Scaling up impact – the key challenge for the development community

[This article was originally published on the Global Community of Practice on Scaling Development Outcomes website]

‘Scaling up impact’ is the new watchword in development. Cynics might be inclined to dismiss it as the newest fad in the merry-go-round of fads in development theory and practice. But this would be a serious mistake.

It is high time that the development community gets beyond the prevalent focus on one-off projects, beyond ‘pilots-to-nowhere’, beyond throwing everything we have at ‘our’ project to make it work while forgetting what happens when it ends.

And it is not good enough to assume, just because our project has worked, that ‘someone will pick it up and run with it.’ Of course, there are examples of successful scaling. But for every success in scaling, there are thousands of development projects that have led nowhere due to a lack of systematic focus on scaling.

This has occurred despite a huge increase in financing available for innovations and support in the form of innovation labs, incubators and accelerators.

If we are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, about the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement, and about ‘building back better’ after the COVID-19 crisis, it is of critical importance that we focus on achieving sustainable development impact at scale.

This is the goal of the Global Community of Practice on Scaling Development Outcomes. Founded in 2014, this Community has grown from about 40 initial die-hards to over 700 members from more than 200 organisations, with nine sectoral and thematic working groups exploring new ways of ensuring that scaling is mainstreamed into development work on the ground and in the board rooms of the development agencies.

In October 2020, the Community organised a virtual workshop with 12 sessions focusing on cross-cutting issues as well as sectoral and thematic topics. Based on the workshop sessions, the Community’s first working paper by Richard Kohl notes how much progress has been made over the last decade in the discipline of scaling to the point where a “New Consensus” has emerged.

Based on nearly twenty years developing scaling frameworks and approaches and testing them in the field, we now know a lot about how to scale and have the principles and approaches, and the tools and guidelines to match.

However, there still is much to be learned. Based on the workshop discussions, Kohl’s paper identifies a number of crosscutting issues that we need to address if we want to ensure a better understanding of scaling and more effective incorporation of scaling into the day-to-day work of development practitioners.

Let us highlight the five most important among these cross-cutting issues.

1. Mainstreaming the new consensus

The importance of scaling is increasingly recognised by leaders of international development organisations and is reflected in their mission and vision statements. Yet this generally does not translate into how they develop, fund, and support projects, investments and innovations. They remain trapped in the traditional one-off project mode or in a narrow focus on innovation, rather than on how to overcome the obstacles that impede the movement from innovation to impact at scale.A principal challenge now for the development community is how to mainstream scaling into organisations’ strategies, policies, and operational practices, into their innovation labs, and into the way they evaluate their programs.

2. Scaling versus systems change

A central conversation in the Community of Practice revolves around whether the focus should be on finding and pursuing a scaling pathway for promising innovations; on fixing aspects of ‘the system’ that prevent promising innovations from reaching scale; or on focusing on system change itself.

The short answer is: it depends. An individual farmer or social entrepreneur pursuing a scaling pathway needs to think hard about what barriers – institutions, policies, finances, politics, etc. – may get in the way and try to work around them. But a minister of agriculture or economy is a ‘system maker’ and should focus on reforming institutions, policies and the financial system to make sure farmers or businesspeople face enabling conditions that let them get on with efforts to scale.

A project officer for a major development project can fall somewhere in between: she might be able to change some of the systemic constraints, but more likely will remain a ‘system taker’ overall. What does this mean in practice? How do we best work around systemic constraints while we scale or, to the extent possible, effect the necessary systemic changes? How do we know whether particular system changes actually help the farmers and social entrepreneurs? And how do we manage the unintended systemic consequences of scaled up initiatives, e.g., when a new initiative crowds out other worthwhile activity? The Community of Practice will address these and related questions and how to link scaling with system change in practice.

3. Focusing on the costs of scaling

Development practitioners look at unit costs and cost-effectiveness as part of their proof-of-concept efforts. However, they often neglect the costs of the scaling process, and the ability of an innovation to achieve the economies of scale without which impact at scale is likely to be unaffordable.

As a result, we don’t know whether costs are rising or falling as scaling proceeds, how to control costs by finding simpler rather than more complex pathways, or what the costs are of integrating an innovation into relevant public systems.

This is why so many innovations are getting stuck in the well-known ‘valley of death’. The basic lesson is clear – pay attention to costs is clearly a priority – but more needs to be learned about how costs evolve with scaling and how they differ depending on the pathway, sector, local context, and type of innovation.

4. Paying attention to demand when scaling

Too often scaling efforts neglect to assess the effective demand for what’s being offered, be it market demand for commercial products, community demand for delivery of services, or political and bureaucratic demand for interventions that require governments and their bureaucracies to act.

One answer is to pursue ‘demand-driven scaling’, where we involve from the beginning those whom we expect to take up our innovation as partners in the innovation process itself and in deciding whether and how to scale. New practices like human-centered design help ensure that demand from all the relevant actors is integrated into the scaling process, but how to do that, and do it well, remains a challenge.

5. Monitoring, evaluation and learning (ME&L) for the New Consensus

The Community is focusing intensely on the implications of the New Consensus for ME&L. It recognises that new tools are needed to generate evidence on critical dimensions of the scaling pathway.

This means not only evidence whether the intervention has the desired impact, but also whether the vision of ultimate scale remains appropriate, whether systemic constraints are effectively addressed, whether costs and demand are adequately considered, what changes are needed in project design and implementation for scalability, and whether progress is being made in scaling. The Community seeks to find practical ways to adapt existing donor ME&L frameworks to allow implementers greater discretion in pursuing scaling efforts.

Taken together, these five issues considered here provide a roadmap for addressing key challenges that the development community faces in translating the potential contained in projects and innovations into sustainable impact at scale. We look forward to pursuing these issues as a Community of Practice and invite interested practitioners and researchers to join our efforts.