Implementing the SDGs, the Addis Agenda, and Paris COP21 needs a theory of change to address the “missing middle.” Scaling up is the answer.

So we’ve almost reached the end of the year 2015, which could go down in the history of global sustainable development efforts as one of the more significant years, with the trifecta of the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the agreement on the Addis Agenda on Financing for Development (FfD) and the (shortly to be completed) Paris COP21 Climate Summit. Yet, all will depend on how the agreements with their ambitious targets are implemented on the ground.

Effective implementation will require a theory of change—a way to think about how we are to get from “here” in 2015 to “there” in 2030. The key problem is what has very appropriately been called by some “the missing middle,” i.e., the gap between the top-down global targets on the one hand and the bottom-up development initiatives, projects, and programs that are supported by governments, aid agencies, foundations, and social entrepreneurs.

One way to begin to close this gap is to aim for scaled-up global efforts in specific areas, as is pledged in the Addis Agenda, including efforts to fight global hunger and malnutrition, international tax cooperation and international cooperation to strengthen capacities of municipalities and other local authorities, investments and international coopera­tion to allow all children to complete free, equitable, inclusive and quality early childhood, primary and secondary education, and concessional and non-concessional financing.

Another way is to develop country-specific national targets and plans consistent with the SDG, Addis, and COP21 targets, as is currently being done with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program’s MAPS program. This can provide broad guidance on policy priorities and resource mobilization strategies to be pursued at the national level and can help national and international actors to prioritize their interventions in areas where a country’s needs are greatest.

However, calling for expanded global efforts in particular priority areas and defining national targets and plans is not enough. Individual development actors have to link their specific projects and programs with the national SDG, Addis, and COP21 targets. They systematically have to pursue a scaling-up strategy in their areas of engagement, i.e., to develop and pursue pathways from individual time-bound interventions to impact at a scale in a way that will help achieve the global and national targets. A recent paper I co-authored with Larry Cooley summarizes two complementary approaches of how one might design and implement such scaling-up pathways. The main point, however, is that only the pursuit of such scaling-up pathways constitutes a meaningful theory of change that offers hope for effective implementation of the new global sustainable development targets.

Fortunately, over the last decade, development analysts and agencies have increasingly focused on the question of how to scale up impact of successful development interventions. Leading the charge, the World Bank in 2004, under its president Jim Wolfensohn, organized a high-level international conference in Shanghai in cooperation with the Chinese authorities on the topic of scaling up development impact and published the associated analytical work. However, with changes in the leadership at the World Bank, the initiative passed to others in the mid-2000s, including the Brookings InstitutionExpandNet (a group of academics working with the World Health Organization), Management Systems International (MSI), and Stanford University. They developed analytical frameworks for systematically assessing scalability of development initiatives and innovations, analyzed the experience with more or less successful scaling-up initiatives, including in fragile and conflict-affected states, and established networks that bring together development experts and practitioners to share knowledge.

By now, many international development agencies (including GIZ, JICA, USAID, African Development Bank, IFAD and UNDP), foundations (including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation) and leading development NGOs (including Heifer International, Save the Children and the World Resources Institute), among others, have focused on how best to scale up development impact, while the OECD recently introduced a prize for the most successful scaling-up development initiatives. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is perhaps the most advanced among the agencies, having developed a systematic operational approach to the innovation-learning-scaling-up cycle. In a collaborative effort with the Brookings Institution, IFAD reviewed its operational practices and experience and then prepared operational design and evaluation guidelines, which can serve as a good example for other development agencies. The World Bank, while yet to develop a systematic institution-wide approach to the scaling-up agenda, is exploring in specific areas how best to pursue scaled-up impact, such as in the areas of mother and child health, social enterprise innovation, and the “science of delivery.”

Now that the international community has agreed on the SDGs and the Addis Agenda, and is closing in on an agreement in Paris on how to respond to climate change, it is the right time to bridge the “missing middle” by linking the sustainable development and climate targets with effective scaling-up methodologies and practices among the development actors. In practical terms, this requires the following steps:

  • Developing shared definitions, analytical frameworks, and operational approaches to scaling up among development experts;
  • Developing sectoral and sub-sectoral strategies at country level that link short- and medium-term programs and interventions through scaling-up pathways with the longer-term SDG and climate targets;
  • Introducing effective operational policies and practices in the development agencies in country strategies, project design, and monitoring and evaluation;
  • Developing multi-stakeholder partnerships around key development interventions with the shared goal of pursuing well-identified scaling-up pathways focused on the achievement of the SDGs and climate targets;
  • Developing incentive schemes based on the growing experience with “challenge funds” that focus not only on innovation, but also on scaling up, such as the recently established Global Innovation Fund; and
  • Further building up expert and institutional networks to share experience and approaches, such as the Community of Practice on Scaling Up, recently set up by MSI and the Results for Development Institute.