Developing territories from the bottom up

Its been a while since I have made a post, largely because watching the discussions in our local press is so amusing and entertaining. I had to keep my fingers in fists not to type anything I would regret later. This is a poor excuse, so let me get back to the reason why you are reading this post.

Strangely, our discussions here in South Africa is not yet focused on the real issues of how to grow the local economies. Most projects contained in Integrated Development Plans are still un-systemic and often deal more with social than with business and growth related issues. Yes, with our history this is important. But I would immediately argue that it is possible to have systemic interventions (that unlocks growth and investment) that at the same time also has benefits or leveraged impact for the poor and marginalised.

Why are we not talking about building local meso-level institutions that not only supports local industries or address local issues, but at the same time draws on science and research to create new solutions? Why are so many local municipalities still doing such shallow Local Economic Development? At what point will the private sector at the local level realise that they need to be more reflective of their competitiveness and cooperation. OK, granted, this happens in some places. But not everywhere. And not enough.

It seems to me that so many solutions are still driven from the national level of government (and business) in South Africa. At what point will locals start demanding “economic” service delivery, which means infrastructure that supports the growth, profitability and expansion of business. Why bother with “small town economic development” if the potholes in the main road are as deep as opencast mines? (see the picture further down below)

Perhaps a reason for this hesitance to seriously and systemically engage in “Territorial Development” is because Local Economic Development is still seen as a narrow field of enterprise support through public planning instruments, instead of being seen as a multidisciplinary approach aimed at improving the local economic system. The systems perspective and an understanding of the complexity of this systems seems to be lacking. You cannot develop the tourism sector in a small town by itself, without dealing with retail, infrastructure, and many other issues.

I know there are many places that gets this right, and where a proper and interactive relationship exist between local government and local business.  But we need much more than a few anecdotal examples. We need to inspire our local businesses to invest, to grow and expand. Inspire them to paint their shops, and tidy their yards. Get them to think of new ideas, new opportunities. Only when we unleash the creativity of our existing businesses will new businesses emerge.

Look at the nice pothole below. The largest employer in this little town is moving to Johannesburg. Guess what, hardly any of its employees are staying behind and starting businesses. With them, they take their spouses, who are often providing services as teachers, medical staff, managers in other firms, and local consumers.

– Why would locals start a business here in this town?

– Why is fixing the potholes and the general look of the town not a major priority?

If business was important here, the main street would not look like this

– How can a few isolated “entrepreneurship” training and other isolated projects undo the impact of the large corporate moving away?

– Why can not a single business person here remember when last a local official contacted them to find out if there is anything that the municipality to can do to support the business in growing.

I think I know the answer. Business is simply not important here. LED in this place is about little projects and not about the bigger system. Business people also tend not to block roads and burn councillor houses.

Perhaps we should coin a new phrase “local private sector development” to describe what we should be doing as Territorial Development Practitioners. But then again, we know that you have to look at the whole system at the territorial level, so perhaps this title is not a good idea. To grow territories from the bottom up would need a focus on the private sector, but it would also require attention the public sector, both as a provider of critical infrastructure and other services, as well as a coordinator of many essential (and often overlooked) public goods. My main point is this. While the national frameworks are important, local energy is what matters. South Africa appears to be trying to build local economies from the top down (depending on national policy, grants and programmes), and not from the bottom up with based on an  understanding the local economy, opportunities and constraints, and then using local energy and resources.

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