For bottom up development to work, you must go up

For about 6 years I was intensely involved in establishing, promoting and cheer leading Local Economic Development in South Africa and elsewhere. In a country where so much planning, allocation and overall coordination came from the top, these were exciting years. I was always amazed and delighted to find hard working champions in the public and the private sector in every town, city or community where we worked. Our GIZ programme identified private sector and governance experts; and we trained, developed methods, and supported these experts to provide hands on services to local communities, the private sector and the local governments over several years. A small group of experts emerged out of this that are still actively involved in Local Economic Development in South Africa and in many other countries.

While Local Economic Development is something NGOs, Business Associations and donors understand and value, it was often a hard sell to local government, provincial government and even national government. In many parts of the world where societies are more homogenous and where social trust is high, many important economic decisions are in fact made at the local level – this is even thought of as common sense. But not here in South Africa, and also not in many of the other countries in Africa where we worked (our communities is not homogenous and is often divided along ethnic and political lines, our social trust is low even within these ethnic and political groups). This is because the ideas generated by local communities and priorities expressed by business did not always tie in so well with what planners or public sector managers had in mind (I call this top down development as it is rooted in someones authority to decide on behalf of communities).

Everybody who appreciated local ownership, local self determination and participatory approaches liked our logic and could integrate our concepts into their activities, but for many public sector managers our ideas created tension. I must add, on a few occasions we also faced resistance from business, especially as participatory approaches often challenge those in powerful positions.

But 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 unleashed. Often, the disconnect between government plans and the real issues confronting business would sometimes become visible. Or the power plays between different politicians and even between different business interests would be revealed. The same patterns emerged in different places, and we could not address these at local level. Unfortunately, many funders of these local processes did not have a mandate nor an interest to go beyond their pilot or designated areas. For instance, an international donor funding an Local Economic Development process in a particular town wanted to see local action that would result in jobs, gender equality, etc. They did not want to rock the boat by questioning local, provincial or national policies and programmes that often made their primary objective unreachable. Even in cases where local government was strongly in support of local action, their funding for economic development often came from national or provincial funding programmes that had different priorities, resulting in good ideas not being implemented because of a lack of funds or too much bureaucracy.

In 2008 I decided to switch my attention to innovation systems, private sector promotion and applying science to industry. I remained committed to bottom up development and decentralized decision making, but felt that I had to get away from depending on local government. However, here too the same challenge emerged, but this time it was not the fault of local government. Reflecting on the last few years and relating it back to my years in Local Economic Development I realize that there is an important lesson in all this for me. The same patterns emerge when I work with universities, a small local chamber of business or a city.

For bottom up development to work, you must go “up”. Sounds simple. But think about it. You cannot just focus on working in a local community as if it is an eco system on its own. Many policies that are undermining local development, trust building, etc. are coming from outside the designated area. The same applies to value chain promotion, cluster promotion and any other flavor of development. Creating a little isolated area where things are working for a particular designated group while the greater system is not working (or creating incentives for contrasting behavior) is wasting resources – when you withdraw your external resources things go back to how they were (see my post here about how we draw boundaries). While I would never regret empowering more local champions to do their advocacy and development work better, I must wonder what would have happened if we could have taken more of our insights to higher levels BOTH within the countries where we work, BUT ALSO to the international agencies that often funded these programmes. Not that we did not try, but often our efforts to communicate what was wrong was challenged on the basis of a lack of data supporting our arguments.

We do not want “bottom development” only. While this may suit the priorities of an NGO to equip a small group of designated people, we should strive to identify patterns, find new paths, and then communicate and use this insight elsewhere in the economy to reinforce what is working and address what is undermining local development. One of the reasons why we as Mesopartner dived into complexity thinking is because we realized that much of the answers to the questions that effect local stakeholders and economic systems are not to be found in the traditional, silo based (also called focused development) that are increasingly becoming “evidence based”.

Bottom up development remains important as we recognize that economies are complex adaptive systems and that the way to make an economy healthier is to equip its agents (business people, local government officials, communities) to make better decisions based on the signals they receive and the factors that affect them locally (local here means close to a particular context).  Our task in development is to try and identify patterns that can be amplified, or to assist agents to probe and try low risk experiments to create new paths for upgrading, decision making and wealth creation. This will require that we challenge how development programmes decide where to work, what to do and what outcomes to expect. Mesopartner is actively involved in the international discussion about how this complexity insight will challenge our development paradigms.

A final reflection. Perhaps our objective in Local Economic Development was wrong to start with. It is not (just) about empowering local stakeholders. Our objective should have been to use the insight from what is possible and what is not possible at the local level to try and affect top down strategy. Or maybe it was about holding up a mirror for top down and bottom up champions to see their effect and role in the system. These questions are at the heart of our new thematic area in Mesopartner looking into bottom up industrial policy, and will be a theme in our 2014 Summer Academy event in Berlin. Remember to apply soon as the early bird discount deadline expires at the end of March.

5 Responses to “For bottom up development to work, you must go up”

  1. Adrie Says:

    Hi Shawn, as we have discussed so many times lately….if only Government can realise the true value of the Meso Level/implementing agencies they have created and fund to implement their policies. As you rightly say, it should not be a one way process from the top. The value that government departments would get from sitting down their implementing agencies and truly assess the pulses/patterns emerging from the bottom and amend/improve the policies accordingly would have a severe impact on our economy.


  2. Marcus Jenal Says:

    Dear Shawn. Thank you very much for sharing your own lessons and insights so openly with us. Indeed, we have drawn our boundaries often much too narrow, only looking at the local, the region, the poor, or also maybe only at the policy environment. What we learn from systems theory is clear: these boundaries are not real. What we call macro, meso, or micro is all part of an interconnected, continuously adapting system and we cannot just concentrate on one part. There is of course the argument that we set our boundaries to make the systems we work in “manageable”. What does this mean? It means that we limit the scope of our inquiry or our interventions to a part of the system that we feel comfortable to understand how it works and, hence, feel able to plan ahead and design the right interventions. With that, however, we ignore the complexities of the wider system and that the part we focus on does not exist in isolation but is connected to and influenced by the rest of the system.


  3. Change: Simple, but Not Easy | The Discipline of Innovation Says:

    […] are working hard to improve economic development – an issue that Shawn Cunningham looks at in For Bottom Up Development to Work, You Must Go Up.  His argument is that because the economy is an interconnected complex system, it’s not […]


  4. Linking: Change: simple, but not easy by Tim Kastelle | Shawn Cunningham's Weblog Says:

    […] am humbled that Tim Kastelle has quoted a paragraph from a recent blog I wrote in an article he just published on Change and why it is simple but not […]


  5. Frank Waeltring Says:

    Dear Shawn, thanks a lot for your insights. I agree very much with your learning through which we went through together. The advantage still is that we gathered a lot of insight from our work on the ground which enables us to see the opportunities as well as the bottlenecks better than many other development practitioners. To develop our new theme further it provides a great starting point for entering into the larger system perspective, coming up new learning and also creating awareness at the upper levels to see what has to be done to promote opportunities for development practice and change.
    Bst wishes,


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