Top Down: Bottom Up

Top Down Development

Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.

The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.

The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom.  In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.

Top down development is also characterised by:

  • delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
  • fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
  • disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
  • piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
  • attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
Top Down Development is really the only way to manage large infrastructure development projects.  It is a characteristic of electoral democracies where we vote in a small group to develop our strategies. It is also a characteristic of feudal and despotic states.

Bottom Up Development

Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.

Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests.  In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens.  But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.

Bottom up development is characterised by:

  • Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
  • Individuals looking for  the resources that they need to make progress
  • Individuals pondering their options
  • Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
Bottom up is the only way to really get large numbers of people engaged in their own development and developing agency in their own lives and communities. Bottom up is about life in a participative democracy.

Bottom Up AND Top Down

Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society.  Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively.  Nearly all development work is done in a top down way.  It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens.  If we are to encourage civic enterprise.

2 Replies to “Top Down: Bottom Up”

  1. Hi Mike,
    What you write is very congruent with people-centered economic development which began in a practical sense by taking a bottom up approach to Russia in the wake of their 1998 economic crisis and after 20 billion dollars had been invested top down and disappeared.

    The 1996 paper which conceived the purpose driven business ended:

    ‘Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.’

    As you may read in the ‘Marshall Plan’ proposal for Ukraine:

    ‘This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for “people-centered” economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine’s poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a “top-down” approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first — not secondarily, along the way or by the way.’

  2. well researched. also to note is that top bottom approach touches on mordenisation of less developed countries by the western countries. all development is standardised by the developed countries. top bottom also brought new technology, formal education, improved health systems. cultural hybridization also was brought by this approach. agricultural equipment improved the traditional way of farming by the less developed countries.
    bottom top incorporates the interests of the local people. actor oriented approach by Norman Long suggests that local people should be involved in the development in their area. for example, the Chipato people who were hunters and gatherers , schools and toilets were built in their area without them being involved in decision making. they abandoned the schools and converted the toilets into graneries.

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