Like much of MEDA’s work in applying business solutions to alleviating poverty, its heightened focus on systems change will be groundbreaking.
“We are blazing a trail with this important work,” says Jennifer King, MEDA’s technical director, agricultural market systems.
Facilitating deeper, substantive change is an important goal that many in the development sphere are grappling with. But academic literature on systems change suggests the development sector has not yet settled on commonly agreed definitions and measurements.
Creating lasting change is one of the pillars of MEDA’s Towards an Equal World strategic plan. The plan aims to create decent work for 500,000 women and youth in agricultural markets by 2030.
One of the significant challenges that MEDA is confronting is systemic marginalization of women and youth. It wants to help bring about more inclusive and sustainable market systems that confront gender and socio-economic inequalities.
Some organizations have done better than others in addressing systems level change through their work, King said.
The philanthropic sector has been among the leaders, she said, citing large US foundations and Canada’s McConnell Foundation as examples.
Studies suggest that making sustainable changes can take 15 years, two to three times the length of many development projects. “The timelines of some projects and donors have definitely watered down the ability to do systems change work.”
Working in 15-year timelines requires different conversations with private and institutional funders, to bring them along in the journey, she said.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have led people to recognize that past efforts have not always created the sustainable and lasting change that was hoped for.
“It’s difficult to change systems in five years. And five years doesn’t change attitudes (around gender, young people, and ethnic minorities),” she said. “If you want to change systems, you have to change attitudes.”
Projects where MEDA works with companies, women and youth and civil society actors (the third sector of society, separate from government and business) are essential, she said.
After organizations such as MEDA complete their projects in a country, these groups will take changes forward and build upon them, creating sustainable change.
Additionally, King believes it is important for MEDA to become more comfortable working with governments in the countries where it operates.
Engaging with governments will be contextual “as is possible and makes sense.”
While some national governments may be mainly concerned with regulation, regional and local governments are often keenly interested in fostering regional economic development, she said. “If we don’t work with them, I think that’s a huge, missed opportunity.”
MEDA has often worked at the structural change level, trying to change practices in agriculture, around gender policies within a company, around access to finance. Relational change, which includes power dynamics, and transformative change, which involves mental model work, changing the way people think, are the next areas to tackle to bring about lasting improvements.
Achieving those goals will require tying best practices in more holistically with project designs, she said.
“Having clients, women and youth for example, be central to those discussions and define the type of systems change they want to see is essential.”