Practical approaches to systems thinking: the case for Community Led Research Action (CLRA)

Georgia Gilroy

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At Wasafiri, we talk a lot about systems change. We are not alone in seeing the value of systems-based approaches to addressing some of the world’s most complex problems. But our true superpower lies in our ability to bring practicality to using systems thinking. So, we wanted to showcase one such practical approach, the case for Community Led Research and Action (CLRA).

The youth population across Africa is rapidly expanding, presenting valuable opportunities to harness the power and creativity of young people to confront some of the most pressing issues facing the continent, including unemployment, violent conflict, and climate change. Yet young people continue to feel frustrated by immense social pressure to provide for their families, dwindling economic opportunities in overcrowded market spaces, intergenerational divides that create further cleavages between authority figures and youth, and leaders who do not adequately represent the multitude of youth voices and perspectives.

How to flip this youth ‘challenge’ into ‘opportunity’ is not a new dilemma. It feels like a huge, unwieldy, how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type of issue. But what if we could start with one small microcosm of this issue in one location, to catalyse small shifts that could then be shared, amplified, and carried on in ways that led to clearer change over many years?

Enter CLRA

Community-led research and action (CLRA) is a context-sensitive research and action process that is designed, managed, and conducted by community members from marginalised settings who are affected by the issues under study – be that violent crime, climate change, or historical injustices.

It aims to at once amplify these youth voices while also building the critical thinking skills and agency of marginalised young people, to support their identification and articulation of key problems they face and their development and implementation of localised solutions to these problems. It does this through:

  • Research: Through CLRA, the most marginalised members of society are facilitated to recognise and expand their own individual and collective agency towards locally-led and durable change. In this sense, CLRA provides robust, detailed knowledge and new insights on marginalised populations, through ethnographic research conducted by people whose lived experiences are the focus of the research endeavour.
  • Action: CLRA also serves as an intervention, to promote transformative social change in individuals and groups through improved critical thinking skills, strengthened sense of agency and belonging, and enhanced understanding of the community in which people live. Through CLRA, marginalised individuals use their ethnographic research to co-create relevant knowledge and develop meaningful action to collectively and sustainably address specific problems.

CLRA is guided by four social change dimensions, that not only serve as a framework for designing effective engagement with CLRA participants but equally serve as a framework for measuring individual and group social transformation:

  1. Diversity of social networks: Wider social networks signify a diversity of perspectives and influence that encourage individuals to think critically and be more tolerant of ‘others’;
  2. Strength of decision-making skills: Improved ability to non-violently handle difficult situations and emotions and pursue new financial opportunities encourages more considered and reflective decision-making;
  3. Sense of agency: Transitioning from a feeling of victimhood to a sense of agency promotes greater self-reflection, proactive behaviour, and hope for a future past tomorrow;
  4. Status within a community: A two-way sense of belonging and acceptance between the individual and his/her community creates a social contract between the two, where both the individual and the community rediscover their shared interest in peace and social cohesion.

CLRA, therefore, allows us to start small, with a group of marginalised young men or women, who may be facing extremely complex and challenging issues – such as land degradation affecting their livelihood opportunities, violent groups infiltrating their peer networks, or lack of access to transparent justice systems – and offer a framework for a practical way of tackling these large issues through small-scale activities.

Small-scale change can then have an amplified impact through CLRA’s systems-based approach to drive forward individual, to community, to society-level behaviour changes.

Individual behaviour change: Linking research to action to identify a problem and think critically about solutions.

CLRA functions as a structured yet informal cycle connecting problem identification – pilot action – evidence – iteration, all led and driven by marginalised community members.

As opposed to more controlled, programme-led approaches where participatory methods to research sit separately from activity design and implementation, CLRA’s informal approach and integrated research-to-action methodology allows it to be guided by the lived experiences of the group members, so that resulting action can focus specifically on their life circumstances and the community dynamics at play. This approach also generates ownership over the solutions and the commitment to carry them forward, long after the CLRA cycle ends.

For example, CLRA participants, whom we call ‘community researchers’ in Mombasa, Kenya, began the CLRA process with a heightened sense of victimhood – they felt that their community ostracised them and that there was nothing they could do about it. These community researchers live in a community in Mombasa that does not receive many basic services or access to sustainable livelihoods, has been plagued by community violence and police harassment, and as a result, many young people fall into lives of crime to make ends meet.

Following their design of research questions to dig into why they felt shunned by their community, the community researchers’ ethnographic research revealed that community members felt fearful around them, because of their history of violence and disturbance.

This research helped the CLRA community researchers to understand that they had a role to play in their feelings of ostracisation, and therefore also had a role to play in changing those perceptions. As noted by one participant:

"This program has opened my mind. I was closed. Now I can think. I lacked that guidance, exposure. Your questions help me to think to see how I can change my life. I make sure I do my homework, so I have something to share when we meet. No one has ever asked me these questions. I can’t stop thinking. It changes the way I feel about my life and what I can do."

Community behaviour change: the power of anchoring change in existing social arrangements and structures

CLRA catalyses durable social change and advances inclusive development and stability ‘from below.’ The knowledge, action and evidence that is collectively developed through this process works with and builds on existing local social arrangements and efforts to improve everyday lives and living conditions.

For example, those same CLRA community researchers in Mombasa collectively worked to address the negative perceptions that community members had of them by taking the initiative to re-establish relationships and build more positive connections.

In one instance, the community researchers decided to repaint a local police station, as a show of goodwill and collaboration with an entity that had previously targeted them, and to demonstrate their mentality shift to the community. In the words of one participant:

"CLRA has shown me that I can be independent and equally be my own boss. It has also made me a free thinker. A critical thinker, it has widened my mind very much. I get to think of the possibility of tomorrow and how I can be of help to the community."

Society behaviour change: Reinforcing horizontal and vertical connections across segments of society to push for change at multiple levels

Inherent to the social change dimensions are connections forged across individuals and communities (and their governance structures), reinforcing the importance of mindset and behaviour shifts required not just by individuals, but by different layers of society, to achieve lasting and sustainable system changes.

For example, following the repainting of the police station, community members and local officials began to view the CLRA community researchers differently; the mindset change in the young men catalysed a mindset change in their surrounding society, cyclically reinforcing each other.

The local Member of County Assembly (MCA) even asked these CLRA community researchers to join him at an event to counter violent extremism and named them as peace champions within their community.

Repainting a police station and being invited to attend an event by an MCA might feel small, even inconsequential, but when understood within the context of a specific community, a microcosm of the issues faced by young people across Kenya, they are significant and signal longer-term behavioural shifts that lead to other small, but significant behavioural shifts.

CLRA can set in motion longer-term, systems-level changes through these small “wins,” generating momentum and incentivising the system to catalyse more positive change.

So, is CLRA a silver bullet to address complex problems? No. But it can offer a practical framework for working with and through marginalised populations to drive forward their own small but meaningful solutions to complex issues that plague communities across the world.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


Systemcraft in action: Fighting institutional sexism within the Met Police

Why things needed to change

a collaboration with The Forward Institute 

In September 2021, it was reported that more than 750 police employees had faced allegations of sexual misconduct since the year 2010, with only 83 having been dismissed. Following that, 50 investigators were brought in to review around 300 cases where allegations had been made against Met officers.

With its toxic history, it’s no wonder that when Tara McGovern first joined the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met, over 25 years ago, she admits that women were poorly treated and often the victims of inappropriate behaviour and misconduct. Throughout her career, she felt, however, that things were progressing for the better – and then came the high-profile murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021.

When it was discovered that her attacker was a then-serving police officer, it was one case out of many that sparked national outrage and called for urgent action to tackle violence against women. However, for McGovern and many of her co-workers, the shock and anger hit even closer to home.

The feelings of betrayal were further compounded by colleagues who denied there was an underlying systemic misogyny problem within the organisation to begin with.

The series of events following the poor way in which Everard’s case was handled ultimately drove McGovern to set up the Network of Women and later, with the help and collaboration of the Forward Institute, Operation Signa, a project that worked to capture the experiences of women within the Met and use these stories to educate others and create change.

They collected stories, anonymised them, and then shared them with the entire 45,000-large organisation. They also created a Signa app for training purposes

Systemcraft in action

Systemcraft helps answer the question, ‘So what do we do next?’. At this point, the problem was clear to McGovern, but she needed practical tools to achieve positive change. At that time, she was part of the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership programme where Wasafiri’s Kate Simpson was sharing Systemcraft.

“I’ve tried to bring about change in the past that hasn’t landed, and Kate opened my eyes to looking at this in a different way including by asking “what are the blockers of this change?”

Three key learnings:

  1. Identify your blockers early on – In hindsight, McGovern wished she had taken the time to really consider what the blockers would be earlier on. She would ask questions like ‘who has the most to lose from this change? Who could this change negatively impact?’ sooner.
  2. Change is collective – The potential to change systems depends on our ability to work collectively. From her Deputy Commissioner to volunteers and sponsors, to the brave women who came forward to have their stories documented and all the way to institutions such as the Forward Institute, McGovern built coalitions along the way that helped her achieve the change she sought.
  3. Make it matter – McGovern tapped into an important dimension of transformation and that is, she made the issue matter to those who did not see the problem. She forged an inclusive movement championing a transformation and through storytelling and frank dialogue, she connected emotionally with people’s concerns and lived realities. “Once people became part of the solution, they could see the positive impact my work was having and wanted to do more.”

The outcome

Since Operation Signa launched in 2021, Signa training is mandated for all Met officers and staff. Sexism and sexual harassment are now openly discussed. In this environment, there has been an increase in women reporting harassment. There is now a special unit that deals just with internal complaints of this nature.

As part of her new role as Head of Professional Standards at the Met, McGoven is part of the key team helping change the wider culture. “I would tell others who are trying to bring about change to get their heads around Systemcraft, as this has really explained change management to me in a way nothing else has.”

Hers is a brilliant story of how Systemcraft is equipping leaders and organisations with the skills and tools to drive system change at scale. In this case, creating systemic change to deal with the complex, murky problems of sexism within the Met.

To read more about Tara’s story and the work of the Forward Institute read her ‘Story of Change‘ 

Read more about Systemcraft


Is collective impact the future for family hubs? How a refugee crisis strengthened a community’s resilience

Cities and towns across the UK are experiencing diverse and dynamic shocks, from the cost of living to the mental health of young people in school. Communities are seeking opportunities to make autonomous decisions to respond to their current needs while becoming more resilient in the face of future challenges.

Levelling Up and the Introduction of Family Hubs across the UK can provide a solid foundation for communities to engage with their issues differently. From our experience, communities and teams that have invested in collective and adaptive approaches have been able to address their acute needs and increase their resilience to future systemic shocks.

Let’s explore a live example from a current Wasafiri-supported initiative (based on an interview with Mei Lim, Director of the Reach Children’s Hub).

Over the last year and a half, Wasafiri has been supporting the Reach Children’s Hub, through the Feltham Convening Partnership (a community initiative in West London), to develop systems-based approaches to deliver substantial, sustainable improvements to the lives of children, young people and families in the Feltham community.

The shock to the Feltham community

In early 2022, a hotel in Feltham (a town in West London) was repurposed to house over 460 asylum seekers, mostly families. These are people fleeing religious, political, criminal, and other forms of persecution in their home countries, including El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan and many more.

These families were forced from their homes, with most of them having very little to no knowledge of the UK or English, and with complex physical and emotional needs. The scale, abruptness and dynamic nature of the situation put huge pressure on the local health, education, and governance systems.

From a community standpoint, there was no strategy, no plan, no clarity, and it became apparent that there were multiple needs that simply weren’t being met. The local authority education team had a responsibility to place children in school, the Reach Children’s Hub and Tudor Park Education Trust responded.

The role of collective and adaptive approaches

The Children’s Hub had never worked with asylum seekers. However, the nature of the systems work that they had been doing to improve children’s outcomes provided them and the supporting community with the relationships, access to resources and tools to be able to lead and coordinate a response. Key components were:

  • Understanding of the wider system that supports children. The large amounts of cross-sector analysis that had been done meant the Children’s Hub had a holistic view of the system supporting children and families in the area. They were able to mobilise the right people, go to the right sources to get the information. Importantly, it also provided them with the mindset that there are always wider systemic issues at play, and that small changes can create significant shifts.
  • Functioning multi-disciplinary formal and informal structures, such as networks, working groups, and a steering committee. The existing relationships, information flows, and cross-sector understanding allowed the community to absorb the impact of the situation. Mei stated that, ‘having everything already in place, it felt like we were able to switch it on when we needed to.’
  • Existing sense of solidarity and practised adaptation. The diverse group of stakeholders already had a shared sense of direction and togetherness from their work trying to influence opportunities for children. They were also already accustomed to the messy and ambiguous nature of multi-disciplinary work. It’s hard, and clunky at times. However, their shared purpose and history of working together gave them a belief (even if just a flicker) that this seemingly insurmountable task could be done, together.
  • Genuine, trusted personal relationships across all the sectors and with the community members. The spirit of their collective action is that every connection is just about building a relationship, showing that they are passionate about the community and that relationships are not just transactional. These personal, cross-institutional and community relationships have allowed each institution to flex in ways they normally wouldn’t, and thus the whole system can make room for the surge of atypical needs.

The impact and outcome

"This situation has been a real indicator of the relationships we have built over time. It [the collective approach] made the multi-stakeholder process needed to respond, much easier. It seems like this difficult situation has made everything stronger. Overall, the systems work has helped create a more resilient community."

Below are some of the immediate impacts.

  • Sharing of information has been possible. There is improved momentum and legitimacy for sharing information. There is an overall sentiment, that if you don’t share it, everyone is worse off. This has been further supported by joined-up working across services, for example, the Children’s Hub coordinated a daily Stay & Play session at the hotel with the Children’s Centres Early Years Practitioners. It was the first time the two teams had come together to deliver an intervention. They planned sessions together, coordinated resources and held reflective discussions every fortnight.
  • Clear direction and priorities that help the asylum families and supporting institutions. The Children’s Hub was able to establish two clear priorities. One, get the children into schools as quickly as possible and two, put immediate support in place in the hotel. Even though asylum seekers have a right to access statutory services such as schools and GPs, there are no separate pathways to enable this access. They must follow complicated processes that are made even more challenging when you don’t speak the language and have no knowledge of the system. Due to existing relationships, Hub members were able to act as the go-between for families, the hotel management team, Hounslow’s Admissions team and local schools, to support the placement of children. There was also an acute situation to meet the complex needs of all the people living in the hotel, including providing them with clothes, suitable food, toiletries, and access to perinatal care.
  • Within 48 hours all the children were able to attend nursery. Asylum-seekers are entitled to access 2 and 3-year-old funding for Nursery places, but this wasn’t something that had been communicated to the families in the hotel and the Local Authority claimed they did not have the capacity to support any applications. The Hub’s Early Education Lead has developed a network of Early Years practitioners across 13 local settings and, by calling on these relationships, was able to place all eligible children in an appropriate setting within 48 hours.
  • Mental health support was identified as an immediate need. Despite many families expressing relief at being provided with accommodation, arriving at the hotel was extremely stressful and traumatising. Families were sharing rooms, sometimes with 5 or 6 children; they had no control over basic aspects of their lives (laundry, food); access to communal spaces was limited with nowhere for children to play or interact; the quality of food was poor, and ultimately, the hotel staff were overwhelmed as more people arrived each day. The whole process of seeking asylum is dehumanising and undignifying. In response, the Children’s Hub decided to organise opportunities for people to ‘escape’ the monotony and uncertainty of their situation and experience moments of joy; concerts with a range of West End musicians; half-day workshops with Rocksteady Music School; clowning and theatre workshops with the Flying Seagull Project and Good Chance theatre, and ongoing weekly social groups at a local community centre. Hot lunches (healthy & cooked fresh) were delivered daily for 100+ children for 1 term (period when the children were being placed in schools).
  • Sense of solidarity has grown immensely since responding to the situation. All the relationships have been strengthened through the experience and this sets them up even better for future challenges. This was a cross-sector, collective response to the challenge and the increased sense of solidarity can be seen through the:
    • Ongoing collaboration between schools and early years settings now that all children have been placed.
    • Increased contact between Reach Children’s Hub and the Local Authority in terms of providing ongoing support for the refugee families, in addition to the wider support for families living in Feltham.
    • Attendance of refugee families at community events, most notably at the Hounslow Citizens Assembly in April 2020 in partnership with Citizens UK. One refugee parent commented that they felt like a part of the community and noted the difference in community agency between this community and the one they had fled.

The Feltham community’s experience highlights the larger systemic problems with the UK’s asylum-seeking processes and policies. However, it also provides hope that we can do right by people forced to flee their homes from horrific circumstances and demonstrates the power of communities working and adapting together to increase the effectiveness of localised systems.

Contact Scott Hinkle at [email protected] for more information about collective and adaptive approaches to building more resilient communities.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash


Systems doing – lessons from Social Innovators on doing differently to achieve change

Wasafiri cocreated the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s Transforming through Trust report, which we are excited to announce was shared at Davos this week as the Foundation celebrates the values and achievements of three cohorts of awardees from 2019 to 2022.

What stood out for us was not just the impact that these change leaders have achieved, despite being amid a pandemic, but their ongoing commitment to supporting their organisations and others to work collectively, or differently, to tackle systemic issues.

I spoke with Dr François Bonnici, Director of the Schwab Foundation about his learnings from this period and, drawing also on insights from research writing his book The Systems Work of Social Change, his advice for organisations looking to lean into wider social change.

Reflecting on our conversation, and thinking about what we see in our work at Wasafiri, I’d suggest that organisations looking to contribute to achieving real change should consider the following:

Generate the change in the here and now

Social Innovation is generating new forms of what’s possible. In doing so, contributes to wider change through directly engaging with and unlocking one piece of the system it seeks to change.

Recognising social innovation as a form of activism means we can counter our frustration with the extent to which actors on the front lines are needed to fill gaps left by social inequality.

While social innovators are often delivering a service or specific intervention, this generation of alternatives coupled with a shifting of power dynamics and an increase in the agency of marginalised groups shifts the system at a deeper level.

Catalysing is more important than leading

Thinking like a movement while deploying the strengths of an organisation opens up the aims and methods by which organisations can contribute to wider change.

This can be especially helpful when trying to find the mode of working together and the value and contribution from different partners.

Through the work that we have done with the Schwab Foundation, we can see how relatively small organisations can be catalytic for larger organisations.

Perhaps thinking about smaller actors as distinct elements of a movement, and therefore more loosely aligned might more easily create a commonality of approach. It is certainly a way of grounding the well-known idea of thinking bigger than your own or clients’ success.

Pay attention to your current role

Organisations who want to bring about change must first consider how they benefit from the current system in order to engage wholeheartedly with the issues and collaborate successfully.

It is early in the journey to taking a systemic change approach. The institutional challenges of evolving from the twin lure of scale and a technical “silver bullet” fix remain.

However, the positive traction in ideas over the last three years, piqued by the pandemic, has invited more questioning by organisations about how they should contribute and what their best role is.

Building on this evolution in thought is one of the key contributions of organisations such as the Schwab Foundation and Wasafiri who benefit from working with diverse organisations and thinking practitioners.

The big change won’t come from any single partnership

Embrace the mindset that this is a learning and building period and is an essential phase to enable greater systems change. This will allow for the risks necessary to get traction now.

Being prepared for a partnership to fail is hugely important for all parties when looking outside organisation boundaries to form unusual collaborations for systemic change.

Taking the view that the specific partnership is not the win can be very freeing when saying yes to different partners and lessening the need for a ‘senior’ partner (often a larger organisation) to take control.

Beyond the specific partnership, two big gains can be found; the lessons learned about working for change with different organisations and an increase in the agency of local organisations, building their position and voice across a range of actors and interventions. Both will shift the system in which the organisations exist, beyond the current engagement.

Further information

If your organisation wants to maximise its contribution to people and planet and is thinking of collaborating and forming unusual partnerships, please get in touch!

Read this report for more on the impact of the Schwab Foundation’s 2019-22 awardees.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Systemcraft in action with youth at risk of radicalisation at the coast of Kenya

The Systemcraft Institute is hosted by Wasafiri and is a community and education platform that helps leaders and practitioners bring an applied systems-based approach to change. Through the Institute we offer courses, workshops, tools and share stories of system change work.

In the first in a series of our Systemcraft stories that we hope to share with you on this blog, Kate Simpson – Director of the Systemcraft Institute and former Wasafiri Managing Director – talks with Aisha Aden about her work with young people in the coastal region of Kenya who are at risk of radicalisation. She explains how she has used Systemcraft in her work.

Look out for more videos in this series but in the meantime, read a brief introduction to Systemcraft and take a look at the Five dimensions for change.

Photo by Zeynep Gökalp on Unsplash

Read more Systemcraft blogs


Here’s how systems-thinking led to a breakthrough in tackling poverty in West Pokot

A renowned Kenyan Economist posited that the main challenge facing the country today is the tension between ‘politics of the economy’ and the ‘politics of development’. He goes further to explain how this is shaping the political discourse both at the national and (devolved) county levels. And the Kenyan public is fully engaged in this discourse.

Whereas Kenya’s Vision 2030 sets out a national goal for the elimination of extreme poverty, it has been criticized for being too capital-intensive and therefore struggling to adequately address extreme poverty in many parts of the country. Some county governments have embarked on a deliberate action to address this by turning the aspirations of devolution into practical efforts having effects in people’s lives.

Through an Open Society Foundation funded ‘Economic Justice Programme’ project, Wasafiri and Village Enterprise, in collaboration with the County Government of West Pokot, have successfully integrated poverty graduation into the county’s social protection programming. This was achieved in two ways:

  1. The birth of the first-ever county government Policy on Poverty Graduation in 2020.
  2. The development of a sessional paper – a legal regulatory framework that legalizes the operationalization of the poverty graduation policy- this was approved by the entire members of the West Pokot County Assembly in 2021.

Subsequently, two other policies were formulated by the County Government of West Pokot; the climate change policy and climate financing policy.

Change is Collective

The approval of the Poverty Graduation Policy was the culmination of a county-owned and led multi-stakeholder process closely linked to and leaning on the West Pokot County Integrated Development Plan’s (CIDP) mission “To Transform Livelihoods through Equitable and Sustainable Utilization of Resources”.

The focus of the CIDP is on food and nutrition security and improving equity in socio-economic opportunities, and this partly speaks to the reasons why poverty graduation has resonated so strongly in West Pokot – the first county in Kenya to develop a county-wide approach to ending extreme poverty.

This policy seeks to eliminate poverty by 2025, an ambitious goal and timeframe. In 2021, the West Pokot County Government has requested assistance from Wasafiri and Village Enterprise with the start of implementing the policy.

An evaluation done by Wasafiri and Village Enterprise during the project’s inception phase showed that government officers had a limited understanding of poverty graduation and its effectiveness in eradicating extreme poverty. Apart from low capacity, there were no guidelines on policymaking, and inadequate or no funding for poverty graduation programmes.

Four ‘areas of focus’ were articulated as a priority to address this:

  1. Effective targeting due to limited resources
  2. Layering of existing poverty eradicating interventions for extremely poor households because existing programmes are resourced, operating at scale and are the best place to start
  3. Galvanising resources and adapting existing programmes
  4. Effective monitoring

Implementation Approach

The design and implementation of this one-year ‘exit’ project draws from substantive engagement and learning from the activities and lessons during the project’s inception phase. It is hinged on three (3) key pillars:

  1. Strengthening capability and commitment to implement the policy focused on the four ‘areas of focus’ mentioned above through systems leadership coaching, and technical assistance
  2. Advocacy through lobbying for budget allocation, targeting of the extreme poor and influencing the 2023 – 2028 County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP)
  3. Capture knowledge of what works for learning and further capacity building

An innovative systems leadership coaching that ‘made it matter’

Wasafiri has deployed its expertise as a systems change agency to design and deliver individual and group systems leadership development coaching sessions to the policy Technical Working Group (TWG) drawn from the political, administrative, and selected community actors in West Pokot.

The format was in-person, four sessions over a four-month period and delivered as individual and group coaching.

From the Country Government, the individual coaching targeted senior policy technocrats from key departments, i.e., agriculture, budget, education, planning, trade, and social protection. The group coaching sessions targeted a broader stakeholder group comprising four County Executive Committee members (Ministers) and selected community actors and women groups who will play different critical roles that will lead to the operationalization and prioritization of the policy.

The foundation for the coaching was Wasafiri’s Systemcraft model – a framework for how we believe anyone can drive systemic change. It focuses on collective, adaptive, and experimental action on the system.

The purpose of the coaching is to strengthen the collective and adaptive capacity of the Technical Working Group (TWG) to implement the policy and achieve three outcomes:

  1. Secure budget allocation for the Poverty Graduation Policy (PGP) for financial year 2022 / 2023.
  2. Evolve and adapt existing programmes to support poverty graduation policy implementation.
  3. Integrate and scale scaling up poverty graduation within Country Integrated.

At the wrap up of the systems leadership coaching, we have evidence of success:

  1. Treasury has allocated KES 4.5M to operationalise the committees of the policy at county, sub-county, and ward levels and for identification of the policy’s target population, i.e., the extremely poor.
  2. The Treasury Department at the Country has taken full responsibility for taking the policy forward and strategically placed itself at the fulcrum of poverty graduation policy implementation across the whole of government. This is major progress and enhances the durability of implementation due to the influence that Treasury has in the budget process, and they have committed to ringfence allocation towards the policy.
  3. There was a strong endorsement of the coaching by the Head of Planning and the four County Chief Executives (CECs) who expressed the desire for Wasafiri and Village Enterprise to return and provide more systems leadership training to the County Government post the August 2022 elections.

Raising awareness, sharing lessons, and generating new support

The close of the systems leadership coaching ushers in an important phase of advocacy and learning whose goal is to secure the long-term sustainability of the poverty graduation efforts. Whilst this work is still ongoing significant achievements have been made so far.

  1. County Government of West Pokot is now using the policy to identify programmes under the current county development blueprints to either adopt or evolve them to support poverty graduation policy implementation. These are programmes that address the most acute aspects of poverty in West Pokot, I.e., marginalization, equality, and equity.
  2. Capacitating the County M&E department to develop a standard targeting tool to identify the extreme poor. This tool will be used by the county government to identify beneficiaries of graduation programmes at the county, in this case the extremely vulnerable.
  3. Village Enterprise continues to strengthen the agency of the local citizenry through education and awareness delivered through a series of interactive community radio shows.
  4. Village Enterprise with support from Wasafiri will also benefit from three (3) learning forums, one with the North Rift Economic Bloc (NOREB), a forum that brings together member counties from the North Rift regions to work together as a team on matters economy followed by a learning visit at the Council of Governors (CoG) to share best practices among devolved Governments and lastly participation in a national graduation stakeholder forum in April this year convened by BOMA and bringing together the County Governments of West Pokot and Marsabit.

What next?

Sustainability of the project is grounded on the effective stakeholder engagement processes and strategic direction and deliberations that promote ownership and cooperation among implementing partners, i.e., Wasafiri, Village Enterprise and County Government of West Pokot.

Looking beyond the August 2022 elections in Kenya, we see additional pathways to continue scaling the project mobilising for more resources from development partners to support in the identification of the extreme poor including set-up and roll-out of a robust management information system (MIS), a scaled-up citizen engagement through interactive community radio shows and additional systems leadership coaching and technical assistance in response to expected transition.

Read more about our work in West-Pokot

Photo by Rathnahar Sriom from Pexels


It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it – diverse partners coming together for impact

At Wasafiri, it has been hugely exciting to support the World Economic Forum’s Georgie Passalaris and the Impact, Measurement and Management team in evaluating the progress of their new response to tackling some of the world’s most complex problems. The new grant-funded multistakeholder platforms are collaborations of diverse, cross-sector stakeholders with a shared ambition to deliver specific mission-driven outcomes.

Complex problems these platforms are tackling include mobilising climate action to reduce carbon emissions and striving for net-zero outcomes, strengthening nature-based solutions, improving water and ocean systems, and giving a focus to catalysing systems change. 

Using 13 of their multistakeholder platforms (including Global Plastic Action Partnership, Scale360 ̊, Sustainable Development Investment Partnership, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship among others), the joint team looked at the progress made and the key characteristics of the partnerships that enabled this.

For us at Wasafiri as we continue to develop our systems thinking approach Systemcraft, the following three insights have the loudest resonance:

  1. Topics have acted as door openers to more difficult conversations – By collaborating on a challenge that stakeholders can align on, such platforms can act as entry points into more complex and interconnected challenges, expanding scopes and evolving the collaboration further.
  2. Open and trusted dialogue is essential – Crucially, the production process can be as important as the products – joint development by public and private sector and civil society actors whose collective action is required to bring about change, builds trust for further action.
  3. The value of partnerships lies in their dynamic nature – They can adapt and respond to changing contexts and environments. Partnerships are helping to adapt to these changing conditions by launching innovations, fostering new partnerships, and mobilizing new sources of funding and financing. Ensuring that such partnerships have room to grow and evolve is fundamental to their success.

Making change happen needs unlikely bedfellows to work together. These platforms are leveraging the Forum’s global network to increase collaboration between diverse stakeholders. The insights tell us that it is not just the impact they have in the here and now, but the increase in real connections made that will make the difference.

Wasafiri supported the World Economic Forum in the production of this report detailing the contribution to SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement, and lessons learned. It was published as part of Day 1 of the Davos Agenda 2022.

Photo by Min An from Pexels


The power of an invitation: learning about how change happens from those on the front lines…

Have you ever had one of those ‘lightbulb moments’, where you get an idea so inspirational that it creates perfect clarity for just an instant, and then afterwards you slap yourself in bewilderment at why it took you so long to realise it? Happily, (and embarrassingly), we had one of those epiphanies, if you will, in September.

Since our founding, Wasafiri has been grappling with the question of ‘how does change happen?” when tackling complex problems. Our practical guide to action (Systemcraft) was a product of this life-long journey of exploration.

Our most recent ‘aha’ moment was to ask, ‘why don’t we bring together some of our most diverse, dedicated and dynamic clients to learn from each other?’ Seems obvious, right? Well, that’s exactly what we did – and the joy, connection, and energy from our gathering have given birth to a new precedent for how we learn moving forward.

The virtual learning session brought together Wasafiri staff from four continents, and wonderful clients from four of our most recent projects.

We dove into the lessons from messy, real-world work together. We shared stories from the failings, successes and imperfections of our shared endeavours and together, identified some common themes and insights.

Participating Projects

Africa Food Fellowship (across Africa) is a world-class leadership programme for food systems leaders, catalysing a professional movement for systemic change across Africa. Wasafiri co-designed the Fellowship in partnership with Wageningen University for Research & Innovation.

Project reps: Eunice Khaguli, Dave Okech and Winnie Yegon

CREATE (East Africa) Wasafiri works with Mercy Corps to lead the Knowledge and Learning Unit of this three-year, five-country regional program to counter violent extremism across East Africa.

Project reps: Catherine Mwendwa and Maia Blume

Feltham Convening Partnership (Greater London, UK) is a 7-year project that aims to use systems-based approaches to deliver substantial, sustainable improvements to the lives of local children, young people, and families in the Feltham community.

Project reps: Scott Hinkle, Mei Lim, Victoria Hirst and Teo Balint

United Nations Food Systems Summit (Global) To ensure the voices of SMEs were heard at the Global Food Systems Summit, Wasafiri was commissioned to help activate the global community of agri-food SMEs, profile those SMEs improving nutrition and sustainable consumption, and identify pathways for greater support.

Project reps: Ian Randall and Viliana Dzhartova

Key themes that emerged from using Systemcraft

It is difficult to harness, facilitate and measure the Emergence of a systemic effort.

Collective efforts and participation tend to unleash a domino effect of more participation and collective initiatives. This is often where the power and scale of system change occur.

For those leading systems change efforts, the challenge seems to be in how to facilitate the emergence toward a meaningful, constructive and measurable way.

There was also a question of how and when to merge collective efforts (new power) with more traditional and hierarchal leadership systems (old power), and what space is needed to be able to do that.

Genius insight from the session: “How do we host emergence?”

A mindset shift in the way people think about the issue is critical but requires a process of Unlearning.

One of the key aspects of effective systemic approaches is facilitating a process that effectively helps people shift away from what they are used to, and from their default reactions to problems and issues. Our practice should be to help clients and partners ‘unlearn’ practices that potentially perpetuate the problem. We need to hold this process of learning and embody the spirit of collective action.

Quotes from the session: “There is a big leap to bring other people along, whose institutions and mindsets are not set up in that way.”

Tensions exist between the time it takes to learn and implement collective approaches vs the desire to ‘see things getting done’.

Simply put, it takes more time to apply systems approaches; dealing with contextual and relationship sensitivities, power imbalances, and a much broader group of stakeholders.

The above systems learning/unlearning process combined with the time and resources necessary for collective action can be frustrating, but it is important that our teams, partners, and clients learn it, and then apply it themselves in their own organisations.

It can help to openly discuss the balance between collective engagement and required project deadlines and outcomes.

Good news, there is no right or wrong way to use Systemcraft.

It is important, but challenging, to know what parts of systems-based approaches to share, and how. Balancing the explicit and implicit use of them with the clients and partners can be challenging.

Some projects were using it and teaching it to partners explicitly, while others don’t mention it at all, but use pieces of it to guide their work.

This demonstrates that the Systemcraft framework is flexible and can be used in tailored ways to benefit diverse projects.

Quote from the session: “We are not saying to people that we are doing Systemcraft, but we are doing it in our work.”

As I sit here writing this and reflecting on the experience, I am stuck with one lasting impression, a quote I wrote down in my notes, ‘There is simplicity and power in an invitation to participate.’

I am certainly glad that some of my colleagues (George and Bhabz in particular) unearthed that revelation, as well as the moxie to follow it through. It raised the bar for all of us.


Talk is commonplace of how systems approaches can solve complex problems. But how might it help leaders make real world decisions? How might it help leaders like you?