Given the environmental crisis that is engulfing us, incorporating environmental and social systems into the MSD approach is long overdue

What can we learn in this respect from the 'Doughnut Economics' approach developed by Kate Raworth1

Social systems

Unlike our market systems doughnut, the Doughnut Economics concept does not put market transactions at its centre, but people and their needs, as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)2. This is more than an iteration of the old basic needs approach. It includes food, water, housing, income and work. But also social equity, gender equality, networks, peace and justice, political voice and more. In Doughnut Economics, achieving these goals would be the social foundation of an equitable economy. 

In this regard MSD is not doing badly. Social systems (which include for instance economic and political power relations, belief systems) are seldom explicitly included in our analysis and do not show up in the doughnut that guides the analysis. Yet, MSD interventions have increased incomes and created employment for the poor and otherwise excluded3. This contributes to one of the SDGs.

Increased incomes have resulted in more access to education and healthcare, and some programmes have demonstrated a direct contribution to gender equality, voice and stronger networks - also included among the SDGs. Explicit inclusion of social systems in our analysis would probably further strengthen this impact, as indicated by the women’s economic empowerment results of projects that conducted a gender analysis4


The natural environment does not seem to figure in our analytical framework at all, and consequently few projects have taken it into account5.  

In this respect MSD risks making the same mistake as mainstream economists and the governments they advise. While these have finally realised that the biosphere is finite, economic growth is still their exclusive goal6.  This model has led to the global environmental crisis. The exploitation of nature is such that according to the Global Footprint Network, humanity exhausted 2021’s nature budget on 29 July, thanks largely to the developed nations7. Today the world is therefore operating in 'overshoot'. Technological innovation is expected to put things right, and definitely has a role to play, but the idea that it will save the planet while pursuing infinite growth is wishful thinking8

Doughnut Economics offers an alternative. In addition to placing people and their needs at its centre, its doughnut also includes an ecological ceiling comprising nine 'planetary boundaries'9. Staying under this ceiling, while achieving the social foundation of the SDGs, provides the conditions for a just and regenerative economy. A space in which humanity can thrive. Beyond the boundaries lies 'unacceptable environmental degradation and possible tipping points in Earth’s systems'.

Humanity has already far exceeded the planetary boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, land conversion, and nitrogen and phosphorus loading (caused by the use of chemical fertilisers). We are just over the boundary for ocean acidification. We are still in the safe zone, globally, for freshwater withdrawals and ozone layer depletion. Global control variables for air and chemical pollution have yet to be defined.  

Raworth’s book10 became a global bestseller, but the economic policies and actions of national governments and development banks do not seem much affected. There was no mention, for instance, in the conclusions of Cop26 that rich countries should stop pursuing limitless economic growth. However, like many of the initiatives that address the environmental crisis, the Doughnut Economics perspective has been taken up increasingly by cities and towns and other local governments, especially in Europe and the Americas, with Africa and Asia expected to follow suit.

At those levels, pressure from citizens is more direct and action often more politically feasible. A range of tools has been developed by the Doughnut Economics Action Lab to enable local governments, citizens and other stakeholders to identify ecological boundaries that are locally relevant and develop and implement actions to protect or regenerate the natural environment accordingly.

Adapt our approach to include nature

Ditching MSD for Doughnut Economics is not what I am suggesting. Like MSD, Doughnut Economics is not a fixed model. It is a systems way of thinking about economic development to which economies’ embeddedness in society and nature are central. We can learn from that. 

The market systems we aim to improve and make more inclusive are embedded in social and natural systems that affect them, and are affected by them. There are limits to the ecosystem services - such as clean water and air, fertile soil, food, and temperature regulation - that market systems, and the people that inhabit them, can draw on. This should inform our approach from analysis to results measurement. It should be represented in our market systems diagram by a first encircling ring for social systems, and a second big fat green ring that includes the ecological boundaries for the natural environment (local or global).

In my view, this perspective should be adopted by all MSD programmes, not just those with environmental objectives. And for all interventions. And should be clearly defined in programme documents. We cannot continue to ignore that MSD investments may worsen rather than ameliorate the environmental crisis, with potentially grave consequences for our target groups and future generations.

This does not mean that our poverty reduction programmes in the 'Global South' should be saddled with contributing to solving problems largely caused by the rich developed world. It does mean identifying locally or nationally relevant ecological boundaries. We should consider whether the systemic changes we seek will bring economies closer to exceeding them, and if so, assessing whether the benefits outweigh the damage that will be done.

Such local boundaries are likely to concern polluted and drying up waterways and groundwater, air pollution and loss of forests rather than CO2 emissions, to which Africa, for instance, contributes not even three per cent11.  

It does also mean seeking opportunities to reduce impacts on these ecological boundaries. And to protect and regenerate the natural environment in which market systems are embedded, and on which humanity depends. If we don’t, we are bound for irrelevance in the face of the great crisis that is unfolding.

3  For the BEAM Exchange’s latest roundup of the evidence see Luis E. Osorio-Cortes and Mike Albu, “The results achieved by programmes that use the market systems development (MSD) approach”, July 2021,
4  For instance the Alliances Lesser Caucasus Programme,
5  Isaac Cowan-Gore, “Market Systems Development and the Environment: A Strategic and Operational Guidance Note”, ILO the Lab, December 2020;
6  Dasgupta, P. (2021), The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. Abridged Version. (London: HM Treasury), page 47
7 and Dasgupta, P, page 34
8  Dasgupta, P., page 46 to 48.
9 These were first defined by Johan Rockström et al. in “A safe operating space for humanity”, Nature, September 2009.
10  Kate Raworth, “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”, Random House, 2017. 


  • Yes!

    Thank you Roel for your blog post on MSD and doughnut economics/nature. In my opinion this is THE big topic for MSD that needs to be addressed more critically and urgently in the next few years by implementers, donors, researchers, etc.

    Lorenz Wild (1 year, 1 month ago)
  • Agreed

    I agree of course, Lorenz. If you have any experience in this field (and it seems from your profile you do) it would be great to hear about it.

    Roel Hakemulder (1 year, 1 month ago)
  • Putting it in practice

    Thanks a lot for opening our eyes Roel! Think in practice we can combine Kate's doughnut quite easily with our MSD donut. Like you mentioned we already kind of put the social dimension in the center (inclusion of our 'poor' target groups in value chains), so it is mainly about adding the ecological dimension to it. We can simply visualize the ecological boundaries of the natural environment of local systems as an additional outer circle to our donut, in order to take it into account right from the beginning in our system analysis. In practice this comes down to taking into account inside the analysis next to the exsiting 'support functions' and 'rules' also the quantity, quality and diversity of local natural resources and the 'support functions' they provide to our target groups and their communities (you mentioned already great examples like groundwater, waterways, fertile soil, fresh air, diverse forests etc.). I am pretty sure that this will not only lead to better insights in bottlenecks to the functioning of local systems as a whole, but also towards better sollutions as more and more the root causes of these bottlenecks have to do with how (badly) we deal with nature.

    Wiebe Vos (1 year, 1 month ago)
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