Systems, power, and agency in market-based approaches to poverty

A review of some shortcomings of Market-based approaches (MBAs) and the search for more holistic, systemic approaches.

Market-based approaches (MBAs) have become an increasingly vital area for anti-poverty development work, spurring a wide range of new actors, partnerships, and initiatives. Many development proponents remain focused on macroeconomic growth through foreign direct investment and large-scale public-private partnerships. Others view these trends ominously and push for a return to protected markets and stronger regulation of corporations. Between these two poles, a third stream of MBA practitioners accepts globalization, but intervenes more directly in markets to ensure pro-poor impacts.

This paper reviews some of the shortcomings of these various approaches and describes the search for more holistic, systemic approaches. Specifically, the paper argues that MBAs continue to fall short of their potential because of a failure to: (i) employ “systems thinking,” (ii) address power and agency, and (iii) implement interventions with adequate political, social, and economic dexterity. A market systems approach (MSA) integrating these three essential elements (systems thinking, power/agency, and dexterity) offers the best prospect for ensuring significant and lasting change through market engagement.



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