How to meet SDG and climate goals: Eight lessons for scaling up development programs

To achieve the desired outcomes of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the global targets from the Paris COP21 Climate Summit by 2030, governments will have to find ways to meet the top-down objectives with bottom-up approaches. A systematic focus on scaling up successful development interventions could serve to bridge this gap, or what’s been called the “missing middle.” However, the question remains how to actually address the challenge of scaling up.

When Arna Hartmann, adjunct professor of international development, and I first looked at the scaling up agenda in development work in the mid-2000s, we concluded that development agencies were insufficiently focused on supporting the scaling up of successful development interventions. The pervasive focus on one-off projects all too often resulted in what I’ve come to refer to as “pilots to nowhere.” As a first step to fix this, we recommended that each aid organization carry out a review to be sure to focus effectively on scaling up. 

The institutional dimension is critical, given their role in developing and implementing scaling up pathways. Of course, individuals serve as champions, designers, and implementers, but experience illustrates that if individuals lack a strong link to a supportive institution, scaling up is most likely to be short-lived and unsustainable. “Institutions” include many different types of organizations, such as government ministries and departments, private firms and social enterprises, civil society organizations, and both public and private external donors and financiers.

The Brookings book “Getting to Scale: How to Bring Development Solutions to Millions of Poor People” explores the opportunities and challenges that such organizations face, on their own or, better yet, partnering with each other, in scaling up the development impact of their successful interventions.

Eight lessons in scaling up

Over the past decade I have worked with 10 foreign aid institutions—multilateral and bilateral agencies, as well as big global non-governmental organizations—helping them to focus systematically on scaling up operational work and developing approaches to do so. There are common lessons that apply across the board to these agencies, with one salutary example being the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) which has tackled the scaling up agenda systematically and persistently.

Following are eight takeaway lessons I gleaned from my work with IFAD:

  1. Look into the “black box” of institutions. It is not enough to decide that an institution should focus on and support scaling up of successful development interventions. You actually need to look at how institutions function in terms of their mission statement and corporate strategy, their policies and processes, their operational instruments, their budgets, management and staff incentives, and their monitoring and evaluation practices. Check out the Brookings working paper that summarizes the results of a scaling up review of the IFAD.
  2. Scaling needs to be pursued institution-wide. Tasking one unit in an organization with innovation and scaling up, or creating special outside entities (like the Global Innovation Fund set up jointly by a number of donor agencies) is a good first step. But ultimately, a comprehensive approach must be mainstreamed so that all operational activities are geared toward scaling up.
  3. Scaling up must be championed from the top. The governing boards and leadership of the institutions need to commit to scaling up and persistently stay on message, since, like any fundamental institutional change, effectively scaling up takes time, perhaps a decade or more as with IFAD.
  4. The scaling up process must be grown within the institution. External analysis and advice from consultants can play an important role in institutional reviews. But for lasting institutional change, the leadership must come from within and involve broad participation from managers and staff in developing operational policies and processes that are tailored to an institution’s specific culture, tasks, and organizational structure.
  5. A well-articulated operational approach for scaling up needs to be put in place. For more on this, take a look at a recent paper by Larry Cooley and I that reviews two helpful operational approaches, which are also covered in Cooley’s blog. For the education sector, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings just published its report “Millions Learning,” which provides a useful scaling up approach specifically tailored to the education sector.
  6. Operational staffs need to receive practical guidance and training. It is not enough to tell staff that they have to focus on scaling up and then give them a general framework. They also need practical guidance and training, ideally tailored to the specific business lines they are engaged in. IFAD, for example, developed overall operational guidelines for scaling up, as well as guidance notes for specific area of engagement, including livestock development, agricultural value chains, land tenure security, etc.  This guidance and training ideally should also be extended to consultants working with the agency on project preparation, implementation, and evaluation, as well as to the agency’s local counterpart organizations.
  7. New approaches to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) have to be crafted. Typically the M&E for development projects is backward looking and focused on accountability, narrow issues of implementation, and short-term results. Scaling up requires continuous learning, structured experimentation, and innovation based on evidence, including whether the enabling conditions for scaling up are being established. And it is important to monitor and evaluate the institutional mainstreaming process of scaling up to ensure that it is effectively pursued. I’d recommend looking at how the German Agency for International Development (GIZ) carried out a corporate-wide evaluation of its scaling up experience.
  8. Scaling up helps aid organizations mobilize financial resources. Scaling up leverages limited institutional resources in two ways: First, an organization can multiply the impact of its own financial capacity by linking up with public and private agencies and building multi-stakeholder coalitions in support of scaling up. Second, when an organization demonstrates that it is pursuing not only one-off results but also scaled up impact, funders or shareholders of the organization tend to be more motivated to support the organization. This certainly was one of the drivers of IFAD’s successful financial replenishment consultation rounds over the last decade.

By adopting these lessons, development organizations can actually begin to scale up to the level necessary to bridge the missing middle. The key will be to assure that a focus on scaling up is not the exception but instead becomes ingrained in the institutional DNA. Simply put, in designing and implementing development programs and projects, the question needs to be answered, “What’s next, if this intervention works?”