What can the Development Sector Learn from the Private Sector about Tackling Complex Problems?

One of the things I most enjoy at Wasafiri is the diversity of clients we work with. This is because the complex problems we tackle are not ‘owned’ by any single institution, nor do they only affect one group of people. Rather, issues such as smallholder farmer incomes, or modern slavery, or violent extremism, or the skills gaps and job generation, affect employers and businesses just as much as civil society and national governments. Consequently, we find ourselves working with international corporations, global foundations, NGOs and donor agencies, all of whom are interested in tackling complex social problems.

This diversity of clients is unusual, and I am often asked, with equal levels of curiosity, what one sector can learn from another. And last week I was asked “so what can the development sector learn from the private sector about tackling complex problems?”  Whilst there is a very long answer to this, and one which also includes what the private sector can learn from other sectors – here is the ‘quick enough for a blog’ three-headline answer:

Let’s get on with it

There is a pace and a ‘now-ness’ in the private sector that drives action. This isn’t universal, and I have worked with some multinationals whose processes would rival those of the most ponderous government department. But amongst many, and certainly those we are currently working with, the speed from idea to concept to action is inspiring. Mostly this is driven by the speed at which decisions can be made (as opposed to just doing things faster!), and often that, in turn, is about the way accountability has been structured so that individuals or small groups can make decisions independently. Clearly there is a balance to be found – but in asking what the development sector can learn from the private sector, I wonder how much the drive for inclusive, comprehensive and robust decision-making creates better decisions, and how much it just reduces individual accountability?

You have got to take some risks

Systems change requires creating never-seen-before solutions; this means we don’t know if things are going to work before we have tried them. Whilst the logic of risk taking and the need for entrepreneurialism is now familiar, it still proves so very hard to do in the development sector. Much of this, I think, is to do with issues of accountability – when the money you spend is not your own, when it belongs to governments, tax payers, to funders, there is often a requirement to ‘prove’ what you want to do will work, to precisely anticipate the impact you will have. And this is the opposite of the entrepreneurialism and risk taking that the private sector is well practiced at. This doesn’t mean the development sector has to become a Wild West of boom and bust initiatives, but rather there needs to be space for experimentation and uncertainty, where failure will happen, where there will be unexpected consequences, where somethings won’t work in the ways we had hoped. We need some thoughtful, but not cautious, risk taking. Duncan Green of Oxfam gets practical about what such an approach could look like in his blog What Might a 100% Experimental Oxfam County Programme Look Like 

It’s got to make self-interested sense

Now here is the paradox, making change work for the many means also making it work for you. The best businesses are engaging in issues in ways that secure long-term value for them and their stakeholders, and do so in a spirit of mutuality and creating shared value (couple of examples here 1). Without this commitment to creating real shared value, you end up with empty Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, often driven by the whims of personal interest and almost inevitably running out of steam in a few years. By comparison, the commitment to shared value allows efforts to be sustained for the long term, which in turn provides the permission and the need to prototype, experiment and fail forwards as everyone learns how to build the new future, and the new ways of doing things which change is going to need. At times, the development sector can be squeamish about acknowledging their own stake in the systems they seek to change, or about being open in seeking to acknowledge and work with the interests of those with whom they need to collaborate. In the long term, more equitable societies are only possible when we recognise that our institutional and personal needs are also bound up in these systems.

There is an equal blog to write on what the private sector can learn from the development sector about system level change (about being in for the long haul, about not needing to control everything and about working confidently in the public domain – just for starters). But that will have to wait.


  • Farm to Market is collaboration between a number of leading global agri businesses and enable small holder farmers to access global agriculture markets
  • Maua is a collaboration between Mars, Wrigley and Oxford Said Business School to find new routes to market and improve the social and financial capital of informal sector entrepreneurs