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ROME, Italy – Size matters, as they say, but impact matters more. That was the essential takeaway from an intensive discussion of ‘scaling up’ held at IFAD headquarters over the past two days.

Harvesting rice in Ghana, one of the countries where IFAD
has successfully scaled up. ©IFAD/Fabiana Formica
In the context of agricultural development, scaling up signifies a concerted effort to replicate, adapt and expand what already works on the ground. Its ultimate goal is to reduce rural poverty through the cumulative effects of projects involving governments, like-minded partners and small-scale farmers themselves.

Like any catchphrase, this one can begin to lose its meaning from excessive and careless use. The purpose of the discussion at IFAD – the latest in a series of learning and outreach events organized by the Policy and Technical Advisory Division – was to keep scaling up on track and in perspective.

“Scaling up is mission-critical,” said IFAD’s Associate Vice President for Programmes, Kevin Cleaver. He was quick to note, however, that bigger projects do not always equal better results.

Unique opportunities
Johannes Linn, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, echoed Cleaver’s admonition about remaining focused on impact and results rather than project size alone. Nevertheless, he added, there is a growing global consensus on the importance of increasing investments in food security and agriculture. And that consensus poses unique opportunities for IFAD and its partners.

“You’re not alone in this business,” Linn said, pointing out that IFAD is just one of myriad development actors that are wrestling with difficult questions about how to achieve maximum reach and effectiveness. In fact, several of them, including the World Bank and the German international cooperation agency GIZ, were represented at the IFAD event.

Linn kicked off the learning event in substantive fashion, presenting the preliminary findings from phase two of a Brookings research study on IFAD’s scaling-up activities. The first phase of the study, completed in 2010, identified scaling up as an institutional priority. But it found that IFAD needed a more systematic approach to realize this goal in its operations.

In his presentation and subsequent remarks, Linn credited IFAD with making significant advances in the past two years. In particular, he cited its development of an analytical framework for scaling up, which others in the field have adopted as a model.

“IFAD may not be ahead of others in terms of actually scaling up projects, but you are ahead in terms of thinking through how to do it better. That’s where I think you can take a huge amount of credit,” he said.

Work in progress
While the overall scaling-up effort is still a work in progress, the research also shows that IFAD’s programmes in some countries – notably Ethiopia, Ghana and Peru – are strong from this perspective. According to the Brookings study, the drivers of their success include governmental ‘ownership’ of IFAD-supported projects, IFAD’s own clear vision and goals, its long-term commitment and the engagement of experienced project staff.

The data suggest, as well, that there is potential for greater success through expanded collaboration with external partners, including those in the private sector, and more structured learning from project and programme experience.

One of the many challenges ahead, Linn emphasized, is to solidify a scaling-up mindset that allows for thinking about the impact of IFAD’s work beyond individual projects, as important as they are. “How do we define the project as a stepping stone on the pathway to poverty reduction?” he asked. “It’s really about impact. It’s not just about bigger projects.”

After two very full days, the discussion about scaling up at IFAD has wound down for now. But the dialogue continues.