Between a rock and a hard place. Sectoral vs. local approaches to private sector development

I am preparing for a presentation at a conference in May about development programmes shifting from a sectoral to a regional or local perspective. This got me thinking about these shifts in focus and why they appear.

In economic development, it is often necessary to choose whether to intervene at a sectoral level, or whether it would be better to take a locational or geographic approach. In my experience I have learned that when you start with the one, i.e. with a specific sector or value chain, you often end up with the other, i.e. supporting specialization or addressing specific issues in a certain location. But this is of little consolation to managers of development programmes and Local Economic Development units who are then typically measured by the wrong indicators or that have different incentives due to the design of their programme or institutional mandate.

During my MBA, the Professor in Organisational Development introduced us to a really elegant tool to assess whether a tension or conflict between different approaches could really be addressed. He introduced us to Polarity Management, a simple instrument developed by Johnson (1992). According to Johnson, many problems that we face today are not really problems to be solved, but polarities to be managed. Johnson argues that we can continually try to solve these problems by shifting our strategies to another mode where we perceive lots of benefits. The trouble is that after a while of some negative aspects emerge, and suddenly the benefits of the other strategy seems to be more attractive.

Polarity management is an instrument that can be used by change management practitioners to understand these polarities and to manage them. It implies that perhaps these different strategies even depend on each other, like breathing in versus breathing out. We need both, even if they have very different objectives, benefits and downsides. This means that the strengths and the weaknesses of alternatives must be understood, and then managed.

In development we have many polarities, for example wealth creation versus poverty reduction, or designed interventions versus enabling evolution, project versus process, top down versus bottom up, and many others. It is very expensive and even risky to shift between these, and an organisations current expertise, instruments and orientation may find it very hard to make these shifts effectively. But some try and some even manage to do this.

This post is for those organisations that are undecided about their strategy and their focus.. A key question then is how do we manage these alternatives, especially if we want the best of both worlds?

There are 3 steps to better understand a polarity:

  1. Fill in the headings of the two polarities in the matrix
  2. Capture the strengths and the weaknesses of both in the columns
  3. Determine if there is a movement of preference between the polaries, meaning that when the negative consequences of a particular strategy becomes too much, strategy is shifted to the other approach for its apparent strengths. Then over time, the negatives start to weight in on the positives, resulting in a shift to the other approach.

Below I have quickly written down some of the positives and negatives of both approaches. This is an incomplete list but I think it is sufficient to illustrate the point. The PDF of the graphic below can be found here. For those that cannot read so small, the bottom line is this: there are pluses and minuses to both paradigms. Under each strategy, the benefits of the one approach may outweigh the negatives of that approach, but be aware, these weights are changing and after a while the other strategy may become more desirable!

Polary table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third step in understanding the polarity is to look at whether there is a shift between these polarities. From my experience working in a dozen or so developing countries, development programmes are either designed to be sectoral or geographic, with very few programmes designed to do both. From a local perspective, institutions and programmes are designed and resourced to either be targeted at specific industries and sectors, or they have a locational focus. It is very hard for programmes and institutions to build a case that a strategic shift to the other paradigm may be needed, even if for only a part of the resources to be dedicated to the other approach. This typically happens when the negatives of a current path starts to outweigh the positives, and the benefits of the other approach increasingly looks appealing. The danger is that a compromise is reached, instead of a synergy being developed.

From a Local Economic Development perspective, growing the technical capability to pursue both strategies simultaneously is important. This does not imply that both are equally important at any given time, as both these approaches have different timescales, resource requirements, and objectives. For example, it would be unwise to leave a dominant sector to its own devices in order to focus on emerging enterprises. At the same time, focusing on the issues of a dominant sector might distract attention from purposefully promoting emergence, diversification and economic resilience. Yet, many programmes and organisations are forced to choose, often too early when not enough is understood about the dynamics of the place or the industries. For me the worst reason to choose an particular approach is because some or other decision maker has attended a training course or conference, or because a particular approach is deemed “best practice”. In fact, most of my time is spent trying to help leaders and decision makers get out of a mess because their programme or institutions was designed based on some ideology or “solution” without enough attention being given to the requirements, trajectories and complexity of the specific context.

For national governments and international development programmes there seems to be a continuous shift between these two. Almost like a flip-flopping from one to the other. I think that the shifts are counter productive, as the learning from the previous shifts are often lost. If I just think back over my 16 year career how often the value chain or sub sector approaches or alternatively cluster and Local Economic Development have become fashionable again and then losing its appeal after a short time.

My conclusion is that while there is a tension between these approaches, the shifting between the strategies are not taking place at an institutional or programmatic level. Decisions about these strategies are made at higher levels of government and development cooperation with little regard for the challenges faced at sub national level in developing countries to build and grow “the right” institutions that can ensure long term economic evolution and development.

At the implementation level, regional development programmes should do both:

  • Sectoral programmes that ignores the impact of their sector on the geographic areas they are working in are most likely creating negative externalities, even with the best intentions in mind and even when they achieve their objectives of inclusiveness, job creation or export promotion. The negative externalities could be about the environment (mono economy, mono culture), or about increasing the coordination cost of every economic activity not related to the priority sectors (institutional or locational lock-in to particular paths and trajectories). Sectoral programmes that ignore opportunities for regional nuances to develop in their targeted sectors miss important opportunities to enable diversification and emergence of unique regional capabilities.
  • Location development programmes that do not collaborate with other locations to build sufficient scale in particular sectors to justify investing in particular regionally significant institutions will forever remain trapped in low value add, or perpetual dependence on the priorities and mood shifts of national governments. While trying to help every kind of economic activity in a region, you have to at some point also start promoting specific industries and sectors in order to try and reach some leverage or scale.

But most importantly, the economic activity, available institutional capabilities and the regional context prescribes where to start. And when you have started down a chosen path, be sensitive to when it may be necessary to foster additional organisational or collaborate with other institutions with different more adequate capabilities to enable the benefits of the other strategy to be leveraged. A key challenge in developing countries is that we do not have a rich layer of supporting institutions pursuing different strategies. Everyone seem to be trying more or less the same approaches, or chasing the same politically set targets.

In our capacity building sessions in Mesopartner we always elaborate on the importance of value chains and sectors to Local Economic Development practitioners, and the importance of regional competence development for value chain and sector development specialists. Actually, the process of diagnosing industries and regions are very similiar, even if you would give slightly more attention to different issues and perspectives.

In the end, from a bottom up perspective, supporting specific industries allows for scale and focused public investment, but caution must be taken to not create path dependence or institutional lock in. At the same time, a regional approach is critical as it allows for emergence of new kinds of economic activity and for diversity to emerge. I think we need to development of synergies for both, but it depends on the context what your priority should be. Simply being aware that there are pluses and negatives to either strategy is already a good start! This makes it much easier to collaborate with other organisations and programmes that have different objectives and priorities.

Now I have some questions to my readers:

  1. What is your current approach in your programme or organisation? Sectoral or locational?
  2. Have you even been through a shift from the one to the other in your programme, or do you cater for both?
  3. How did making the shift work out? Did you have the networks, resources and expertise to make this shift?
  4. What would you do differently next time?
  5. Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or send me an email if I can paste your comments unanimously if you are afraid to upset somebody higher up the chain.

References:

JOHNSON, B. 1992.  Polarity management : identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

 

Starting the innovation system series

The next few posts will be focused on my work in the last 18 months. I have dedicated a large part of my work into diagnosing and improving innovation systems in South Africa.

My perspective is quite unique, as I did not conduct these studies to develop national policy, but rather to assist intermediary organizations to take steps to improve the innovation systems that we diagnosed. What further differentiates my view is that we start our diagnosis with the private sector, and then work our way back to universities, technology intermediaries and other public sector organizations.

When I went down this road I thought that I had parted with my previous work on local economic development (which has been ruined in South Africa due to petty politics and misguided local government interventions). Little did I know that my previous experience in mobilising local stakeholders, trying to access national public sector programmes, and begging for a more responsive national stakeholders would remain so relevant in this exercise.

Many people ask me why I switched into a topic like Innovation Systems. It sounds so IT’ish. Well, it is far from that. My concern is with finding ways to build manufacturing industries and their supporting sectors from the bottom up (can we panic about the de-industrialisation in Africa, please?). My obsession is to figure out what can be done to get whole parts of an economy to upgrade technologically, without industry expecting governments to pay for everything. So basically, I am trying stimulate reflection and adjustment in  the manufacturing sector which includes their public and private supporters in the system around them. Also important is to equip the stakeholders in the system to reflect on the patterns around them, and to understand how they can change their own behaviour and how to actively shape the supporting environment around them.

I will close by saying that diagnosing a system around an industry is never a once off exercise. This is perhaps why so many development interventions don’t set change processes in motion that is re-inforcing and ongoing. Our biggest challenge is not to convince industries that they have to change, but to assist them to frequently reflect on their patterns of behaviour (even after we have left). We have to help industries to develop new habits of interaction (that adds value and this makes business sense), we have to strengthen local institutions to assist with strengthening signals of change and improvement (so that firms know that if they stop trying to improve they will fall behind). In the end it does not help that we understand their system, but that they understand their own systems.

The best part is that I get to work with real entrepreneurs, real scientists, real social change agents, and often really committed public officials. Real change without logframes and impact chains. Unfortunately we often also have to achieve this change with small budgets.

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.

Local economic development as an evolutionary process

Modern evolutionary economics is about 20 years old now, and many research programmes continue to add to the content of the subject. I think that development practitioners have a lot to learn from this subject. When we work at the local level, with local stakeholders and local resources, we are often confronted by the failures of traditional economic models (for instance the obsession with supply and demand). For instance, traditional economics often focus on distribution or allocation of wealth, while in evolutionary economics the focus is more on wealth creation. Traditional economic models assume that you can use the data of the past to make reliable predictions about the future. Just this simple insight will already change many LED approaches that emphasize working with the youth and the marginalised (solving an allocation problem) towards understanding the systemic interaction of economic technologies, social technologies and physical technologies that co-evolve to create wealth.

To be more precise, an economy should be recognised as a complex adaptive system (Beinhocker, 2007; Ramalingham, Jones, Reba and Young, 2008). This means that the economy is a system of interacting agents that adapt to each other and their environment in a complex way. Complex adaptive systems are sub-systems of open systems. It recognises that change and advancement are forces within the system created by the agents, and that it takes energy to create and process information, and to create order.

Dosi and Nelson (1994) explains that “evolutionary” implies a class of theories that tries to explain the movement or change of something over time. It furthermore involves both random elements which generate or renew some variables, as well as mechanisms that systematically create variation. Central to these theories are the concepts of deductive and experimental learning and discovery.

Beinhocker explains a simple formula that is common to all evolutionary systems. Firstly, a system needs to create variety (for instance through many innovators trying new things), and then there must be some selection or fitness criteria (often this is provided by markets). Next there is a selection process, where the ‘best’ or rather most-suitable designs are selected, and thereafter these choices are amplified or repeated (also known as imitated).

So if you think of your local economy, then consider how certain businesses came about. The variety of businesses is a direct result of novelty or variety creation, and how they ‘fit’ to the criteria of local consumers,resulting in these business models being ‘chosen’. Every now and then, a business person with a new or different idea comes along, and this in many cases may even result in local consumers changing their fitness criteria. This describes a process where economic resources (as well as labour and technology) are continuously being allocated to those who are able to combine or create new ideas, new products, and new business models.

In the next few posts I will try to delve deeper into this topic, as I believe that it holds many important insights to why local economies grow in such an unpredictable and dynamic way, and why so few local governments or organised business in Southern Africa struggle to have any real positive and leveraged effect on local economies.

References and additional reading:

BEINHOCKER, E.D. 2007.  The origin of wealth. Evolution, complexity, and radical remaking of economics`. London: Random House.

DOSI, G. & NELSON, R.R. 1994.  An Introduction to Evolutionary Theories in Economics. Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Vol. 4(3).

NELSON, R.R. 1995.  Co-evolution of industry structure, technology and supporting Institutions, and the making of comparitive advantage. International Journal of the Economics of Busienss, Vol. 2(2) pp:171-184.

RAMALINGHAM, B., JONES, H., REBA, T. & YOUNG, J. 2008. Exploring the science of complexity. Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts.  Working Paper 285, London: Overseas Development Institute.

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