To do good or to feel good – the case for evidence- rather than intention-based development

Guest blog by Laurenz Langer

Bottom-up development projects, as their counterparts of top-down development policies, are subject to serious limitations. Albeit, criticising bottom-up approaches to development is close to sacrilege in an industry focused on doing good. How could one reason against local-led initiatives, greater power and voice for people living in poverty, and a focus on social rather than economic growth? Whereas top-down approaches to development receive an adequate (or fashionable?) level of scrutiny in the domain, leading to a thorough review of policies and programmes, bottom-up attempts to incite social change seem to be largely exempt from such examination.

Two recent papers (here and here) suggest that this might have something to do with the ‘warm glow’ and ‘feel good’ factor of such bottom-up interventions. Development policymakers and practitioners might be more incentivised to being seen as addressing social challenges rather than providing evidence of effective social change. There is public pressure to spend funds on social programmes, but less so to provide evidence of the impact of these programmes once they are implemented. This leads to the application of feel good development programmes, which following the dominant narrative in the domain (and thus reducing chances of stirring controversy) usually translate in supporting bottom-up projects and initiatives.

I recently re-read Martha Nussbaum’s seminal Creating Capabilities that I had last encountered four years ago as part of my undergraduate Development Studies degree. I assume it is safe to say that the Human Development Approach has manifested as part of the dominant narrative in International Development. Yet, after having read the opening chapter in which she describes the case of Vasanti – an Indian woman being empowered through the help of a microfinance NGO, I was left a bit puzzled. The chapter is openly critical of growth-focused top-down approaches to development advocating a stronger focus on human capabilities; but then it makes the central claim that ‘a decent public policy can influence all aspects of her [Vasanti’s] experience’ and ‘ascribes an urgent task to government and public policy to improve the quality of life for all people, as defined by their capabilities.’

While I absolutely agree with this call, I struggle to understand how government would generate sufficient funds to fulfill this crucial task if not through the pursuit of economic growth (and the subsequent mechanisms of taxation, investment, etc). Further, Vasanti’s story has all the factors of the ‘warm glow’ and ‘feeling good’. It is the ideal narrative of empowerment and bottom-up development. Alas, we now know that the experience of microfinance for women like Vasnati is as likely to do them harm as it is to help them mitigate the effects of poverty (see here and here). Microfinance, as the NGO sector, as community development projects, is but one example in a long list of failed magic bullet interventions in International Development; and while the failure of top-down policies in development (eg Structural Adjustment Programmes, rapid trade liberalization; Millennium Development Villages) has been well established in the domain, the failure of microfinance and community development interventions has not been taken up into the dominant narrative.

I argue here that this has much to with a mistaken perception of political correctness informed by the warm glow and feel good aspect of such interventions. They tick all the boxes of how we would ideally wish development to take place. Yet, if we care about actually doing good we need to look at development outcomes even if this requires a more pragmatic and realist lens.

Development success on a large scale from Europe and the US’s industrialisation, Communist Russia’s growth, the East Asian Miracle, to China’s recent performance have all been driven by a top-down pursuit of economic growth. Further, if we advocate for more power and agency for poor people, we also need to acknowledge that this power and agency often leads to harmful decision-making, which can increase poverty and inequality. In common with everybody, poor people arrive at wrong decisions (eg not to use vaccines, or not to invest in education) and that is exactly what public policies are designed for – they present state incentives and nudges for citizens to behave in more socially and economic effective manners.

Due to this active objective to encourage behaviour change, top-down public policies are rightfully receiving a fair degree of skepticism and since need to justify their effectiveness. In short, they need to do good. For example, when the City of Cape Town implemented a large-scale water conversation programme aiming at household behaviour change researchers and NGOs have rapidly (and rightfully) criticised central components of the programme that led to disempowerment of poorer households. However, the same NGOs that run information campaigns in the very same communities encouraging to change water usage patterns have rarely been challenged to review the impact of their activities.

Bottom-up development programmes lack this level of scrutiny. I would argue that this is dangerous because they have as far-reaching objectives to incite behaviour change. They call for a change in social norms (eg gender empowerment), production methods (eg farmer field schools), and social structures (eg community development). While I personally agree with all these causes, interventions aiming to have such a drastic impact – no matter how well intended – need to be subject to the same inherent skepticism and public scrutiny as top-down development policies. We should not be blinded by their warm glow and rigorously question whether they actually do – as opposed to feel – good. The intrinsic assumption that bottom-up programmes are morally superior and more effective and relevant for people living in poverty than top-down policies and interventions is empirically and normatively mistaken. Both approaches are equally valid and needed for effective development outcomes to manifest.