The irony of bottom-up development


From the participants of our trainings on local and regional economic development it seems evident that many national governments are paying lip service to bottom-up development. Often Local Economic Development (LED) is related to attempts to decentralise certain decision-making to lower tiers of governments. However, this is done in an uneven way where powers to make decisions about financial allocations, education, health investments are centralised. Even is places where local economic development decisions are decentralised to the local level, other national policies counteracts the power of local stakeholders. For instance, LED is decentralised by law in many Southern African countries, however, skills development, university programmes and even small enterprise development programmes are all designed and run from a national level. I do not count a local office of a national or provincial programme as “localisation”, as local representatives have no power over funding allocation and programme development. Other national programmes such as tender regulations, public procurement rules, and public finance legislation were all implemented to contain corrupt or incompetent public officials (thanks for that), but it also inadvertently reduces the ability of local government to drive their own development agenda. My late business partner liked to refer to that as “unintended consequences”.

Despite these obstacles to local development there are several brave souls that are trying to do local economic development from the bottom-up. They may be constrained in many ways, but they continue to try and mobilise local stakeholders.

Often bottom-up development activities in countries and specifically at the local level are driven by external development organizations (ranging from donors to charities). From my experience in Africa I can say that international development cooperation is often more serious about bottom-up development than most governments. While I know from my previous experience (I worked for GTZ on LED) that many national government officials think this is western ideology of democracy that is being forced down the throats of developing countries, I also know from experience that imperfect solutions that are developed by locals often have critical momentum that simply outperforms even smart initiative coming from the national level. But these development organisations are Macro level actors from outside of the country, so on a hierarchy they would be above the top!

Ok, I understand. For many national governments in Africa, their biggest obstacle to programme implementation is often the lower ranking officials in local governments. But this is not the cause of their problems, it is simply a symptom of other problems. A symptom that is further re-enforced by a lack of an ability to respond to the local context. Perhaps this is why local governments accross Africa are struggling more and more, despite evidence that national governments in Africa are improving their performance. But more about that in another post.

So the irony of bottom-up development is this: bottom-up development is often still happening in parts of Africa not because of top-down (national) support, but because of international (above-the-top down) support.

Until this situation changes, bottom-up development will always be limited to making local stakeholders feeling better about addressing some of their own issues without a guarantee that the framework conditions will re-enforce their goodwill. Sometimes this will yield excellent results if the right champions drive the activities, thus making it dependent on individuals and not systems. But for local initiative to become systemic, in other words, leveraged with multiplier effects, governments across Africa would have to sincerely embrace bottom-up development by addressing the constraints that limits local action.

One Response to “The irony of bottom-up development”

  1. For bottom up development to work, you must go up | Shawn Cunningham's Weblog Says:

    […] the experts, many local government champions, and industry often felt frustrated (see the irony of bottom up development). A group of people actively engage in diagnosing the local economy, and lots of energy would be […]

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