Myth of bottom-up model and top-down approach’s failings

Bottom-up model proponent DP William Ruto. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Development from below, bottom-up development, bottom of the pyramid approach, grassroots development - these are some of the phrases planners coined decades ago to support an alternative development model for poor countries.

These have especially gained currency in Kenya as we build-up to the 2022 elections. Implicit in the phrases are assumptions about what is wrong with the dominant development paradigm, popularly called the “top-down/trickle-down” approach.

The top-down model has failed, critics opine, because the institutions created to foster development from the top have become the greatest hindrance to development. The primary target in this criticism is the state, but others are blamed too. For example, market institutions, are criticised for taking advantage of various types of state protection which make them capital intensive and inefficient.

To initiate broad-based development, the alternative paradigm suggests a different arrangement of actors, issues, values and modes of action. In contrast to the top-down model’s central objective of industrialisation and economic growth, the bottom-up model advocates rural development and distributional issues. Instead of the State-administered, large-scale infrastructure projects that are central to the employment-generation strategy of the top-down model, it advocates small-scale, bottom-up projects that should directly involve the urban and rural poor in income-generating schemes.

The bottom-up approach is touted to have political dividends too. The income-generating projects are expected to lead to empowerment of the poor by making them self-reliant. Also, these projects are said to organise the poor into small solidarity groups to help them break from the traditionally exploitative relationships with middlemen, local money lenders and landlords.

NGOs are a key plank of development from below narrative. Proponents argue that NGOs are particularly appropriate agents for fostering development from below because their organisational priorities and procedures are diametrically opposite those of institutions at the top. Unlike state and market institutions which are driven by the need for social control and profit, NGOs are interested primarily in building resilient communities.

NGOs have been implementing bottom-up projects for the longest time in Asia, Africa and Latin America. How effective have they been? Do they, indeed, generate income and employment at the bottom? Do they empower the poor?

Although the bottom-up approach is distinctly anti-state in orientation and is based on the premise that as agents of development from below, NGOs should avoid working with the state and other dominant institutions at the top, in reality the experience of relatively successful NGOs indicates they work closely with government and market institutions. This observation suggests a reconsideration of development strategy from its preoccupation with either “trickle-down” or “bottom-up” development.

Development requires a synergy between efforts made at the top and the bottom. [Courtesy]

It indicates that just as development does not trickle from top-down, it does not effervesce from the bottom. Action in any one domain, however well-intentioned, is not adequate for broad-based development.

Development requires a synergy between efforts made at the top and the bottom, a collaborative effort among the government, market institutions and NGOs which utilises the comparative advantage of each institution and minimises their disadvantages.

If indeed these three institutions have distinctly different strengths which are complimentary and can create a synergistic effect, why do they not cooperate more often? To understand this, we need to analyse what motivates state, market and NGOs to sometimes cooperate and, at other times oppose one another.

This requires more insights than the popular understanding that the state is interested in coercion, the market is driven by profit motives and NGOs are motivated by community needs. 

The key task facing leaders who care to transcend the top-down/bottom-up dichotomy is to better understand how institutional interests of the state, market and civil society change and under what condition these varying interests may coincide, creating a synergy of development efforts.

Dr Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University