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Scales Fall on Scaling Up

Posted by Chase Palmeri Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Scales fell from the eyes of project directors, IFAD staff, and development partners listening in as Yasir Asfaq, Sheik Mohsin, Lamkhosei Baite and Nigel Brett examined their experiences in scaling-up investements to reduce rural poverty.

Participants at the Annual Performance Review of the IFAD Asia and the Pacific Division meeting today in Nanning considered cases of when scaling up succeeds, when it fails and how to know when to even try it.

But what does scaling up mean anyway? Well, it can mean many things, according to the big fish swimming in the waters of development jargon in our knowledge sharing fish bowl session. If you are upscaling a project you might simply increase the size of the project, going say from coverage of a single district to a province, or from provincial to nationwide coverage.

If you are upscaling a project you might expand horizontally going, say, from one province to ten.

Or, you might even upscale by digging down working more intensely or deeper in the same area. This was called deepening, otherwise referred to as saturation.

Whether you upscale by going vertical, horizontal or deeper, it seems that several factors need to come into consideration. One is convincing evidence. Once again, M&E plays an important role. Discussants came back more than once to the fact that people who are seeking to scale up would be well advised to arm themselves with evidence-based proof that what they have to recommend really works.

Having friends in high places helps too. Taking responsible government officials on field trips to look, see and hear for themselves was one recommended way of winning their support. Appealing to local politicians by demonstrating to them how well your investments meet the needs of their constituents was another. Giving credit to political leaders for successful approaches tried on their watch was also considered a winning approach to finding and keeping a champion to support up-scaling.

In any case, most seemed to agree, the process takes time and even knowing whether it is appropriate to upscale a specific type of investment is likely to take at least 6-10 years.

An interesting point from NERCORP was that insufficient project funds led to up-scaling of their investments. The project was able to expand outreach and sustainability as villages increasingly agreed to contribute significant amounts of resources to infrastructure and other investments they needed. The project became a catalyst more than anything.

Impartial independent evaluation of an investment to be up-scaled proved to be very useful in convincing donors and government when one project wanted to scale up. But in another, when an innovation or investment made sense, it was up-scaled without special support financing. For example, just loosening up policies in Bangladesh resulted in widespread adoption of shallow tube wells improving water supply at village level across the country.

These and other tips on upscaling seemed to encourage listeners at the fish bowl. But cautionary tales were also shared. Seemingly successful donor approaches like the IFAD P4K model in Indonesia can go wrong when key qualitative steps – like the grassroots level institution building - are left out of the equation. Exporting what is successful from one country to another is another common mistake. Enthusiasm for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme model in Pakistan prompted some to upscale, only to fail, elsewhere.