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'Bottom-up' vs 'top-down'

Publication Date : 04-10-2012


If "development" is to lead to poverty reduction then the "poor" are the central concern. They must be given priority in any development effort. But the history of development denotes that Truman, a former US president, "broke the ground" of development with aid to the underdeveloped areas with top-down thinking. Consequently, over the last fifty years, more than US$2 trillion has been allocated to the poor in global south, yet it has failed to bring sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

The failure of the West's top-down planning has led some post-development thinkers to write the "obituary" of development. Some post-development scholars even claim that development should be abandoned as it does more harm than good.

Undoubtedly, the top-down approach has had some successes too, like reducing mortality rate, vaccination campaigns and combating potentially disastrous diseases at a global level. We have also seen how developing states like South Korea and Taiwan can achieve economic development with the magic formula from Bretton Woods institutions along with top-down government market intervention. But these initiatives have been unsuccessful in most developing countries.

Bottom-up approaches like microfinance and NGO-based development initiatives have been working very well over the years, and they are used widely across the developing nations to fight against extreme poverty.

Bottom-up approaches emphasise the participation of the local community in development initiatives so that they can select their own goals and the means of achieving them. They also ensure community ownership, and commitment and accountability to the development project as it seeks development from below. On the other hand top-down approaches are considered as development planned by experts at the top, who also lead the process. They provide little opportunity for people's participation in the total development efforts, who are thus marginalised.

Top-down innovators think that they have the solution to poverty by framing it as an "engineering problem" that can be solved, while at the same time believing that as outsiders they possess the knowledge to provide a solution with a "Big Push". Top-down planners look for solutions rather than focus on specific problems of the poor. They keep trying to achieve the same objectives using the same plan year after year, even though they failed several times. Top-down planners often want to achieve that which is beyond their capacity rather than that which they can achieve. Some goals, such as universal primary school enrolment and universal access to water and sanitation, were set before adopting MDGs, but nobody has been held accountable for these missed goals.

The failure of "Structural Adjustment Programmes" (SAP) illustrates the weakness of top-down approaches. Ivory Coast experienced "one of the worst and longest depressions in its economic history" as a result of a Structural Adjustment loan which led to anarchy in the country. The gap between rich and poor increased in the countries that accepted SAP, with women faring particularly badly in male dominated market economies in Africa and Caribbean.

Development projects must be initiated with the participation of the poor as bottom-up approaches ensure that the projects are cost effective, sustainable and replicable. The success of development programmes largely depends on the acceptance by the local people and their willingness to participate in them. Most of the people in the developing countries are out of the formal economic sector. They make their living through self-employment both in rural and urban areas because of limited employment opportunities in the formal economy.

Rather than being a street vendor, petty trader, or small shop owner they could change their lives. In order to facilitate that the bottom-up microfinance approach provides small financial capital -- which they struggle to get from formal economic institutions like banks. The economy, as a result of top-down planning, creates opportunities, but they are not equitable and poor people do not benefit.

However, bottom-up efforts also have some limitations. Sometimes development projects with bottom-up approaches are dominated by the elite. They underscore the need for an "enabling institutional environment" for the sustainability of bottom-up community based initiatives. Bottom-up development in the form of "alternative development" does not generate a "coherent body of theory" because of its dispersed nature. The participatory bottom-up approach is successful in small-scale local community projects while big projects like road construction, tertiary education and other national projects need more complex technology and decisions where participation with direct control by local people is virtually impossible.

Bottom-up institutions like NGOs have become major channels of development co-operation, and in some countries the resources of NGOs, domestic and international, exceed those at the disposal of government. Bangladesh is possibly one of the best examples where NGOs have achieved tremendous progress in changing the lives of the poor.

Another bottom-up effort to eradicate poverty is microfinance, which has proved to be particularly applicable in developing countries. Over the years, faith-based organisations have contributed significantly to change the lives of poor with their widespread network across the globe. From the bottom they have been fighting against poverty in silence in the midst of secular development dominance. Religion and development are no longer separate spheres.

Two different development approaches have been analysed, but they are not a panacea for the solution of poverty. Both of them have strengths and shortcomings. Top-down approaches are not always synonymous with failure, nor are bottom-up approaches always successful. Top-down efforts of development failed to bring changes in the lives of poor compared to the time and money spent over the decades. While, on the other hand, bottom-up institutions like NGOs and civil society organisations are not successful in all parts of the world.

In Africa, lack of power and restrictions from state machineries hindered the emergence of NGOs like Brac. NGOs' position as "favourite child" of the donor organisations has weakened over the years because of disillusionment in their performance as they are losing their roots.

Development is multidimensional, having social, political or economic aspects. Hence, development efforts should be carried out in all sections of the society for greater benefit. In order to do this, we need to use both top-down and bottom-up approaches to promote interaction and dialogue among all levels. National consensus, strategic direction, facilitation, coordination, providing framework and tools for local initiatives, mobilising natural resources and capacity building can be achieved by the top-down approaches while bottom-up approaches are crucial for specifying poverty, ensuring ownership and commitment, mobilising local assets and knowledge, and promoting local innovation in order to achieve holistic development.

The debate on development continues while the poor and third world states at the bottom cannot wait for any solidarity or consensus which will bring a unanimous effort. Attaining MDGs, tackling climate change, and possible financial downturns are major challenges coming ahead for the developing nations. They are required to bargain and negotiate at the global level for mutual benefit, ensuring accountability, and reducing risk and vulnerability. At the same time, the citizens, NGOs, and civil society organisations at the bottom need to coordinate with the states, utilising their potentialities and capabilities.

In the new era of development, "state" is back again as it has proved to be successful in development of the economy as well as building foundations for the success of liberalisation and market forces in China and India. All it needed was an "inclusive we" for the transformation of lives of millions poor people. This "we" includes both top-down and bottom-up approaches together. Given this situation, it is not possible to ascertain which one is more effective than the other because of their inter-dependence and the complex nature of development.

The writer is Lecturer, Department of Public Administration, University of Chittagong.


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