My first shoot: the “scaling up” silver bullet

2012 offers new opportunities for this blog. One of these opportunities is to blog more often, with (some) shorter posts. At first I thought I’d call these ‘tumblers’, with reference to the great (micro-) blogging platform Tumblr. Instead, I’ll call them ‘shoots’. Because they might be seen like shooting stars, spangling the sky for a short moment, or perhaps like glimpses of a situation – like photo shoots. Also because they might be more controversial and shoot at certain ideas and assumptions we/I have. But perhaps mostly because they might be just the buds of new, hopefully bigger ideas. Shorter in nature, these ‘shoot’ posts will offer glimpses of reactions and thoughts on topics that I might want to expand on later on. Now on to the shoot then…

”]Some 'shoots' to make ideas flower [photo credit: Clappstar/FlickR]This first shoot is about one of the biggest silver bullets that drives the whole development (cooperation) industry: scaling up(or out or over…)

It’s a very good idea on paper: something that works really well – in a specific location at a specific moment – should be replicated elsewhere, at a much larger scale. Hiccup! Hiccup hiccup! What about the context? What makes us think that we can scale that context up with the initiative that was successful? It wasn’t easy to achieve success, so isn’t it presumptuous to think we can replicate success at a (much) larger scale?

Successful development initiatives are indeed successful as a result of…

  1. A combination of factors, e.g. strong will, a critical mass of capacities, sometimes a high level of resources, dense social and/or political capital (building trust and using it to move ahead in joint action), the presence or sufficient maturity of what is sometimes called ‘an enabling environment’ for that initiative.
  2. A slow but high density process that combines all these factors. Because building trust, leveling knowledge, aligning visions, developing capacities, setting complex work in motion takes time. Paradoxically, this slow process goes together with a set of activities that happen at a much faster pace and in much more density than would probably be the case in the area normally (i.e. without that initiative).

Achieving that combination is very delicate – like a graft on a body or a very challenging turbo-gardening enterprise. We are deluding ourselves thinking that we can reproduce this harmonious set of factors on a much wider geographic or temporal scale – certainly given the current time frames of development projects: 2, 3, 5 or even 10 years.

Scaling up is not even a silver bullet, it’s the holy grail that everyone is after in development work. But rather than scale up successes (the fruits), we should focus on scaling up the processes that led to such successes (the soil). And perhaps we’re better off starting with cooperation, learning and facilitation of these social learning and cooperative processes. That is what prepares the soil for future plant embedding, the enabling environment that makes initiatives flourish.

I very much doubt that we can scale anything else up than that very ambition of ours to scale everything up. And we should scale that down. Small is beautiful, humble is laudable, slow is not shallow as we need time to know and grow…

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hi Bonnie,

    Thank you for your comments! I think your initiative is a great way to work on the buzz. The ‘Scaling up’ mania is not close to vanish I reckon, so rather than just criticise it – what I’ve been doing in this post – the best option is indeed to work around the biases of that buzz and amplify whatever’s good about the idea/approach. Wanting to extend good processes and results is a very well-founded aspiration so let’s find ways to make this happen.
    I’ll check your wiki again soon and chip in where I think I can add…

    Thank you, as ever, for your great engagement!


  2. Ewen – Thank you for this excellent post which challenges our thinking. Not only is ‘scaling up’ sometimes seen as a silver bullet, but most of the information we share about the process comes largely from the private sector which has very different set of incentives and goals. This is an effort to begin to share more information about scaling up in the social sector, share lessons and view the process more critically:

  3. Thank you for the comments,

    @joitske: totally, it is dishonest wishful thinking. And yet scaling up remains the holy grail! Luckily there is more consideration for multi-stakeholder processes and different views about development. We are only at the very beginning of our quest for impact I reckon.

    @WashManager: Thanks for this illustration. And that is about a technological innovation which – being about a product – is by definition simpler than any innovation involving social aspects and engagement from various parties…

    What is perhaps more worrying is that not many out there are interested in scaling up cooperation and recognising the value of social learning to achieve longer lasting successes… I really see the potential of civic-driven movements, if anything, to adequately prepare the ground for scaling up…

    Thanks again!

  4. Hi Ewen, I fully agree. And what is worse is that all development agencies want to scale up their own activities but not the activities of others :). So it more a retoric of showing their own wonderful work.

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