The Market Systems Symposium 2021: Moving The Conversation Forward

This post discusses the central themes that will be explored at the Market Systems Symposium 2021.

Register for the event here.


An enduring question in development is why societies seem to get stuck in patterns of behavior that can be hard to understand. Whether conflict, stubborn levels of poverty, elite capture, inability to address climate change, increasing equality, etc., development practitioners continue to wrestle with how best to help catalyze positive change. Applying systems thinking, including embracing complexity, has been an important advancement in helping development practitioners understand difficult questions that are grounded in understanding local contexts. At the same time, complexity and systems lenses suggest that if there is a given pattern, like strong gender norms to limit women from participating in and benefiting from economic activity, such patterns are grounded in something that made that pattern attractive. Through the lens of a western moral framework, this can be hard to align or even disconnect from stated development goals.

These difficult and sticky challenges are central to the Market Systems Symposium 2021. Climate change and related conservation challenges, a new theme at this year’s Symposium, are integral to the longer-term journey to self-reliance of many countries. At the same time, there remain patterns in many of these contexts that are likely to make the journey longer and more difficult in terms of health, economic, etc., outcomes. Similarly, how communities and societies manage shocks and stresses is also critical to a country’s journey to middle income status, a thread that will be explored under the Market Systems Resilience theme. While it seems clear that communities often rely heavily on informal communal social safety net mechanisms to help them weather shocks and stresses, many of these mechanisms can result in patterns that do not align with economic growth requirements. Urban populations and related non-agricultural market systems, while less of a focus for much of the development industry, are likely to be the economic engine that drives a society to middle income status; this will be discussed under a theme exploring systems such as housing, water, nutrition, and more. In all these themes, how private sector actors compete, cooperate, invest, innovate, etc. is elemental to whether a society can grow in ways that are more inclusive and durable. In many developing countries, there are patterns related to firms using their political/market power to create unfair competitive landscapes that limit who can participate and benefit. Questions and debates related to challenging private sector patterns will be covered in the Symposium’s Private Sector Engagement theme.

Whether the patterns relate to conservation challenges, inability to overcome known and knowable stresses/shocks, elite capture in markets, the critical role urban poor play in the journey to self-reliance, etc. learning how best to apply various lenses to local contexts to understand the current attractiveness of problematic patterns will play a foundational role in the Market Systems Symposium’s conversations. Practitioners will also debate, discuss and share learning in how to catalyze changes in market systems that are attractive enough to signal to others in the market system it is time to adopt, adapt, and/or otherwise change behavior.

Additionally, the Symposium will interweave key cross-cutting themes related to how initial changes in market systems can influence change in deeper-seated norms/mental models like the role of youth, gender norms and/or other limiting norms related to vulnerable groups. How entrepreneurship could/should emerge and catalyze increasing innovation over time will also be a cross-cutting theme, including how effective entrepreneurship requires increasing inclusiveness, better internal market systems signaling/feedback and mechanisms that allow for increasing churn/trial and error. The other cross-cutting themes will cover operational issues that include measurement, donor strategies, and adaptive management.

We are excited for this year’s Market System Symposium, especially in light of increasing confidence that life is getting back to some sense of normalcy. Pushing new learning, better practice, and a shared commitment to applying systems thinking to complex development challenges seems more important than ever.