Prescribe or Facilitate? Exploring collective action in the fight against poverty

By Michael Jarvis, Senior Private Sector Development Specialist, World Bank Institute

Prescribe or Facilitate?
Exploring collective action in
the fight against poverty

The role of multilateral and donor organizations in combating poverty is ever evolving alongside that of corporations. The past decade has seen increased recognition of market-based solutions. One encouraging sign? Upon taking office this summer Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, quickly invited in Michael Porter to talk about shared value concepts.

At the same time Jim Kim is urging a vision of the World Bank as a “solutions” bank, recognizing that development hinges not just on funds or knowledge, but also engineering processes to tackle complex problems. In large part these are problems that equally impact the business community, be it climate change, corruption or failings in education that translate into lack of skilled labor.

Too often existing political processes or business practices are proving incapable of tackling underlying large-scale problems. Effective solutions require engagement of government, industry and civil society alike, which in turn requires a frank recognition of issues of trust, incentives and where the real blockages to change lie. A new report from ODI’s Africa power and politics program reinforces just this point that to get real impactful change we need to view development as a collective action problem.

In this context I was excited to read Katie Welford’s recent blog on participatory market systems development. The components she outlined of systems thinking, participation and facilitation form the core of one emerging track of donor-supported programming. For example, at the World Bank Institute (WBI), we are working through just such an approach in addressing needs in both specific sectors, such as extractive industries, and cross-cutting agendas, such as opening up public-private contracting, where vested interests are high.

This focus on multi-stakeholder led change actively brings in business perspectives and contributions. Without it actions are likely to be less comprehensive and effective. In the case of open contracting, industry input is vital – be it to identify consensus on the appropriate balance between transparency and justifiable commercial sensitivities, or how best to ensure an open procurement process that encourages competition without opening the door to collusion.

The role of the multilateral agency – WBI in this case – shifts to that of knowledge broker and process facilitator, as opposed to a more traditional role of “expert” outlining a specific course of action. These approaches build on academic research, such as that of Otto Scharmer at MIT, as well as practical experiences of groups, such as Reos Partners, applying them in a growing list of contexts. The case of the Sustainable Food Lab offers a sense of the value of bringing together different stakeholders with a focus on collective innovation and experimentation, escaping typical blame games. Yet the potential of these approaches to be applied at scale in the fight against poverty is not being fully tapped.

In part this might be reflective of one challenge of this participatory systems approach – that it is hard to indicate precise results objectives in advance. These are only determined by the stakeholders during the process based on a mapping of challenges and opportunities. This can run up against another understandable donor push, potentially shared by those in the private sector, to see detailed results frameworks for projects before committing funding. The insistence on clearly specified anticipated results may push to a more prescriptive role. The alternative requires a leap of faith to trust in the process. Until you’ve seen it work in practice that can be a hard ask.

My guess is that many more in the Business Fights Poverty community are experimenting with social innovation type approaches at a macro level and that there are many parallels we can learn from in terms of private sector experiences. How are these being applied in different market sectors and geographies? It would be valuable to compare notes.

Plus, I’d welcome any thoughts on the role multilaterals can best play to incentivize business involvement in collective action to tackle the big issues and take advantage of emering opportunities.

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3 Responses

  1. Michael, an interesting article. I wholeheartedly agree. As for some of my notes on the role multilaterals could play:

    1. Fine-tuning classification systems to products and economic activities of the south:

    2. Use classification systems to curate/structure the information that multilaterals are producing – how this can be done is illustrated by Nepal development dashboard which (should) link local facilitation, diagnosis, participation to (globally curated) resources on public-private synergy & dependencies in the Actor Atlas, as illustrated at

    3. A more general note on being smart with principles (inclusive institutions), system (accountability), and media tools is in

    Basically, the mulilaterals (and national governments) need to become contentsmart (collectively): All content (they produce) must be linked in a manner that supports efficient/easy navigation (search engines might substitute for finding information) and more important, unambiguous placing of new content. Compare with finding and placing a word in a dictionary: for the placing search engines provide no supportThis is an (internet) gap the Actor Atlas approach is able to bridge for development communications at broad.

  2. Michael, thank you for putting collective action high on the agenda here. Undoubtedly, the need for collective action approaches a new way of governance is increasing in a globalizing world where common goods are more and more under pressure.

    In the study “A Strategy for the Commons” with Bertelsmann Stiftung and the UN Global Compact, we identified business-driven networks for sustainability as important platforms to facilitate and enable collective action. Networks like the UN Global Compact, the WBCSD or the IBLF, as well as many other examples on the regional and national levels, provide the enablers for collective action: a common ground among participants, legitimacy vis-a-vis stakeholders, implementation capacity, resources and glocality.

    Efficient and effective tools and processes to implement collective action still need to be developed further. Certainly, the WBI can play an important role in buiding and sharing knowhow on this new and important approach. 

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