inclusive market development.

          My examples are from my students in the course that I just delivered on Understanding markets as Complex Systems where they learned the concepts and had exercises and activities to apply the concepts to market development. I will be doing some blog posts on the Inclusive Markets Institute website blog elaborating the concepts and principals and providing examples– so stay tuned.

          • > Dear Sabah, dear Mary.
            Really interesting discussion. The problem I am having with providing examples is the same as Sabah has, really. There are as of yet not too many donors and implementers who are willing to go beyond mere lip-service and really embrace an approach that takes into account all the “the complexities of the social systems”. Helvetas seems to be one of the organisations that intents to push the boundaries and try things but even progressive practitioners have to fight with boundaries that are given by ‘the system’, e.g. by funding requirements of donors and what is perceived to be ‘good practice’ in terms of planning and monitoring.
            One example that I can share is the one Sabah also linked to on my blog. I have been doing an interesting study for Katalyst in Bangladesh. Today I have blogged about the tool we used to assess transformations in farmer’s attitudes: SenseMaker (https://marcusjenal.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/measuring-transformations-in-attitudes/). At the end of the article, you find the link to download the whole article, incl. results.
            The challenge Katalyst has had is that they only started thinking towards the end of the programme about how to show that the change they have achieved is really based on ‘deep’ transformational change in the system, i.e. change in attitudes, beliefs, formal and informal institutions. Merely observing changing behaviour, for example by using the AAER framework, still means that we are looking at a black box without understanding of why the behaviour changed, how incentive structures changed, etc. This means we won’t be able to say if the change is sustainable or not.
            At the same time I’m working on a research project where we are exploring more in depth what we can learn from complexity/evolutionary economics that would help us understand how economic change is happening and what we can do to influence it to become more inclusive. Results are expected in the second half of this year. Stay tuned, I will write about it on my blog.

          • Zenebe Uraguchi

            11 May 2016 at 23:01

            Dear Marcus,

            Thank you very much for this interesting and valuable contribution. I was in Thailand in March 2016 for the DCED Global Seminar. Katalyst presented the experience of using SenseMaker in the LAN project. I realized that it was a bit difficult to explain (and for the audience to understand), in concrete terms, what the whole rationale is and how it is used and to achieve what. This was also mentioned by Fortunat, the Head of Monitoring & Results Measurement (MRM) of Katalyst. I also heard the same challenge, as Mary mentioned, from other projects that participated in the DCED Global Seminar in Thailand. What do you think is the reason that project staff recognize the relevance but seem to be struggling in explaining what it is and how it is used for what results? Grateful if you can elaborate with some concrete examples (perhaps using also the research project that you are currently exploring more in depth).

            Best regards,

        • Mary Morgan

          12 May 2016 at 02:54

          >Actually I disagree with you Marcus- I think there are lots of examples of social systems in our work, gender being in all of our projects– The issue is that the majority in our field do not understand a systems framework to analyze markets. Through a double loop learning process in the online course i just delivered, i introduced the terms through videos that i had made that described the principals and concepts of systems and complex adaptive systems and provided examples from markets we work in; then asked the students through a moderated discussion to use examples from their work in the field– and there has been lots of rich discussion where they competently use the terms and principals in relation to their project bringing the principals and concepts to life.

          Nothing has been documented or written up about actual projects applying the terms within the market systems framework except around adaptation within adaptive management, but there is a systems framework and complex adaptive systems framework and we have not applied it in practical ways to our work which is because the majority of practitioners in our field do not know the meanings of the terms and how they apply in market development– feedback and leverage points defining interventions for instance, or boundaries that include subsystems, because to not include the subsystems will gravely affect the market system being developed/strengthened (example of the project in Georgia with including municipal governance in the project facilitating the dairy sector. women were excluded from decision making at the municipal level and therefore had no say in allocation of funds so there was no running water and the quality of their milk was low because they could not wash the containers or teats correctly). The write up of that project on BEAM does not talk about boundary at all yet here is an excellent example of the boundary of a MD project requiring the inclusion of a subsystem to strengthen the market in focus. Just using systems language will start to get people comfortable with applying a systems approach.

          Examples are more often than not theoretical in the write-ups or musings. And yes theoretical is good, but we need more practical ways of using the language. Even in your blog, it is about transformation of behaviors- but where does that fit into a systems approach? What you are doing is soliciting feedback and learning how the actors adapted and self-organized to affect emergence of a new way of doing things. This is the language of systems and complex adaptive systems and it is practical to those working in the field— Your terms for the framework of transformational change refers to the informal controls in a system; scale is the actors changing behavior an how it spills out to the entire market system; institutionalization is the emergence of the new behaviors of actors and controls/regulations (formal and informal). The terms you have designated do not really guide practitioners in how to implement a systems approach because it is lacking in focus—the terms are general. It would be great if you elaborated what you consider to be involved in each term you use with systems specific systems language. Like we had to do for instance in the VC framework when we learned that we had to include the BEE—what was the BEE? At first we said it was only formal regulations but then we understood that informal regulations had to be part of the BEE, as well as infrastructure. Well that gave us direction to how to analyze and synthesize findings in our analysis as well as to create our M&E systems.

          Right now we are still very much lacking a common language that is actually based on systems thinking and integrates complex adaptive systems principals, except for adaptation. Sabah asking for examples is an example of this, sadly we are lacking.– Even emergence is just a word- what does it look like in a market development project? Self organization is another- heck that is reflected in the fact that people still feel that small producers HAVE to be in formal groups– which is imposed and we don’t pay attention to the feedback reflected in the fact that they already have not self-organized into groups.

          Funding requirements are not going to be violated if we write up reports of our work and use systems language- funding requirements are tied to outcomes. Even if the outcome is to increase household income- the facilitation efforts can apply a systems approach– where we talk about paying attention to feedback in our interventions, identify leverage points where our facilitation efforts will have optimal affect, respond to how actors adapt and self-organize to subsystems in the environment of the targeted market system like climate, households, telecommunications, transport and distribution or the controls which are informal and formal regulations.

          • > The question of language is a difficult one. I agree with you, Mary, that we need to use the language that comes from the systems sciences like attractors, boundaries, emergence, signals, self-organisation, etc. But there is a danger, as has been seen in M4P, that people will use new words to describe old things and keep on doing the things as they have been doing them all along. Asking for a change in language is like asking for change in income, it is the obvious thing, the thing we can measure. But let’s not forget about the ‘deeper’ changes that are needed, the systemic changes, in the way we approach development. What we need is a change in mental models, a literal paradigm shift. Without this shift, people will not understand the new words and just use them because it is in fashion. Or to use complexity language: the attractor of the linear/Newtonian/equilibrium paradigm is still too strong and will capture the new words. This will lead to the accusation that complexity and systems thinking is nothing but a fad, old wine in new skins. But it is much more than that, it is a fundamentally different way of seeing the world we live in. It is a fundamental a shift as the shift from Newtonian mechanics to the physics of non-linear dynamics and chaos. It is a phase change.

            I agree that the use of terminology in the framework I elaborated for Katalyst might not be ideal. This might also explain why the presentation in Bangkok of the Katalyst case study was not received well or appreciated. But the concepts behind them are solid and rooted in complexity thinking. Changes in beliefs and attitudes are transformational changes that lead to shifts in perceptions of the system/world and ultimately in changes in the institutional landscape and incentive structures (“transformation” building the core of the proposed framework). These changes need to reach a certain critical mass in order to trigger a phase change/tipping point, a change in the attractor landscape, leading to the new behaviour becoming the ‘new normal’, the lens that modulates decisions in the future (“scale” being the second element of the framework). Eventually, these changes will need to be reflected in the formal, tangible institutions like organisational processes, regulations, training curricula, operating procedures, etc. (“institutionalisation” being the third element of the framework).

            So the question should not be how to get the people to use the new words, but how to get them to understand the concepts and adopt the new mental model (although, there is arguably not a one-way causal connection between mental models and language, it’s a rather complex relationship, if you allow me this pun). I appreciate that you are doing a great job on that front with your institute and online training, Mary.

            Zenebe, it is a bit too early to present the thinking of our research. We will have a workshop next week where we will discuss the key themes that emerge. I will try to sum the discussion up in a blog post on my website afterwards.

          • Mary Morgan

            12 May 2016 at 22:51

            > HI Marcus
            I think we will have to agree to disagree here. consciousness and awareness is communicated through words– and if people do not have the words to explain systems thinking- well we are going no where. Mike and Derek’s piece does a great job of applying systems terms to market development– it helps us all understand a lexicon to apply to markets within the systems and complex adaptive framework.

            Paradigm shifts occur when we can explain what we mean– without words that is impossible– and remember too, that change in beliefs come from seeing actions that transform outcomes– Duncan Green’s blog post on a fishing village is a great example of systemic change through actions where the fishing sector shifted from upper caste domination to lower class domination which has included women in the shift. All transformational– http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/tikamgarh-revisited-whats-happened-to-the-amazing-fishing-communities-i-visited-in-2006/

            An interesting exercise would be to go through that blog post to identify where the feedback, boundaries, leverage points moved the market system from exclusive to inclusive. Over the last 10 years it would have been interesting to see at which point the paradigm shifted through the facilitated actions, but that is dreaming because there are no resources to do that kind of tracking.

          • Marcus Jenal

            12 May 2016 at 23:07

            And Duncan explains all this systemic change without using systems jargon. So in a way your example supports my points that it is less about the words we use than about the actual changes that are happening.

            And as I wrote somewhere in brackets, the causal relationship between language and world view is not unidirectional but complex. So I don’t disagree with you. But I would say language is just part of it.

          • Mary Morgan

            12 May 2016 at 23:17

            Actually i don’t think that Duncan successfully explains systemic change- he explains change.

          • Zenebe Uraguchi

            13 May 2016 at 08:55

            Dear Mary and Marcus,

            Thank you for the interesting exchanges — many of my colleagues have been following the relevant points and explanations that you have provided. Closely reading your inputs gives me the sense that the bottom line is our concern, as development practitioners, about ensuring that development agencies and their projects contribute to durable and large-scale impacts. Let us make it more accessible and relevant to a wide range of readers….
            While labels and words do matter, perhaps I am not mistaken by saying that we should go beyond these and think about some of the fundamental challenges of our work. With the risk of oversimplification, the main concerns are:

            1) Do we have better understanding of different systems – some more complex, others less
            2) Do our analyses help us identify root causes instead of symptoms
            3) Do we have the right types of partners, or if not, do we have the resources and capacities to provide support to potential partners for systems to function better
            4) Do we have in place right-sized and functional monitoring and evaluation system for steering and learning

            Again, some of the success factors are:

            a) Having in place adequate, committed and competent human capital with sufficient resources for improvement in skills (e.g. more soft skills than technical)
            b) Clear and relevant logic that drives the main objective of an initiative/intervention
            c) Adaptive management with the ability and readiness to respond to complex and rapid changes (e.g. flexible but strong guidance by key principles of systemic approach)
            d) A range or mix of tools and methods that are relevant but contextualized and prioritized to the objectives and scopes of projects

            From experience, the above are some of the core issues that development practitioners face in their day-to-day work. See some of these challenges listed here: https://beamexchange.org/practice/get-involved/how-to/

            A question to both of you: can you provide a simple example/case of the main points you raised in the discussions?

            Best regards,

  2. Isabelle Pelly

    09 May 2016 at 22:00

    Look forward to receiving new posts!

    • Zenebe Uraguchi

      09 May 2016 at 22:16

      Dear Isabelle, thank you for your interest and time in the blog post. Grateful if you can share your experience of applying systemic approach.

      We will post shortly a new blog on disaster risk management (DRM) and systemic approach. Here also we welcome your comments — questions, doubts, experiences.

      Best regards,