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Are We Spoiling the Private Sector? Image

Promoting Inclusive Markets and Financial Systems

Are We Spoiling the Private Sector?

Are We Spoiling the Private Sector?


Author: Md. Rubaiyath Sarwar, Managing Director, Innovision Consulting

Blog | Synthesis | Discussion 

"As market facilitators, we strive to make the market inclusive...facilitate some small changes with the hope that the market system will open up to the poor! And we work with our ever so accommodating partners-more often than not lead firms. In the process, we keep on knocking from door to door, asking the private sector if they are willing to partner with us. And then, we negotiate, select the partners and implement our interventions. The interventions fetch excellent results. So much so that we do the same thing with the same partner in a larger scale. We call it replication. And then we involve more partners to do the same thing. We call it scale up. In some cases we say no to our beloved partner as we believe we have solved the market problem. But to our surpise, few months later, we see our partner doing almost the same thing with another project funded by another donor. Do we see another form of distortion taking place? Aren't we making ourselves too dependent on the lead firms? Why are our interventions often skewed towards the lead firms? What about other market system actors which include- civil society, professional associations, the government, the NGOs, cooperatives...? Do we always need to have commercial incentives to have sustainable impacts on scale?"

Over the last decade we have observed increasing donor investment on market development projects for ‘large scale,’ ‘systemic ‘ and ‘sustainable change’ in agricultural and industrial sectors in Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. The projects proved that the donors can get better value for their investment if the private sector is attracted to invest on the interventions. More importantly, the partnership between the private sector and the project on cost sharing basis evolved as a principle tool to reposition development projects from being providers of critical services to being facilitators of the services.  I have been a direct participant in this paradigm shift and evolved from being a project manager to becoming a technical advisor and evaluator of market development projects in agricultural, industrial and health sectors in several countries that include Bangladesh and Nigeria, the two hotspots for market development projects in the world. 

As my roles shifted and my exposure expanded across different sectors in different countries and contexts, I observed an alarming trend.  It was becoming increasingly evident that (i) market development and support to lead firms was becoming increasingly synonymous (ii) there were projects in the same region or country competing for partnership with same lead firms (given that there are not too many in the country that qualifies to become a partner) (iii) the proliferation of market development projects in the same sector led to increasing number of lead firms receiving funds from them that ended up subsidizing their R&D, distribution and marketing costs and (iv) it was becoming difficult to evaluate whether the intervention resulted in systemic change since the lead firms continued to replicate the intervention with funds from other projects once the support from the original project was withdrawn. This prompted me to ask the members of the Market Facilitation Initiative (MaFI) whether they shared the feeling that probably it is time for us market development practitioners to be a little cautious when we approach lead firms.   

The question attracted wide range of participants contributing to a technically rich discussion. Contributors included Mary Morgan-Inclusive Market Development Expert, Scott Merrill- Independent Consultant, Marcus Jenal, Specialist on Systemic Approaches for Development and James Blewett, Director of Markets, Enterprise and Trade Division at Landell Mills Ltd. All the contributors shared the feeling that indeed there is a risk that market development projects, if not carefully managed, can lead to a new form of market distortion where the private sector become reliant on donor funds.  However, they also reiterated the importance and significance of the collaboration with the lead firms and suggested several approaches that could mitigate the risk of the private sector becoming reliant on donor funds.

Mary suggested that partnerships work when the disparate goals of the private sector (making profits), vulnerable and poor producers (being able to produce and sell their produce at an acceptable price) and the development projects (increasing income and employment for the poor) converge towards the overall goal of inclusive market development (sustainable and systemic change in the market for employment and income generation of the poor).  While acknowledging the potential pitfall of partnerships, Mary pointed out that the risk might be higher in their absence.  She contributed further to the discussion by raising the point that often the support provided by the projects is much too heavy for the private sector to deliver once project support is withdrawn.  As evidence, she cited a case involving Wal-Mart and Mercy Corps in an intervention on developing an inclusive supply chain for Wal-Mart in Guatemala.

The questions raised by Mary were addressed by Scott who argued that the risk of distortion is high when the projects fail to adopt good practices for partnerships. He proposed that instead of pushing the private sector towards the partnership, the development projects should seek to pull the private sector towards the development goal by soliciting proposals from the lead firms. He suggested that we should be careful with how we use the term ‘partnership’ since it could be interpreted as the lead firms being subcontractors or sub-grantees. Scott emphasized on the need to establish objective selection criteria, conduct due diligence and structure relationships with lead firms to ensure sustainability of the interventions. Scott proposed to support the lead firms to develop a business plan so that the commercial benefit from the intervention could be laid out in details prior to the inception of the intervention. This could ensure that the firm owned the development activities and continued to deliver the service after the project support was withdrawn. 

James Blewett reflected on his experience in managing a challenge fund project in Afghanistan and argued that challenge funds reduce the risk of distortion in private sector engagement since it seeks to proactively engage the prospective grantees (which include lead firms) in design, co-investment and management of the interventions.  He also suggested the use of financial modeling tools used by investment projects to determine ‘tipping points’ so that the project’s financial contribution to the intervention is just enough to incentivize the private sector to address the investment risk associated with the intervention.

A very important contribution to the discussion came from Marcus who suggested that before deciding on the financial arrangements and technical support, the projects should ask why the private sector is not investing on the intervention on its own if it made commercial sense. He advocated for ‘form follows function’ approach and suggested that the projects should partner with lead firms when it is clear that the vulnerable will benefit from the partnership. Marcus argued that the lead firms often do not invest to reach out to the vulnerable not because they haven’t seen the opportunities, but because of a dysfunctional regulatory system, which according to him is the systemic constraint that needs to be tackled.

From the discussion it was evident that while the need for collaboration with the private sector is real, there needs to be further push from the donors, development projects and practitioners to ensure good practices and reduce risk of distortion in the market systems due to over-engagement with the private sector. The discussion also revealed that there are good practices and models that are being followed and discussion around these models could help market development practitioners to be better able to answer to why they have partnered with the lead firm, what support (financial and technical) they should be providing and why, and finally, how the lead firm is expected to sustain the intervention after the project support is withdrawn. 

Read more on LinkedIn (MaFI members only)  


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