Waylaid Dialectic

January 4, 2015

The problem with bottom up approaches to development

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 3:16 pm
Tags: ,

Duncan Green has an enthusiastic blog post on an interesting sounding book in which bottom-up approaches to development are promoted over conventional aid. Duncan writes:

 It covers a series of themes, with a set of practical recommendations on each:

Identifying and supporting local capacity
Listening to local voices to develop responses and approaches
Using funding mechanisms that enable rather than distort local entities
Supporting local actors to work together to achieve greater impact

It then distils these into a set of ‘good practice principles’ and key recommendations which are worth reproducing in full:

Good Practice Principles:

1. Listening: design and adjust according to locally-felt concerns and shifts in the local context; listen to and act upon information and feedback received.

2. Harnessing and deploying latent capabilities: before identifying gaps and needs, look at what already exists in terms of local resources and capabilities, and how they can be supported.

3. Providing support in a timely and responsive way: use small-grant mechanisms to respond to opportunities as they arise and to react to particular events; provide capacity support that is driven by local realities and priorities.

4. Promoting participation: in all stages (research, planning, implementation, monitoring), facilitate participation that empowers local actors to influence and drive processes of change in their societies. Participation can also promote accountability.

5. Recognising that change is a process: rather than leading, facilitate progressive, cumulative change over time; be open to testing, learning and developing through long-term engagement and repeated cycles of action.
Don’t ignore the small fish

6. Broadening the definition of success: balance the prioritisation of results to include both tangible and less tangible aims (such as changes in attitudes and behaviours).

Key Recommendations:

1. Move away from big aid to small, targeted and strategic funding. An approach of this kind could range from core funding (to help an organisation develop on its own terms) to activity-based allocations (to help local actors respond to specific opportunities or changes in their environment).

2. Nurture more beneficent and flexible bureaucratic environments. This could be as simple as ensuring that grant managers are available to talk to grantees over the phone as an informal feedback and monitoring approach.

3. Create space for ideas and new approaches to be tested and developed. This is connected to: having faith in the ideas of local partners; creating space for local actors to shape the design of programmes; and conceding that change is a cumulative process where learning through mistakes is as important as achieving successes.

4. Develop shared approaches for measuring ‘intangible’ aims and outcomes.

5. Develop staff performance metrics that encourage locally led practice.

6. Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies.

You don’t have to convince me that too little attention is paid to context in aid work. Or that too much aid is about what we have/want to give/think is needed. And there is *definitely* a case for a more participatory approach to aid. However, the advice Duncan conveys from the book sounds too simple by a half.

1. Most of the recommendations are relevant only to a very particular subset of aid: small NGO projects. Much of  the suggested improvements wouldn’t make sense if you were, for example, trying to aid a country in improving its state run health system. And, in the long run, in areas like education and health, the big improvements in people’s lives will come through functioning state run systems.

2. The sort of bottom up approach described needs A. Lot. Of. Staff. I’m ok with this. But seeing as everyone else in the world of aid, from politicians, to NGO marketing arms, to the donating public, doesn’t seem to be, this might be something of an issue.

3. While the external is often deeply misguided and not without its own mixed motivations, the bottom up approach suggested seems to idealise the local, as if there weren’t power dynamics, mixed motives, and the risk of unintended consequences there too.

4. Statements such as “Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies” suggest a naïveté to the politics of our own aid giving. Trust me, aid agency staff don’t work the way they do because they are very naughty. Rather there is a set of structures and incentives that shapes the way aid is given. And none of this is easily removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I think aid work needs to be a lot more context oriented, and learning about context — obviously — requires letting local actors speak (while not being blind to the fact that some, particularly the powerful, will have their own agenda). But the book — as it is summarised by Duncan — makes it sound like this is all about doing nothing more than waving the participatory development wand, which isn’t the case.

[Update: typos, or at least some of them, alongside clunky writing, tidied — sorry.]

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on blog.weitzenegger.de.

    Comment by Karsten Weitzenegger — January 5, 2015 @ 8:11 pm


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