Making Markets Work for the Poor — Science, Art or Speculation?

As an adviser, trainer and all-round advocate of the "making markets work for the poor" approach to more effective development, I get asked a lot of questions about the approach. A typical first exchange runs like this: "Market facilitation. I get it. But what exactly should I do?” My answer: “It depends, but you need to start by asking the right questions."

Field planting
Photo by Hailey Tucker, 2015 CGAP Photo Contest

This is no doubt is a frustratingly opaque and evasive answer to a direct and seemingly simple question. Call me a radical, but to mind, any effective approach to good development should start by asking the right questions, not proffering the right answers. Market facilitation is a process; it is not instrument driven. We want to understand why things are the way they are and then help to change them in ways that contribute to our development goals. As a process, market facilitation blends science, art and speculation as follows:

  • Science. We are analytical, diagnostic and precise about why we are trying to influence market development, and we start by asking the right questions.
  • Art. We are up close, personal and judgement driven when we take action to influence market development.
  • Speculation. We innovate, we take risks, and we actively manage portfolios of interventions, using data to mitigate risk and manage up successes.

These points are well illustrated in the work I have been doing recently with FSD Africa, seeking to unpack various market facilitation experiences of FSD Kenya. When you read the case studies of their work with M-Shwari, informal savings groups, and savings and credit cooperatives, you will likely be struck by the sheer diversity of just what they did as a market facilitator. Their work on informal savings groups with CARE and CRS alone illustrates the breadth of their work.

FSD Kenya support to CARE and CRS

Improving supply-side cost effectiveness

  • Innovation: Facilitating a series of innovation workshops and technical assistance aimed at innovating the savings group model, focused on costs and delivery channels.

Supporting product development

  • Capacity building: Supporting the partner, through technical assistance and money, to develop a new savings group model in line with the recommendations from the innovation support process.

Innovation and learning

  • Evaluation: Supporting CRS as a new partner to test an alternative approach and foster innovation and learning. Commissioned a quality of delivery study to evaluate effectiveness and impact of key model features.

Linkages to formal finance

  • Linkages: Having reached a critical mass of functioning and sustainable savings groups, PostBank was approached to test ways in which it could connect with and support savings groups with savings and loan products.

But as you read the case studies, do not just look at what FSD did. What they did does not explain their success. Look at the process they used. As expanded on in the case studies, FSD Kenya’s success lies in the market facilitation approach that they followed.

  • Science. Informed by a first principles approach in all cases, FSD asked the right questions and understood why they were doing the things they were doing. Their vision, purpose and objectives were all clear to them and, just as importantly, to their partners.
  • Art. Their reputation, profile, and professionalism allowed them to get partners to the negotiating table, and their flexible approach allowed them to do good deals underpinned by clarity of process and purpose.
  • Speculation. Seeing themselves as partners in the process, they were up close and personal and fully invested. Decisions on where and how best to intervene were regularized in the process, informed by data, and guided by clarity on objectives, vision and purpose.

"T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)," the great song by Ella Fitzgerald, offers us a truism that we would do well to reflect on in our work in the development sector. Good market facilitation is not just about what you do. It demands that we blend science, art and speculation to do it well. Get these right, and the “what” we do will fall out in the wash.

Yet I suspect, the most common question I will be asked at the next training I do will be: “Yes, lovely, but what exactly should I do, David?” Here’s hoping not!

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