As development looks to increase scale, here are some of the key issues

Experts tell Devex how to effectively scale development.

WASHINGTON — In development, there’s a growing emphasis on scale, though in the hype about growth, the details of how to do it effectively can sometimes get lost.

That’s part of the reason a group of development practitioners — implementers, researchers and more — gathered recently to discuss barriers to scale, share best practices, and outline how they might further their efforts to build a community of practice around scale.

Several themes emerged throughout the two-day workshop about how different organizations are thinking about scale and how to fill the gaps — for governments and organizations — that block good ideas or programs from taking off effectively.

Here are a few of the issues that emerged:

Isabel Guerrero, a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of IMAGO.

Scale as organizational transformation

Organizations and companies in lower-income countries often face market or government failures, which could create opportunities but also challenges, according to Isabel Guerrero, a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of IMAGO, a non-profit focused on helping grassroots organizations to scale.

Through IMAGO’s work, Guerrero has identified four key challenges that prevent organizations from scaling. They are: founders syndrome, where visionary founders aren’t willing to allow for new leadership with a skill-set more relevant to scale to come into the organization; a lack of formal systems for human resources and financial management; a lack of data to prove the impact of their intervention, particularly to funders and governments; and tension around maintaining values and achieving growth.

As organizations are considering scale, they have to first determine whether they want to grow or whether their work could be standardized and given to others to take to scale, which would allow them to increase their impact through replication, Guerrero said. Organizations need to think of scale as an “organizational transformation,” one that will bring about some pain and will require significant changes, she said.

Top leadership and the second tier of leadership needs to be aware that it is a change management process and must find the right time to do it, she said.

Dr. Sada Danmusa, CEO of M-Space Consulting

Intermediaries and government capacity

One of the primary ways an intervention or program can scale is through governments, but the challenge is that in lower-income countries governments often lack the skills and resources to take programs to scale, which is one place intermediaries can help.

“That gap is in several planes. At a kind of a physical organic level it is more to do with what you can be able to support that government to do, but then building their capacity to do it in a sustainable way [rather] than just you doing it for them,” said Dr. Sada Danmusa, CEO of M-Space Consulting, who works with the Nigerian government to scale health programs.

Governments need to have the technical capacity to deliver but there are also politics involved and often significant communications gaps at various levels of government. Capacity building is necessary to fill the gaps but too often donors send technical advisors who do the work and leave rather than truly teaching government officials.

“The way to do it is to make sure that you build the capacity of the government to be able to do that and you remain behind so that you don't disrupt the system, you don’t disrupt what they are doing just because you’ve come to supply capacity which by the time you finish you'll leave with it,” Danmusa said.

When he is working with governments Danmussa said he starts first by assessing efficiencies and inefficiencies, then works with what is available within the system. Scale-up requires a functional system, so if organizations circumvent the system or don’t factor in how it works, they are unlikely to create lasting change, he said.

Liz Vance. program director for systems change for workforce development at IYF.

Identifying critical partners to scale

When the International Youth Foundation begins work on a new program or in a new region it starts by mapping power and interests to see who might be able to influence the project and what the incentive structures are for those key actors, said Liz Vance. program director for systems change for workforce development at IYF.

That mapping exercise is something it relies on as it looks to scale programs, seeing where it can leverage or create incentives to shift systems or partner with governments or the private sector to scale their interventions.

In Mexico, IYF determined that there were some key disconnects between what students were studying in technical and vocational education training programs and the jobs available in the market — often resulting in significant shortages for middle-class, well-paying positions. In that case, the new head of a regional technical and vocational education training system needed to show that he was getting results for kids and show national authorities the local government’s legitimacy, so he became the partner IYF needed to scale through schools.

Understanding the existing system was critical to being able to scale the program in Mexico that adapted the curriculum on careers and allowed students to switch their areas of focus afterward, despite the challenges that could create for the educational institutions, Vance said.

“One of the key things is we understood all the bizarre vagaries of the system and weren’t afraid to get into the complexities and the legal framework around it,” she said. “We didn't necessarily need to understand everything but we needed to understand the complexities of the system, warts and all, not as it should be but as it was and try to find where there was room for maneuver.”

Devyani Pershad, head of international collaborations at Pratham.

Right measurement, right time

Evidence is critical to scaling programs effectively, but as programs scale different types of evidence and evaluation are best suited to achieve a program or organization’s aims.

“In our programs we see measurement as a tool to aid action and decision-making, so all of our measurement tools, processes, systems are designed with those objectives in mind, said Devyani Pershad, head of international collaborations at Pratham, one of the largest NGOs in India, which has scaled to reach more than 16 million students with its education programs.

Those built-in measurement tools also help the organization understand impact, but that isn’t its primary aim, she said. The organization has also been very disciplined with how it collects evidence and has used an external evaluation process, including the six randomized control trials to answer how much of the improvement it sees is attributable to its interventions and to answer key questions about the impact of its methodology.

Now that the model itself is proven, Pratham is confident that it can work in Zambia and Ivory Coast, and the built-in measurement system can show what progress is being made. As a result the organization doesn’t need another RCT as it expands to new countries to prove that it works, but it might use them to answer other questions, such as how much coaching or mentoring is necessary for the program to work in resource-constrained environments, Pershad said.

This reporting made possible by a grant from the Eleanor Crook Foundation. Contents of the article are editorially independent without influence by external organizations or parties.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.