Going Big

Lessons on scaling up development projects

Photo of shepherd herding a flock of sheep on a terrace on the Loess Plateau, China

Terracing and other improvements transformed the Loess Plateau and proved that large-scale ecosystem rehabilitation projects are possible and replicable.

By the early 1990s, after years of agricultural exploitation and unsustainable herding practices, China’s Loess Plateau was a dustbowl where farmers could barely scratch out a living—except in the village of Shageduo. By replacing goat herding with walnut cultivation, Shageduo’s farmers had transformed their community into a thriving green landscape. This approach looked like it could be a game changer for millions of people in the Loess Plateau, but how could it be carried out on a large enough scale?

The “pebble in the pond effect” is how Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Johannes Linn describes a common fate of small-scale development projects. A project benefits a few people, and then, instead of expanding, it stays small or even withers away. “You get a bit of a ripple, and then later you have no idea it was ever there,” he says. Institutional barriers, political constraints, and the tendency to focus on project minutia rather than the big picture stand in the way of scaling up a successful project.

More than a dozen examples of scaling up—from the Peruvian Highlands to the West African Sahel—are described in Scaling Up in Agriculture and Rural Development: Lessons on Opportunities and Challenges for the Future, a new set of IFPRI 2020 Focus briefs edited by Linn. The briefs, with contributions from 36 authors with expertise in areas such as biofortification, nutrition, supply chains, community development, and agroforestry, show how scaling up can be accomplished by different actors, using different approaches, in different contexts.

Linn and the other authors suggest starting a project with a clear focus on the opportunities for scaling up what works and then continually monitoring progress. This approach can help build the institutional support, effective policies, and partnerships that make scaling up possible.

The briefs, Linn explains, are not meant to offer a blueprint. “It is an approach and a mindset,” Linn says. “I think the pieces clearly demonstrate that scaling up is not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ but something real that can be done.”

The Loess Plateau rehabilitation project, described in one brief, illustrates the point. Building on Shageduo’s small-scale success, the Chinese government, with assistance from the World Bank, created incentives for change by constructing wider, more stable terraces, instituting bans on grazing, and offering farmers long-term leases on land. Although a rigorous evaluation is still needed, the project appears to be more than a pebble in the pond: it is reported to have improved the livelihoods of more than 3 million farmers.

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