Changing the behavior of the development sector

By: Engineering For Change


When the development community speaks of behavior change, it usually refers to individuals doing something differently. Whether that is adopting a new agricultural technology, using a toilet, sleeping under a bednet or any of the many other things that can improve health and wealth. But for long-term impact, behavior change may be necessary for everyone on all sides of the exchange, not just for the recipients of an intervention.

All development interventions require people to change their behavior to have any lasting impact. In the current aid system, the incentives for development agencies are often focused on delivering access to a good or a service or providing information to promote behavior change. Sometimes local public and private institutions are involved in delivering information, goods, or services to people. But anybody who has spent long enough in the development field, knows all too well that when donor money ends, the provision of information, goods, or services typically ends, too.

Instead of asking, “What problems do people have and what can I do about them,” try, “What problems do people have and why haven’t solutions emerged.”

Development practitioners love to talk about scale and sustainability, but rarely do they actually put these at the heart of their interventions. In an effort to improve people’s lives and livelihoods, the point of departure for outside agencies is often “what problems do people have and what can I do to help solve those?” Intentions are good. With billions still living in extreme poverty and without access to basic services in the 21st century, there is an urgency to get things done. A reach goal is usually then established, such as 1000 new water beneficiaries or 50 farmer groups trained. These kinds of goals are relatively easy to deliver and measure. But less thought goes into who will train the next group of farmers. And even less thought into who will pay for it.

Old question, new perspective

An alternative to the question, “What problems do people have and what can I do about them,” is, “What problems do people have and why haven’t solutions emerged.” Asking a slightly different question with the same desired end forces development agencies to think about what needs to change in order for solutions to continue being provided, rather than how development agencies can deliver temporary solutions. An implication of removing the development partner from the center of the intervention is that they are forced to interact with local actors in ways other than as sub-contractors or recipients of capacity-building.

In order for ‘scale’ and ‘sustainability’ to be more than just buzz words, we need to do more than pay lip service to the question of who will expand access and services in the long term.

“Capacity building”–another beloved term of the development community–means different things in different contexts, but generally refers to a transfer of knowledge or skills to somebody without. A lack of information and skills are real constraints that must be overcome to reduce poverty and improve access to basic services. But it’s not the only thing standing in the way. If there is no incentive to change–whether commercial, political, or social–capacity-building will not lead to the transformative change development tries to bring about.

In order for “scale” and “sustainability” to be more than just buzz words, we need to do more than pay lip service to the question of who will provide and expand access and services in the long term. Recognizing the limits of continuing to directly provide information, goods or services to poor people, several donors and implementers have opted for a more explicit approach to changing public and private actors’ behaviors so that they are able to continue to improve lives and livelihoods.

Interchangeably referred to as “market system development,” “making markets work for the poor,” or “systemic change,” this developmental approach explicitly seeks to change the practices and behaviors of existing, but perhaps imperfect, public and private institutions so that they are both capable and willing to expand or maintain access to information, goods, or services.

In the nearly 10 years that this approach has been codified, it has expanded from small enterprise development to agriculture, financial services, ICT, water, sanitation, energy efficiency, and housing as more and more donors and implementers realize that they, too, need to change their behavior to get serious about scale and sustainability.

Kate Fogelberg joined the Springfield Centre to work on market systems development in WASH and other sectors which could benefit market systems thinking.

This article is written by Kate Fogelberg and first appeared on Engineering For Change, a is a hybrid organization with three integrated arms — an online academy, innovation lab, and a media platform. To read more stories curated by E4C, visit

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