Scaling Through Government
The IMAGO Insider, Vol 2 Issue 1

At IMAGO, we strive to contribute to the changing thinking and practices in international development. This issue of the IMAGO Insider explores what it means to amplify impact through the public sector.  

en español

IMAGO was designed to help organizations at the Base of the Pyramid scale up their impact. Our first 5 years focused on helping 15 organizations become funding-ready so they could scale. This year, we are extending our focus to  scaling the innovations from the BoP through the government. The private sector is the best at scaling when there is a profitable opportunity, but there are many goods and services that the private sector does not provide.  In particular, the private sector is weak at developing innovations that are aligned with the needs of the poorest of the poor. Scaling through the government is often the most effective, or only, way of ensuring public goods and services reach the poor, even when these are from innovations developed by civil society organizations or social enterprises.

Our 2019 Spring newsletter, therefore, is entirely dedicated to examples from some of the best development experts in the field on how to scale through the government. IMAGO is building a series of interviews as resources for students and practitioners that want to learn how to scale up. Some of these videos are embedded in this newsletter, but you can also view them on our YouTube channel. Let us know if there are any topics around scaling up that you would like to see included in the future. Let's keep the conversation going!

 About Scaling Through the Government

What is "scaling through government"?
With few exceptions, real scale is only achieved in in one of two ways: through the market or through the government.  As noted above, for those goods and services that the private sector does not provide--owing to a variety of market failures--government is the central player to ensure provision, especially for the poor. Government scaling can happen in one of two ways: either the government itself recognizes that it has a gap, and looks for a solution, or some external actor looks to the government as the appropriate path through which to scale. Governments might choose to pay for services provided by an external actor when this is for a socially valued service. ​

What about donors and aid agencies?
Since scaling through the private sector fails to reach the poorest people, why turn to the public sector to scale instead of aid agencies and donors? While aid agencies and donors provide capacity and money, they are not in themselves a pathway to full scale. As Johannes Linn, Senior Fellow at Brookings and former World Bank VP,  tells IMAGO in an interview, aid agencies and donors can help maintain the momentum from "small innovative" to "large broad impact", and often help facilitate intermediaries that in turn help governments or the private sector to scale.

Scaling Up Does Not Mean Doing the Same Thing at Scale
IMAGO's Sandra Naranjo shares the three most important lessons she has learned in over a decade working in and researching topics about the public sector, including as Minister for Planning and Development in Ecuador. In many cases, the requirements of scale are quite different from a small-scale innovation, in terms of human and financial resources, designs and structures. The art of policy design is to know when to multiply and when to modify. Second, scaling up is not always possible or desirable. Programs must be technically correct, administratively feasible, and able to be supported politically in order to scale. Third, the goal of scaling up should not be confused with achieving the real results.  There is no point in scaling for its own sake--it is alway important to design and monitor the scaling process in relation to measured impact.   Read the full explanation of Sandy's lessons.

Scaling Through the Government: Programs

Improving Rural Accessibility in Peru's Highlands

In an interview with IMAGO, José Luis Irigoyen, Senior Director of the World Bank's Transport and ICT Global Practice, describes partnering with Peru's Ministry of Transport to improve rural accessibility for 1.5 million people living in Peru's Highlands. A key, innovative characteristic of this project was participatory design with communities, within a decentralized design within the governmental system.  Over 15,000 km of roads were rehabilitated, and community-based micro-enterprises were set up for road maintenance in areas that had been abandoned by the state during the period of conflict that Peru had suffered. The micro-enterprises became catalysts for local development and a focal point of community work. Learn more about the project's design and main takeaways.

Conditional Cash Transfers in Mexico

In an interview with IMAGO, Santiago Levy,  until recently Vice President in the InterAmerican Development Bank and Undersecretary of the Budget for Mexico during the creation of Progresa (eventually, Oportunidades, and now Prospera), a program aimed at breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty through investment in the human capital of people living in extreme poverty. By the mid-1990s the government had a wide range of poorly targeted food subsidies that were ineffective at improving the lives of most of the poor. These subsidies were phased out in the wake of the macroeconomic "Tequila" crisis, and replaced by Progresa, a conditional cash transfer program.  Progresa directly transferred cash to women heads of households, on the condition that children attend school, and women and children visit healthcare clinics. This innovation revolutionized social policy with a significant impact on health and nutrition outcomes and school attendance.  It was subsequently scaled to reach virtually all the extreme poor in Mexico--some 20% of the population--and was copied throughout the developing world.   

Why Scaling is Hard with Complex Problems: Education in Bihar, India 

A global dilemma: Why have governments been able to do a reasonable job getting children into schools and a very bad job improving learning? IMAGO's Michael Walton illustrates such a case with the government of Bihar, which made substantial progress on education fronts through reducing the proportion of children out of school and increasing the number of schools with separate, usable girl's toilets. However, progress on children's skills in basic reading and math, has been dismal. How can we understand this? This illustrates two kinds of problems: the problems in which what to do is essentially known, both in terms of technical models and in terms of organizational capacities (e.g. building schools, campaigns to get children into schools) and the problems that are "wicked" or "complex", for which solutions are not known. It turns out that improving learning is a wicked problem.  Solving basic learning requires both innovating to discover what can work, and then taking this to scale in ways aligned with governmental processes and politics.  A remarkable, multi-year interaction between NGO Pratham and the Bihar government has found a potentially scalable innovation, but has not yet succeeded in taking it to scale across the state.

Education Interventions Looking to the Government

In an interview with IMAGO, Larry Cooley, founder of MSI, discusses the nature of external interventions that look to the government to scale, describing two education-focused examples: Learner Guides (Tanzania) and STIR (India and Uganda). Learner Guides are young women who return to their schools as mentors and role models. The program has reached a large scale, and is looking to go national.  Among the challenges they face is the question of ownership should the government become involved. Who convenes the discussions: should the government invite in the NGO, or the NGO invite in the government? Is this the government's event or the NGO's? In the case of STIR, which focuses on teacher motivation, there is almost a full partnership with the government, with STIR taking a strong lead. Learn more from Larry about the challenges faced as interventions look to the government to scale, including challenges related to oversight, ownership, and capacity.


IMAGO is about to welcome its new class of summer fellows. Fellows spend 8 weeks working in the field with IMAGO's partner organizations. Soon, they will be sharing insights from their experiences. 

IMAGO is excited to announce that Isabel Guerrero, Executive Director, has been appointed co-chair for ANDE's Gender Inclusion Learning Lab. Isabel will also be co-chairing a working group on scaling social enterprise innovation, within a larger community of practice on scaling up.


"Either the right thing is done at a small level, or the wrong thing at a big level. The problem at the big level is not that villagers don't know how to build things, it's that development agencies don't know how to do it with the villagers. The problem at the small level is that you can make a tremendous impact in ten villages, but in a country of 200 million people . . . that doesn't make that big of a difference."
-Scott Guggenheim,  Former Lead Social Scientist for East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank