Systems thinking has started to appear within the discourse around ‘business and development’, as governments, donors and NGOs are increasingly seeking to leverage private initiatives to have broad impacts on development goals.
Peter Senge (1990) describes ‘systems thinking’ as a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things and for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. In international development, systems change is based on the understanding that significant improvements in the outcomes of a targeted population (e.g. increased employment for landless labourers, more secure incomes for small-scale farmers) will not occur unless the surrounding system of interrelationships adjusts to accommodate the desired goals (Cohen and Lavach 1995, quoted in Foster-Fishman, Nowell and Yang 2007).
While business and development encompasses a broad range of activities, one prominent area of focus is around ‘pro-poor business’. This is an approach that involves redesigning business models and processes to improve the lives of the poor as producers linked to value chains, as consumers of essential goods and services that are made available to previously underserved markets, or as employees.
The relationship between business and development initiatives and systemic change is the core focus of this paper. The key question is to explore whether and how pro-poor business approaches can go beyond individual company value chains, to drive shifts in broader market systems.
The overall purpose of the paper is to contribute to analysis, evidence generation and learning for development agents on the potential for business and development approaches to contribute to long-term poverty alleviation and development.