Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Top-down versus bottom-up development: where does evidence fit in?


I recently enjoyed reading this speech by Owen Barder in which he describes his gradual transition from a belief in ‘top-down’-/’pre-fab solutions’-based development to a model based on ‘bottom-up’ struggles to find appropriate solutions to problems.

The importance of the process of finding a solution was really hammered home to me when I did a diploma in management studies a few years back. My favourite module was ‘Organisational Development’ – or OD for short, which turns out to be an entire academic discipline (complete with textbooks, experts and internal factions – who knew?) concerned with how organisations can struggle, innovate and adapt to deal with their own problems and how managers can help to facilitate this process. The philosophy of OD is in sharp contrast to the dictatorial view some have of management where those at the top diagnose problems and forcibly implement solutions. In OD, the aim is to have a ‘healthy organisation’, meaning an organisation with the innate capacity to recognise and respond appropriately to problems.

I loved reading about this stuff. In part it appealed because it chimed with my academic background as an immunologist; immunology – the study of how the body combats dangerous assaults – is all about complex adaptive systems (I wrote about this here in what was probably my most nerdy – and least read 😉 – blog post ever).

But OD also seemed remarkably analogous to discussions about international development. Owen Barder is not alone in pointing out the dichotomy between top-down and bottom-up approaches. It is one of the central themes of development – see table below.

‘Bottom up’ ‘Top down’
What Owen Barder describes as struggle and adaptation (also related to his writings on complexity)… …versus what he calls transplanting best practice
What Ben Ramalingam calls a ‘complex adaptive systems’ approach… …versus what he refers to as a ‘conveyer belt’ approach
Those who William Easterly in ‘White Man’s Burden’ refers to as ‘seekers’ and the ‘spontaneous solutions’ he refers to in ‘The Tyranny of Experts’… …versus those he calls ‘planners’ and their ‘conscious designs’
What Duncan Green calls a ‘complex/systems’ approach… …versus what he sees as the reality of how aid agencies currently work
The (fabulous!) work carried out within DFID by Pete Vowles and Tom Wingfield aiming to make DFID more ‘adaptive’… …versus how everybody fears (with some justification!) that DFID currently manages programmes
Outcome mapping… … versus logframes
The Lego you played with as a kid… …versus a Deluxe Lego Starwars Millennium Falcon play set

Created with the HTML Table Generator

But the question is, where does the concept of evidence-informed policy making (eipm) fit into that table? I suspect that much of the backlash against eipm comes because people associate it with the right-hand column. There is a fear that eipm is synonymous with researchers, mainly from the north, coming up with solutions to problems and then expecting decision makers in the south to accept these even when they are inappropriate to local context. Now I am one of the biggest fans of eipm you could probably find (I mean, look at my surname?!). But I completely distance myself from that definition of eipm. It is for that reason that I am slightly wary of some efforts by researchers to achieve ‘impact’ and ‘policy influence’ with their research findings. It seems that the aim of making sure your research is taken up can be rather too close to the top-down, solutions-based approach.

For me, eipm is not about pushing out more and more research-based solutions. It is about supporting the appropriate decision-makers to consider the appropriate evidence as they are struggling to come up with solutions which are appropriate for them.

In other words, I place myself, and my concept of eipm, firmly on the left-hand column. I recognise the need for struggles, learning, adaptation as local people deal with local problems. I would simply argue that one of the sources of information which can be immensely useful in informing this process is research evidence.

Edit: After I published this a couple of people of twitter pointed out, quite correctly, that the top-down vs bottom-up model is a bit of a false dichotomy. It is a good point. In both management and development projects there is a place for a leader to introduce a new vision/process/way of working and then to work to get colleagues ‘on board’ with it. Rather than strictly saying development needs to be in the left-hand column, it would have been better to suggest that there is a spectrum of approaches and that after many years of being too far on the right, it is time that we move a bit more towards the left-hand side. Thanks as always for the critical comments!


9 thoughts on “Top-down versus bottom-up development: where does evidence fit in?

  1. Reblogged this on P R S and commented:
    As a student of Development Studies, something I find provocative to think about.

  2. It’s an interesting question, Kirsty. But whether evidence and research communication is on one side or the other really depends. It depends on the research (Collier vs. Chambers, for example) and it depends on how you communicate. You’re saying as much, but seem to overlook a more bottom-up way of doing research communication. Sure, you can take research to policy makers, but you can also take it to the civil society organizations that are working to strengthen citizen participation in key policies. They do that well at the Institute of Development Studies where I used to work.
    So in other words, the divisions in international development policy, for me, are reflected in the research and research communication community. And research communicators can help to fight the good fight – or can be part of the problem.

  3. Thanks Kirsty and good to see a new post though I note the absence of suitably bright illustration.

    I think you are right with your edit that development is probably a spectrum. However, I would go as far as to say that evidence fits into both columns or can play a role along most of the spectrum. Evidence can be used to inform a top down approach where that is what’s needed. For instance in the example you use of a leader needing to introduce a new vision or process, the choice of process can be informed by evidence. Likewise, in a bottom up approach, the key is to be able to adapt to emerging evidence (in the broadest sense) and change your approach based on the range of information available to you.

    Specifically around EIPM, research can only be one factor but it must add value to the decision making process. In that sense adaptability is partly about knowing what weight to place on research evidence at any point in the decision making process. That comes from knowing what the research says, being able to see any applicability to your own context and knowing what questions remain unanswered or are provoked by the research.

  4. Top down vs bottom up is something a younger version of myself went on Question Time to wax lyrical about on the subject of African orphanages…..

    Since then I’ve modified my stance a bit. Some of this came from observing “bottom-up” projects at work and some of the challenges they came across. Note this was in IT, not in development so may not be relevant.

    However, one example was a project I was once working on to record the results of tech support calls, so the solution to a problem could be recorded and used again if it came up again. The same problem came up again and again across several teams, that of “authorization” of the appropriate method. It wasn’t someone’s full time job to do so errors could propogate through the system if the authorization wasn’t followed, or if records couldn’t be published without the authorization, then a bottleneck and thus a backlog developed.

    “Top down” solving of the same type of project lead to more “official” solutions being provided from the get go, but not as frequently, not as efficiently, and when top-down focus was removed as it always was, the project atrophied.

    So I’ve always wondered how you could combine the two to get the benefits of both. I’m still wondering…..

  5. Pingback: Interesting links: First half of 2014 (1) – Climate change, water and evidence | 50shadesofevidence

  6. Inmy point of view, research communicators can help to fight the good fight.

  7. Hi Kirsty,
    Another thing to think about- who is coming up with the research questions/topics?
    I don’t know- but strongly suspect that the answer is a) funders from the developed world or b) academics from the developed world.
    Isn’t that pretty top-down?

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