Co-creating the Way: Critical Components of Systems Change

Elena  0:00  

So allow me, then, to now dive into our first question. And the first question is what are the critical components, what are what are the critical ingredients to systems change? And let me bring my perspective first from Tostan, and I think what something that Sybil said really resonated with me because I told them we are considered to be system changers. And since the system changes at scale, we didn’t do it intentionally. So this happened as of course, a very positive and unexpected outcome of our empowering educational model. And so I am we we see really a systems change our key ingredients at Tostan, the way we are addressing the root causes of people not being able to fulfill their full potential and so impact Education is our entry point. So our educational model in local languages has allowed people to come together to learn basic information to learn their rights, but also to sit together, to convene together, as we were saying before, and unleash the potential for social norms to change and  component of social change is critical to the Tostan Model and has allowed really people to enforce their values, but also to abandon some of the practices that were not aligned to their values. And of course we are, we are famous for the abandonment of female genital cutting, of child marriage. But there is so much more that is unleashed, there’s so many more potentials that are unleashed through social change created at the grassroots. And, actually those social changes then transition to a next step. People took it farther as they learned about their rights and also their responsibilities. They felt individually but also collectively, they had the opportunity or the personal responsibility to advocate for their rights in new platforms and to take those social changes to more systemic change. And again at scale. So we have seen people running for office, we have seen people advocating for the rights at the local administration level, we have seen asking for more accountability. We have seen asking for transparency. So we have followed our journey where from empowering the education, addressing the causes, the root causes, has led to social norms and then to systems change, again, at scale. And so I think, from our perspective, that journey, that transformational journey that allowed people to fulfill their own potential is a key ingredient of systems change, and I now hand it over to our panelists to listen from their perspective and first, of course, to Sybil, so Sybil over to you. What are the key ingredients according to you if systems change for that to happen, please. 

Sybil  3:10  

Yes, thank you, Elena. In reflecting on the topic for this discussion, I realized that a recurring focus from my work without ever planning it out as such has been addressing asymmetries in women’s access to information products and services. A pivotal method in my experience is reaching women through collectives or groups where they have built trust, solidarity and cohesion that goes beyond their economic activities, really catalyzing them for the change that they envision for themselves and their communities and households. In many ways. Savings groups and their organic nature across the African continent are fundamentally structures that drive systems change. They were created by women for women to address the root cause of a social problem that they saw in their communities in order to alter the various components that contribute to that system in which they belong, behaving time and time again in a certain way against their benefit. So to answer your question Elena, I’d like to take a few minutes to share a few thoughts on three components that I believe are critical for systems change. First, I’d like to highlight the critical component of convergence.

And really, this is saying that no one actor or discipline can change a system by itself. In our world, we’ve carved out niches for ourselves highlighting what we bring to the table and where our voice and resources can push the needle. The system we are trying to change is complex. It requires a comprehensive approach, bringing in strengths of many actors, so citizens, communities, civil society organizations, government, donors, and of course, the private sector. There are many siloed approaches to addressing women’s economic empowerment, for example. Various disciplines play an important role in addressing women’s well being and contribution to society. We see approaches to provide more knowledge and opportunity to women and agriculture, business and life skills. Also health and the convergence of these various disciplines and actors are what can truly revolutionize sustained change for women. Second, especially true as we have a growing disparity between the rich and the poor, is the critical component of focusing on the most vulnerable and most marginalized, which happens to be the masses. World Bank’s recent data estimates that over 1.9 billion people, or 26% of the world’s population, were living on less than $3.20 per day in 2015. With close to 46% of the world’s population living on less than $5 and 50 cents a day. How many of them are actually women is not Known however, it is clear that poverty disproportionately impacts women who more than often lack their own source of income. And when they do gain income have little or no ownership and control of assets and decision making within their households. There’s a UNDP economics advisor who postulates that total annual economic losses due to gender gaps in effective labor would exceed 60 billion for Sub Saharan Africa, while such costs could be as high as 255 billion for the African region as a whole, and then a McKinsey Global Institute report finds that 12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. There are many efforts by citizens activists, NGOs, and civil society organizations that develop programs and make the link to services to address this population segment. But the focus not only to look to empower women’s agency, but also the structures and relations necessary to enable us to change. What good is it for a woman to have resources to pay for her daughter’s education if the nearest school is 50 kilometers away, or she still has no decision making power over the income she brings into her household? How can a woman expand her shea butter business if she isn’t allowed to access credit without proof of land ownership? Some of those are key questions that we need to ask. Third and last,  I think about finding opportunity and appetite. By truly understanding the system that needs to be changed from a human rights and human dignity perspective is a critical component of systems change. Take the abolition of slavery as an example. It was abolished by many small antebellum efforts and behaviors that started to contradict the founding principles of America and the policies that were enacted to start it to get pushback. One of them was The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. which started to get challenged by northern abolitionists who are not fulfilling their role in the eyes of the law by returning slaves or freedmen, found in northern states to the south. We all know the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Northern societies really changed their behavior, and aided her to free many from the south. Working with certain open actors with an appetite for shifting the norm allowed for the system to start showing the need for change. Similarly, in working to drive women’s economic empowerment, it is important to understand the policies, norms and priorities in the context we work in that can drive scalable and sustainable change and using openings, where there is appetite to introduce new behaviors or rationale to contradict the norms. Take the public sector countries across Africa or that are adopting gender strategies, putting up gender ministries and integrating gender across parts of government in the aim to achieve SDG five. Countries have health, education, infrastructure, financial inclusion or agriculture agendas that are tasked to introduce gender targets and approaches. Bringing key evidence on approaches that drive the women’s economic empowerment outcomes is vital for the various development systems to contribute to changing their systems. I think this, of course, goes hand in hand with the convergence and reaching the marginalized point I made above but highlights the need to use openings and appetite within the system to drive systems change. Sanjay, I know that societal platform is doing some very interesting work on systems change in India. So over to you to highlight the critical components of systems change, whether they’re similar or different from the African contextual perspectives I’ve shared. 


Thank you so much Sybil, amazing perspectives as always. There are so many perspectives that we share. This time I’m audible. I think some of the participants had challenged last time, so I hope it’s okay now. Super. Let’s let’s kind of zone this into a conversation. You rightly mentioned that about 3.4 billion people across this world live at less than 5.5 dollars a day kind of a construct, right? So India has about a billion of them. So it’s a country of 1.3 billion people, 22 official languages, so there is no way but to work with a system which has an enormous amount of diversity, culturally, socially, economically, politically. Less than or about 5% of people actually pay income taxes. 300 million migrants, a billion phones, 400 million smartphones and 450 million internet users. It’s an interesting environment and we have large challenges to deal with in terms of how do we ensure that we have adequate literacy and numeracy of 200 million people? How do we ensure that 100 million people who have never borrowed money in their life can get access to affordable capital and build their livelihoods? We have the need to ensure that 100 million families have access and ability to get proper health care. So I think the concept of large is a very different concept. That is important for us to deal with here because sometimes people say, I am scaling and I am growing from 10,000 schools to 20,000 schools. India has 1.5 million schools. So the meaning of scale is a very different meaning. When people say I am scaling, I used to service 50,000 farmers and now I’m servicing 100,000 farmers – we are dealing with questions which are pertaining to 200 million farmers, right so it’s a very different construct of scale. Time, if we have to achieve something substantial within our lifetimes, we have to really, really move very, very fast. And how do you make this sustainable? And you rightly mentioned also that the coming together of the government, the civil society, the private sector, and creating a network effect amongst them is a very important facet of creating large-scale systemic change. So what are the critical components that we are seeing? First and foremost, I would like to stress upon certain values when you have to deal with such a large, diverse, complex system. It’s important for us to focus on the fact that all the change, all the system design, all the initiatives and programs have to focus on restoring the agency of the ecosystem because at such scale, we cannot achieve an outcome unless we restore the agency of the ecosystem. It’s very, very important that people are able to do what they need to do in their own.

Sanjay  12:55  

interest, and so that’s a very important facet. For example, the work we do in education today at the EkstepFoundation, the entire focus is how do we help 30 million teachers of India actually regain their agency and contribute to the process of education, a very important facet. Second important thing is we have to catalyze networks. We have to ensure that actors, and that is a reason why we chose the word societal platforms, rather than social platforms, because societal is interaction of entities. There are actors in the government, there are actors in the civil society, there are actors in the private sector, and we have to synchronize them and get them to act across different kinds of environments. How do you catalyze that right? For example, one of the platforms that we work very closely with is called Echo, which is the extended community healthcare outcomes. They work in the area of healthcare where the entire idea is to build networks of learning, mentoring, sharing, so that healthcare reaches the deepest corners of India rather than stay concentrated. In highly structured cities, so how do you do that? How do you build networks and you have to work with, with the million or so healthcare workers in the government system, and you have to work with private agencies and providers. And the third important component, if you will, is how do you inspire co creation? Because there is no one answer the context varies by the mile. We always say that in India, the language changes literally every five kilometers. So it’s important for people to understand that you have to inspire co-creation by the communities, by the people who are really understanding the problem. For example, in microfinance, we work with a platform. One of our missions, where the whole idea is to work with, for example, Sybil, you mentioned the saving group or the different kinds of society actors and structure the financial products that are relevant to that community, that society and that structure. How do you do that in a flexible manner? How do you inspire the creation on the ground, rather than somebody believing that I have a solution, and I’m going to distribute it across the country? We always say never distribute a solution, distribute the ability to solve. It’s a very important aspect of it. And lastly, of course, is to develop public goods. Because at this scale, it is very, very difficult to imagine that we can build a large-scale sustainable system transformation without having large public goods, which are either digital infrastructure or physical infrastructures that can be used by the actors, by the civil society actors, to actually affect the change. A simple example I always called is that if Uber had to launch satellites, to get Uber going, Uber would have never gotten going. Uber the GPS as a free public good. And that’s how many things happen. So who’s building the public goods for the development sectors who’s building public goods for education? Who’s building public goods for health care? Who’s building public goods for urbanization? It’s important for us to keep that in mind. So I think that’s a really important component. And the last one I would certainly like to stress upon is leadership. System leaders, of course, people like Elena, who can actually make a system respond differently. And I quote Peter Sanger here, who I think highlighted three very important questions to think about. One is system leaders see the system as a whole. They never think about growing their organization, they think about growing the idea that they stand for, and they see the system as a whole, all the actors bring them together. So if you have to drive this system change at the scale of India, we need more and more system leaders. System leaders are very generative in nature, because everybody can find the problems, but it’s important for us to focus and find the solutions and help others find the solutions. Be generative about it. And third, a very important thing is system leaders solve for the future because you have to solve faster than the speed of growth of the problem. Otherwise, you know, it’s like, it’s like if I train 1000 teachers in India and the country retires, 50,000 teachers, I’m not going to get done in my lifetime to get over this. So you have to solve ahead of the problem. And I think so system leaders are very important. So I think in summary, restoring agency, catalyzing networks, inspiring co-creation, developing public goods, and having solid system leaders, I believe are very essential components, whichever sector, we want to transform at population scale, very complex problems and very dynamic changes that we need to deal with. Elena, what do you think?

Elena  17:45  

Thank you so much, Sanjay. Fantastic. And you know, your two interventions Sybil and Sanjay were so complimentary. And I think there is a lot of food for thoughts already on the table. Let me just pick on two key words. I think that you will Talk about and maybe there are resonances from a Tostan perspective and in the meantime, I will encourage our guests to really put themselves forward from some for some contribution around this first question, what are the key components of systems change? You certainly have more perspective and more thoughts to add on these questions. So contributions are welcome questions to our panelists, of course, including myself are also welcome. So let me just allow people to organize their thoughts and send their questions. I just want to go back to two quick questions and I see how these are important in particular in this you know, uncharted waters time and, and I think the agency and the resilience and I think that, you know, you just said Sanjay, really gives the opportunity in the capacity for people to find their own solutions. And solutions are so different, you know and solutions are different from the context, from the complexity of the scenario. And we know that this particular in countries like West Africa, and I’m talking about top down communities that are confronted with the situation in which they can’t, they can’t access as normal and they need to transform they need to really go deeper into their resiliency to to really transform their social change, they need to adopt to new new norms around the virus and we have seen that because they have the capacity of they have been going that resilience or that agency, they are able to move faster. So we have witnessed fantastic reaction and we have provided some tools to be able to allow communities to react very fast to to the pandemic and to make sure that they can adopt really life changing norms and behaviors that will for the well being of their communities and so again, agency resiliency, I think, are key components from a systems change perspective at the heart of the Tostan model for sure.