June 2, 2022

Reflections from an MSD practitioner

I recently changed job1, and as is often the case at milestone moments, it gave me a chance to pause and reflect. 

Compared to many of my stellar colleagues who have worked in the MSD field for decades, I’m still relatively new. But you can’t spend years of your life visiting programmes, working side by side with implementation teams, talking with donors, training practitioners and consistently advocating for systemic thinking and action without a few takeaways. 

Here are some of the lessons I’m carrying with me into my new role.

A systems lens will transform the way you see the world. When you encounter a problem, if you start by thinking about the systems that keep that problem in place, you will come up with far more interesting and valuable ideas than you might otherwise.

One of the most useful questions in development is “but…why hasn’t that (supposedly brilliant idea) emerged already, without any intervention?” Be very wary of shortcut answers to this question.

You don’t have to think that it is important to use development funds to have a lasting impact on the way things work, but if you do think that is important, and if you take that mandate seriously, it will fundamentally change the way you approach every aspect of the work you do.

We talk a lot in development about behaviour change, but suggesting that other people, and their organisations, “should” change the way they behave, is rarely useful. Instead look at what incentives and capacities different actors have – or could have – to change their behaviour. That’s a much more pragmatic starting point. (Honestly, it’s a little more humble too.)

Don’t underestimate the importance of power (formal and informal, visible and invisible) - both in the places we work and in the development sector itself. Sometimes we simply cannot understand why things work the way they do until we understand the power relationships people are operating within. These may be different to the power relationships we operate within, especially if we are coming from a place of relative privilege. (Side note: my dream for ‘development’ is that that the power relationships right at the very heart of the sector will be fundamentally disrupted and reimagined on better, more equal, and more just terms.)

The best advisors and leaders aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know.” Some of the smartest people I’ve worked with ask for help all the time, including from people less experienced than they are, who have expertise in something they are working on. This only makes me respect them more. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Qualitative research is critically important to programme design and adaptive management. Understanding how things work and why they work the way they do is a necessary precursor to identifying opportunities for change and impact. Relying on assumptions, stereotypes and anecdotes simply won’t get us there. That said, too few people in development have been given a strong understanding of what qualitative research is, yet alone how to do it, and it turns out not everyone thinks it's fun to go to new places and have long in-depth conversations with total strangers about their everyday lives. There’s a need for more work on how to do qualitative research ethically and well.

Relatedly, practitioners underestimate the knowledge, nuance and insight academics have to offer, and academics underestimate practitioners' ability to translate insight into realistic recommendations. We need both academics and practitioners, working together.

Finally, if you can, work with people who make you laugh. It will make everything better.

Whether you have been working in MSD for months, years, or decades, you likely have reflections of your own. Are you one of those people that starts applying MSD frameworks in every area of your life? Do you results-chain your dinner decisions, or donut your career choices? Or do you find yourself bringing your experience from outside of MSD into the field to make it stronger?

We’d love to hear from you – add your own reflections in the comments below, or let us know which of these resonated with you the most.

1I've just moved from being a trainer, consultant and researcher at The Springfield centre to taking on a new (to me) role as the Senior Advisor for Mercy Corp’s existing portfolio of Market Systems Development for Employment – MSD4E – work.

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