Adapting the Market Systems Development Approach to the Care Economy

Economies depend on care work, paid and unpaid, to survive and thrive. Moreover, tackling the uneven distribution of unpaid care work is widely recognized as crucial for women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. Yet, many inclusive MSD projects shy away, including those which I have led and advised, from addressing care work and the broader care economy — the part of human activity both material and social, that is concerned with the process of caring for the present and future labor force, and the human population as a whole, including the domestic provisioning of food, clothing, and shelter — in a meaningful way. 

The informal nature of many care services (e.g., cooks, cleaners, early child educators, etc.) can make it difficult to find entry points and achieve large-scale change. The same is true for unpaid household care work. This absence of clear entry points and potential to achieve change at scale has led many MSD professionals to believe that the MSD approach is inappropriate for interventions in care work/economy. The following examples shared by both Ellie and Ariane, however, disprove this assumption and show that there are different ways to approach care work using MSD.

 The MSD approach is suited to working on the care economy.

“The flexibility and iterative nature of the MSD approach make it well suited to intervening in the care economy,” according to Ariane.  Ariane points out that “using an MSD approach for work in the care economy helps you to see the care economy system as a whole, as well as the potential leverage points for change. The approach also helps you to work backwards from the intended project objective, say increased women’s employment, to pinpoint the most feasible entry points — for example, skills training.” 

WUSC project in Jordan that Ariane advised is a good example of the MSD approach in practice. The objective of the project was to increase women’s participation in the formal sector. Following an analysis of economic opportunities, the team realized that the under performance of the care economy, particularly child and elder care services, was a barrier to increased workforce participation of Jordanian women.  At the same time, child and elder care services also presented an opportunity for increased women’s employment. With this realization in mind, the project focused skills development to improve the quality and perception of care services, personal support workers (i.e., assisting people with their daily life, including activities such as bathing, eating, cleaning, and preparing meals), and early childhood education.  

The care economy MSD projects that Ariane has been involved with approach care work as a market system unto itself, rather than just as a supporting function of another economic sector, which is more typical in MSD projects.

Testing a hybrid MSD approach.

In Ellie’s work with WVA, care work is viewed as a supporting function of the family farm and the broader agricultural system. But instead of working through market actors to address the distribution of care work, WVA tackles it directly though its gender transformative interventions at the community and household levels as part of World Vision’s Women’s Economic Empowerment approach

“Can we bring together hybrid programming that combines MSD with gender transformative approaches for better outcomes for women, men, and children?” According to Ellie, that is the broad hypothesis she and her economic empowerment team were testing with “hybrid MSD” pilots in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in partnership with Promundo. 

WVA’s pilot hybrid MSD projects, like many agricultural MSD projects, focus on incentivizing more inclusive behaviors among agri-input dealers (e.g., embedding Good Agricultural Practices [GAP] information in sales and marketing activities, last mile distribution, supply chain credit, etc.) a systemic constraint to the inclusive growth of the sector. What makes them different from some MSD projects is that they also integrate gender transformative activities (e.g., MenCare, training on joint decision making, etc.) while mainstreaming gender considerations such as value chain selection in the design and implementation.

The gender transformative activities in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka aim to address the unequal distribution of care work between women and men in the household by directly engaging with communities. This includes the MenCare and Journeys for Transformation models adapted for WVA’s inclusive Market Systems Development (iMSD) approach. It also includes a Gender Inclusive Financial Literacy Training package that seeks to improve women’s access to financial management knowledge and agency — the ability to identify goals or make choices and then act upon them.

According to Ellie, a key part of the targeted work is helping men to understand the positive impact of women and men working together equitably as key partners on the family farm, including sharing decision-making linked to finances and workload distribution in the household. She notes, “Key to this is getting men to understand how their increased involvement in household care work can improve their family business and, as a result, their children’s development and well-being through increased incomes.”  

Mainstreaming gender is not always enough.

This hybrid approach, gender mainstreamed iMSD and household and community-level interventions to redistribute care work, has evolved out of WVA’s learning with regards to some of the limitations of only using a gender mainstreaming approach in its iMSD projects. WVA found that while mainstreaming gender in their iMSD project increased women’s access to the new technology, information, or markets, this approach did not have significant impact on increasing women’s agency — an essential component of sustaining improvements in women’s overall economic empowerment.

The experiences shared by Ellie and Ariane confirm that an MSD approach is suited to interventions in the care economy. In fact, the complex nature of intervening in care work, whether formal or informal, necessitates as described by both Ellie and Ariane an approach like MSD that is founded upon frequent hypothesis testing, rigorous learning, and adaptation — a topic that this month’s second Market Corner installment will explore further.

Don’t want to wait until the next installment to learn more about MSD approaches for care work? Access additional resources here:


Adapting the Market Systems Development Approach to the Care Economy
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