Bottom-up and Top-down approaches to development

By Kipaya Kapiga

Traffic is a big problem in Bangalore. Although all four of us have had enough time to adjust it, it’s still a daily wonder that we don’t see any car or auto crashes on our way to work. All throughout the city, one can find large cautionary signs urging drivers to adhere to the lane system and exercise good driving etiquette. Some of them are actually a little humorous, like the one that proclaims something to the effect of: “ants can follow the lane system, so can we”. Some are much more serious. In movie theatres for instance, short video clips of serious car, auto and motorcycle accidents are shown sometimes during the intermission or during the previews along with an advisory message to pay more attention on the road.  A lot of the things I’ve seen and a lot of the people and organizations I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in Bangalore and Mysore have forced me to reassess much of what I had thought I knew about development. In the face of Bangalore’s severe income disparities, it’s hard for me not to see many of my classroom debates on the topic of development as petty squabbles over concepts and theories that are far removed from the day to day reality many Indians, indeed many people across the developed world, live in. It’s surprising to me that I most sense this tension when I take my bus or an auto to work in the morning.

Bangalore Traffic (Picture courtesy of the Hindu online)

A lot of development thinking focuses on understanding the macro picture and getting an overall sense for the health and viability of an economy. Consequently, many of the questions that come arise from debates are framed as public policy issues and questions are then raised as to what kind of policy the public sector should implement. In the case of Bangalore’s traffic, the problem of implementation is quite visible.

William Easterly, a noted figure in the development discourse and famous author of White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, wrote about a similar issue in a paper on institutional economics. He discusses at length two historical approaches to institutional development: top-down and bottom-up and applies them to the ongoing problem of land-ownership in Africa. Proponents of top-down approaches argue that institutions are determined by laws written by political leaders. Conversely, proponents of bottom-up approaches argue that in fact institutions arise from the social norms, customs, traditions and values of individuals and that written laws only serve to formalize what has already been shaped by individuals. In the case of land ownership in Africa, Easterly offers a biting criticism of top-down approaches to land reform. The goal of these approaches is noble as scholars have argued for decades that uncertainty over land titles is a major obstacle to development. However, when it comes to implementation, the top down approaches these scholars and policy-makers have favored have failed to produce much.

Land reform in African and traffic laws in Bangalore are two very different issues, but they shed light on the same issue: institutions and laws cannot work unless they fit the cultural and social context in which they are being implemented. In Africa, customary rights to land are intricately tied to cultural and geographical issues. In some parts of the continent, these rights can take the form of complex “bundles” to borrow Easterly’s phrase, in which ownership is transferred to different parties at different points in the harvest cycle. In the case of Bangalore’s traffic, the laws and regulations are in place. In order to get a license, one has to pass a road test and demonstrate a good understanding of the rules of the road and police are often stationed at busy intersections to direct traffic at high points during the day. In spite of these rules and the government support they receive, most people seem to learn and practice safe road rules in preparation for their license examination. Once the license is in hand, it’s the law of land. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a cultural issue and although some Bangalorians are quick to attribute it the problem to poor road education for children, it’s just as hard to imagine training the younger generations will change things since they will still grow up in a society where those traffic rules aren’t followed.

In these cases, top down approaches have only worked to add confusion. In this sense, I’m finding it harder and harder to imagine that one can be a good economist or a good development practitioner unless one can get a real grasp on the sociological and cultural forces that shape institutions in developing countries.

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One Response to Bottom-up and Top-down approaches to development

  1. Chris says:

    Very insightful, Kipaya!

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