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Scaling up

“Small is beautiful, but big is necessary"

Policy-makers and development practitioners face a fundamental challenge when designing or implementing a project: how to ultimately achieve large-scale effective and sustained impact. Many projects start as innovations or pilots and may even deliver successful results covering large areas and numbers of beneficiaries. However, they must ultimately have an impact across a whole region or country to show that such results can be sustained and truly address the needs of the rural poor. A manager of a large country agriculture programme may also seek ideas and good practices from elsewhere in order to adopt and strengthen the implementation at scale (see Box 1 on some examples of what can be scaled up). This note outlines some basic concepts, as well as practical steps or points to consider, when challenged with scaling up. A number of reviews have examined scaling up in the rural development context, and some guidance has emerged that inform this note on scaling up. However, there is little in the way of definitive large-scale detailed comparative analysis of what makes scaling up more successful, although similar broad analyses have been carried out in areas other than agriculture and rural development – e.g. in health and sanitation, education and business processes1.

To examine scaling up, it is important to ask what works where and why, especially what works at a large scale, and how we can draw relevant lessons. Some important principles have been identified that may help stakeholders be more systematic in how we approach scaling up, or at least develop a knowledge system to help share experiences, make comparisons and shape programmes and policy. These principles are as follows:

Scale of impact matters. Important aspects to look at are the dimensions and magnitude of ultimate impacts being sought: the scale of impacts. In a country or region, how many beneficiaries ultimately need to be reached for significant impact – 100 000 or millions? Considering numbers must, however also be balanced by consideration of the nature and extent of important socio-economic impacts: such as on food security or economic livelihoods, or inclusion of and extent of livelihoods change relevant to the poorest of the poor. It may be easier for example to create productive assets and increased yields with a large number of medium scale farmers with larger plots of land, rather than same number of poor producers with little or no land. At larger scales, different issues often come into play, e.g. a greater variation in environments, saturation of markets, or the challenge of reaching larger numbers of poor people in different socio-cultural contexts. It is important to consider the level of impact when scaling up the institutional dimension from a small project by a non-governmental organization (NGO) to implementing a government programme through a large bureaucracy. Developing the capacity and human resources systems to deliver effective and quality services represents a major scaling-up challenge. Cutting across these dimensions are considerations of sustainability and trade-offs. It may be necessary to balance expected impacts and consider how intensively success can be achieved across key impact dimensions. At the same time one has to ensure that change in the long run is only sustained practically and realistically with available budgets.

Figure 1. Classical approach to scaling up [by Jim Hancock, see also “Scaling up climate-smart agriculture: lessons learned from South Asia and pathways for success”]

Process is important. It is important to understand the processes and pathways for scaling up. Broadly, scaling up processes can be thought of as either more horizontal, in terms of direct expansion or increase in size of projects and programmes and replication into new areas, or more vertical, in terms of influencing policies with wider impact (Figure 1). With respect to phasing, emphasis is first placed on getting effective and successful results (i.e. ‘proof of concept’). Then the focus is shifted to efficiency – proving cost effectiveness, for example – and then to scaling up by means of expansion. At the outset it is important to understand that these processes and stages are long-term – often taking 10-15 years – and they involve many actors, and are rarely linear. Findings from reviews of scaling up experience indicate that there are no blueprints or simple recipes for success.

The box below2 outlines the various dimensions in which space has to be created to permit successful scaling up.

Box 2: Spaces for Scaling Up

If scaling up is to succeed, space has to be created for the initiative to grow. The most important spaces are:

Fiscal/financial space: Fiscal and financial resources need to be mobilized to support the scaled up intervention; and/or the costs of the intervention need to be updated to fit into the available fiscal/financial space.

Natural resources/environmental space: The impact of the intervention on natural resources and the environment must be considered –harmful effects mitigated or beneficial impacts promoted.

Policy space: The policy (and legal) framework has to allow or needs to be adapted to support scaling up.

Institutional/organizational/staff capacity space: The institutional and organizational capacity has to be created to carry the scaling up process forward.

Political space: Important stakeholders both those in support and those against the intervention need to be attended to through outreach and suitable safeguards to ensure the political support for a scaled up intervention.

Cultural space: Possible cultural obstacles or support mechanisms need to be identified and the intervention suitably adapted to permit scaling up in a culturally diverse environment.

Partnership space: Partners need to be mobilized to join in the effort of scaling up.

Learning space: Knowledge about what works and doesn’t work in scaling up needs to harnessed through monitoring and evaluation, knowledge sharing and training.

Source: Adapted from Hartmann and Linn (2008).


Systematic assessment of factors supporting or hindering scaling up is critical. It is important to systematically assess the factors contributing to impact and constraints to scaling up, whether these factors can be influenced by the immediate stakeholders or are more external. Internal factors may involve the characteristics of the direct stakeholders and projects, and the methods and processes they use to scale up interventions (for example, their available capacity or incentives). This should be a key exercise done by design teams, together with key stakeholders. There are also nearly always external factors that are more contextual, i.e. beyond the immediate stakeholder control, which either constrain or are favourable to scaling up of a particular intervention. Examples of such factors that may trigger and/or create opportunities for scaling up are the opening up of new markets, changing policies and political will, changes in ecosystems precipitating policy adoption, etc. Taking advantage of these factors or ‘Spaces’ (see box 2), or turning challenges into opportunities, are essential to scaling-up.
The box below outlines the various dimensions in which ‘space’ has to be created to permit successful scaling up.

Evidence plays a role. It is important to gather information on impacts and on reasons why scaling up has worked or not, in order to be able to assess whether success has been achieved. If evidence is gathered from several areas and sources, the greater robustness of information helps provide confidence that a given initiative can be scaled up further or adopted elsewhere. This is critical also at policy level when considerable public and private resources are at stake in terms of proposed scaled-up initiatives and investments. This is important in terms of evidence both in the diagnostic phase to determine what is working that needs to be scaled up, and in the iterative implementation phase to ensure continued lessons learning and adaptation.  Data from studies, evaluations, impact assessments, meta-evaluations and reviews can be used to systematize the evidence in ‘State of Practice’ frameworks . Such frameworks categorize innovations, pilots, best practices and policy principles on a scale related to the increasing rigor and replicated analysis of evidence. Gathering evidence is clearly of major consequence; it is best done through results-oriented monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems during intervention and project implementation, as well as by independent ex post impact assessments and thematic case studies (see Impact Evaluation), including sustainability studies.
Knowledge management must be understood and nurtured.
Evidence regarding successes or contributing factors will not automatically result in adoption of new or refined approaches in new or scaled-up inventions. It is important to understand how to share knowledge and make it useful and influential. Firstly, it requires commitment to and interest in change at the decision making level and champions to follow through. Issues of capacity to use or apply the information must be addressed.  It also needs the fostering of communities of practice and networks among practitioners, to support sharing of knowledge. To be influential, evidence needs to be shared in partnerships, coalitions, government/science/donor fora, etc. These networks of sharing may offer greater opportunities for dialogue and collaboration on integrating promising practices into, for example, mainstream large-scale agriculture or rural development programmes or existing policies. Often there is considerable knowledge management producing lots of information under the assumption that it may be used. But there is also information and knowledge management that is more focused and applied to specific problems in demand by local stakeholders, which ultimately may be more productive and effective.

Points to consider when scaling up

On a practical level, stakeholders, primarily practitioners and decision makers, wishing to scale up should consider the following steps and points in thinking through their approaches:

Developing an awareness of the environment for scaling up. Initially, it can be helpful to map out the opportunities and potential bottlenecks, and ‘spaces’ for scaling up.

  • With key stakeholders, identify the potential scale of impact that is the ultimate goal, but initially agree to a vision of what is possible and achievable.
  • Identify potential drivers, ‘spaces’  or constraints – markets, policies or other factors – which the project or programme stakeholders have little control over but nevertheless must be aware of. These can include stress factors which drive opportunities for change, for example rapid environmental or economic changes.
  • Identify risks and common errors involved in operating on a larger scale, including likelihoods of failure. Potential risks and errors in applying new ideas, especially in new contexts, need to be carefully assessed.
  • Consider market saturation constraints when upscaling particular production practices, assessing implications on prices (for example from market gluts), as well as constraints in transport and market infrastructure to handle substantially larger quantities of produce.
  • Examine institutional challenges, such as shortages in critical complementary capacities or services that may be necessary for large-scale effectiveness – e.g. insufficient capacity in extension delivery (in staffing and/or skills) or lack of continuity in financing of support programmes.


Using research and knowledge processes to plan and implement scaling up of interventions. This involves handling information and knowledge in order to best draw relevant and robust lessons and guidance.

  • Complement the field innovation approaches with organizational systems which can continue to support further innovations at a larger scale. This includes supporting managers to take risks and building a learning culture at top levels, using evidence and fostering transparency.
  • Promote ‘action learning,’ i.e. people learning together by reflecting and tackling issues in their work and feeding this back into refined or new processes. If done with key stakeholders, including community members, from field level to top managers, it will help create a culture of adaptive learning and capacity directed towards achieving results.
  • Create systematic peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing between community members and groups, as this will deliver extension and services at lower costs and potentially more effectively.
  • Foster knowledge networking between a range of stakeholders by harnessing different information sources and viewpoints, including through web-based systems and social networking, so stakeholders can learn directly from each other.
  • Help set up web-based systems that help stakeholders customize access to information according to their needs, so that they can quickly and accurately get the information they want, whether in written form or from expert contacts. Also, the use of opportunities around newer more innovative approaches to communication and information management, involving more decentralized, social media and crowd-source approaches, are emerging.

Strengthening good practices in development interventions. Many considerations in scaling up relate directly to good management practices and careful consideration of mainstreaming and institutionalization opportunities.

  • Establish rigorous impact assessment frameworks, accountability and feedback mechanisms, with learning events built into the M&E. A solid planning and M&E system is a core element for project management and also for learning and generating knowledge, especially if the systems are participatory, systematic and capture information from a range of sources and methods. It is important to forge strong links between independent evaluators and project implementers. Evaluations need to contain both quantitative data on measurable results as well as qualitative information on the effective political economy tactics, alliances and approaches that contributed to successful interventions.
  • Create links or alliances with well-placed stakeholders who can engage in dialogue with decision-makers, including politicians and the media, and the private sector. Reaching large scale takes considerable skill and knowledge (i.e. institutional development and policy expertise) to identify and create a long-term programmatic shift, or to achieve convergence and mainstreaming with other agriculture and development programmes.
  • Identify specific change agents, or ‘champions’ – individuals who are either politically connected and/or practically committed to follow through on a vision of scaling up. These champions can exist at multiple levels, whether at national, sub-national or community level.  Such individuals are often programme directors, managers of NGOs, institutes, high level government technical officers, or senior scientists with interest in application, who have a good understanding of field level practical considerations as well as political and bureaucratic realities.
  • It is important to partner with a range of funders and donors, and link with various suitable development and agriculture programmes, and their related ministries. Experience has shown this is important, given the long time periods involved and the complexity of the scaling up process, often well beyond the time frame of single projects. Local level financing may also provide critical funds, particularly to cover operating costs needed to sustain the interventions. It is also important to recognize community and market institutions as key players, and consider how to engage them throughout the process, considering financial sustainability and market demands.

Achieving institutional transformation to achieve scale. At pilot stage innovative approaches can be successfully supported by existing institutional entities. When these approaches are scaled up, their successful implementation may require institutional change, either within existing institutions or by forming new institutions. Sometimes this may require considerable transformation in systems and capacity, much of which will need time, resources and skills in organizational development and even attitudinal change:

Be prepared to revise the mandates and priorities within existing organizations, as well as the systems or processes to implement them. It may also be necessary to revise job descriptions and performance criteria for organization staff.

  • Small scale organizations (including small departments within larger government Ministries) may have to build up staffing and relevant capacities – which requires strong human resource strategies, with carefully planned recruitment processes and training systems and incentives. Availability of suitable new staff with the right capacity may be an issue, requiring that suitable higher education systems may have to be tapped, or that staff are recruited externally to build up appropriate cadres.
  • In addition, all related financial management, operating and monitoring systems of an expanded organization will need to be set up, which requires strong leadership and administration as well as adequate resources and required administrative policies in place (e.g. for the setting up of new staffing structures, positions and recurrent budgets). Transforming an innovation in to a functioning programme will always require sensitive institutional and capacity shifts, not just more funds. Building in flexibility and responsiveness to change have been key features of successful scaling up organizations.
  • Where existing institutions are already operating at large scale but need to adapt to new innovations, awareness and hands-on training programmes may be required for existing staff to adopt changes; updating procedures and staff skills may also be required.
  • Establish relevant incentives and working procedures between operational partners may be required. In some cases, better cooperation between existing institutions can support sustained change, if it is supported by the relevant incentives and procedures. In other cases, the formation of new partnerships or even organizations may be required to permit and sustain scaling up.   

Entry points for scaling up

The application of the above approaches and considerations will vary, as different stakeholders may have different perspectives and priorities. Some of these stakeholders and priorities are as follows:

  • Government programme managers and policy-makers will be interested in the evidence of success at the scale on which they are operating and the challenges, bottlenecks and lessons derived from scaling up existing projects. They may also want to foster knowledge exchanges on emerging good practices, and nurture strong government champions. They will also have to be ready to reflect on required changes in their programmes, policies and administrative and human resource systems.
  • Country sector investment planners will want to identify promising good practices, examine evidence for impacts at scale and identify costs and efficiency of interventions to see if they are scalable. They will also be concerned with the policy spaces and constraints, and institutional capacities required to scale up and fund them.  
  • Representatives of international financing institutions (IFIs) will seek to emphasize M&E systems to ensure that lessons are learned during the IFI-financed project, and that impact evidence is produced. A project needs to be continually adapted and capacities built to develop a model that is attractive to national programme designers and policy-makers. They will need to insist on continuity in strong project managers for sustaining and adapting interventions to scale. In addition, IFIs will need to partner closely with policy-makers, media and other partners to influence mainstreaming where necessary. 
  • Local level innovators or practitioners will need to continuously examine the effectiveness and efficiency of their innovations and models, and how locally or widely applicable their results are. They must also constantly review opportunities for and constraints to rolling out initiatives if they wish to expand their impact. They should look at local sustainable, scalable low cost preferably community-led service delivery systems. Partnering with larger scale programmes and other donor partners to build the necessary resources and partner for expansion, should be part of this scaling up strategy.

Analysis of the scaling up process should be performed during different parts of the investment cycle. For example, in the design stage, there should be close examination of existing experiences of scaling up, evidence for and factors involved in success or failure, and the nature of impact. This stage should include developing a shared common vision of what a project can do in terms of scaling up, and which partners to engage. During the monitoring and implementation stage, it is critical to gather evidence, learn about what works, and adjust the project activities, especially for mainstreaming new innovations and processes in policies and programmes. Building replicable streamlined implementation systems, while staying adaptable and flexible is perhaps the central scaling up management challenge. When evaluating, it is very important to examine types of impacts and trade-offs, sustainability, cost effectiveness and capacity requirements for scaling up. (For example, has there been a trade-off in achieving successful production increases but exerting less livelihood impact on key target groups?). In addition, the evaluation process – which should start before the project ends – should engage decision-makers to help them shape the evaluation questions. Donors and governments should also undertake post-project and sustainability evaluations. These evaluations could reveal why a project has been successful in terms of impacts at scale, may have been less successful with respect to cost effectiveness, putting in place institutional support mechanisms, continuation of financing or profitability which would help long term implementation.

Footnotes:

1Attributed to BRAC [IFAD/Brookings, 2010]

2See Hancock 2003, for a review and strategy development, and Sutton and Rao for a business analysis.

Key Resources

Scaling-up the Impact of Good Practices in Rural Development (Word Bank, 2003)

Reviewed literature on scaling up in development and key references in other sectors. It also examined major scaling up experiences in agriculture and rural development: of zero-tillage in South America, a microfinance model in Bangladesh and participatory watershed management in India.

Good Practice Template (FAO, 2014)

Guides users in identifying and capturing good practices throughout projects and programme cycles or after events and activities have taken place.

Scaling up the fight against rural poverty. An institutional review of IFAD’s approach (IFAD/Brookings, 2010)

Gives an overview of ‘scaling up’ in IFAD, including successful interventions, operational policies, processes, instruments, resources and incentives. Provides recommendations on how to turn IFAD into a scaling-up institution. Beyond IFAD, this review of institutional scaling up is a pilot exercise that can serve as an example for other development institutions.

Scaling up in development cooperation. Practical guidelines. (GIZ, 2010)

This review examines scaling up from a capacity perspective identifying core capacities of development managers and practitioners needed for supporting scaling up.

Guidance Note: Scaling up development programmes (UNDP, 2013)

Presents a simplified conceptual framework and roadmap for scaling up processes. It offers practical actions and checklists to consider when designing and implementing programmes that support scaling up initiatives. 

Scaling up community-driven development for dummies (Word Bank, 2004) 

This draws on extensive experiences of World Bank projects on scaling up community driven development (CDD) projects into national CDD programs.

The importance of scaling up for agricultural and rural development. And a success story from Peru.  (IFAD, 2013)

A note on core importance of scaling for IFAD. The Peruvian example points to two critical ingredients: government commitment to operating at scale and donor willingness to support governments in doing this.

Scaling up excellence. Getting to more without settling for less (Sutton and Rao, 2014)

Draws on extensive experience and case studies of scaling up approaches in the business sector mainly (hard copy only).