Why the Bottom-Up Aid Model Is the Most Successful

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The White Man's Burden" by William Easterly. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does the bottom-up aid model work better than the top-down model when it comes to international aid? In what ways is the bottom-up aid model more effective?

American economist and professor William Easterly explores the top-down and bottom-up international aid models in his book The White Man’s Burden. He comes to the conclusion that the bottom-up aid model is much more effective than the top-down model because it empowers locals and doesn’t treat them like needy children.

Continue reading to learn more about the benefits of bottom-up humanitarian aid.

The Bottom-Up Aid Model

Easterly advocates a more bottom-up approach to international aid. For the Western aid community, this means searching for and identifying what problems can be solved (or at least mitigated) by talking with actual people living in poverty—before assuming they know what really ails the global poor.

The key, Easterly writes, is not having a premade plan. Taking the bottom-up approach means figuring out new strategies through trial and error, identifying piecemeal solutions, and abandoning visionary, utopian plans.

This is crucial, because the most pressing problems facing the global poor are basic and need material solutions—lack of food, lack of clean drinking water, lack of good roads, lack of access to medicine. Aid agencies need to work with local partners to tackle these problems first.

The bottom-up aid model empowers local actors to devise solutions to problems in their communities; emphasizes partnerships with leaders on the ground; and takes resource limitations into account to focus more narrowly on immediate, tangible, and solvable problems. Because it is more restricted in scope, it is more likely than the top-down model to yield real, measurable results—which are crucial for holding aid programs accountable.

Perhaps most importantly, Easterly writes, the bottom-up aid model does not infantilize the global poor or treat them like children with their hands out in need of “saving” from the West. What the West has that poor countries don’t is money—therefore, it would be far more effective for aid organizations to simply cut the checks and let local actors who know the community, history, culture, and resource limitations work out the specifics and design the programs.

Blending Top-Down and Bottom-Up

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande likewise stresses the value of simple, measurable, and actionable solutions in a broad range of contexts and industries. He shares an anecdote of how a U.S. public health worker in Pakistan came up with a way to reduce deaths, infections, and diseases among children in poor areas of Pakistan—simply by providing people in select impoverished communities with free hand soap, as well as basic instructions on handwashing techniques. It was a purely bottom-up solution devised by a single person on the ground and was not overseen or directed by a central agency. Nevertheless, the soap proved to be a behavior-change vehicle. As people began using it, the incidence of diarrhea among children fell 52% while pneumonia  and bacterial skin infections fell 48% and 35% respectively.

Other writers have championed the merits of a bottom-up approach and warned of the perils of top-down organization. In Getting Things Done, David Allen writes that a top-down approach often leads to three problems

1. You can easily get too distracted by urgent demands to even stop and think about your big-picture goals. 
2. You may be so overwhelmed by your day-to-day demands that the thought of incorporating big-picture goals is daunting and stressful. 
3. Your big-picture goals and values are likely to raise more tasks and to-dos, which adds to your overloaded schedule instead of clarifying and culling it.

In Measure What Matters, John Doerr defines a top-down approach as one in which directives start with the CEO and cascade down through the ranks to the junior employees. In the bottom-up approach, by contrast, junior employees working on the front lines (the people who have the most access to customers) identify pressing needs and relay them up the chain of command to the leadership. Doerr argues that the most effective organizations blend both approaches, with half an employee’s objectives coming from the top and half set by the employee herself. He writes that employees should set most of their key results themselves, because people who choose their own goals take more responsibility for reaching them.

Bottom-Up Entrepreneurship

Easterly argues that entrepreneurship and free enterprise at the micro level are often the best pathways to bottom-up solutions. And he notes that there are success stories of bottom-up capitalism—small, locally based systems of voluntary exchange that emerge organically and are not imposed by some external force.

When given the opportunity, he writes, local entrepreneurs will find efficient, low-cost ways to manufacture and sell new goods to buyers in poor countries. It’s not centrally directed, and progress is often slow, but it is a sustainable model of economic growth.

Easterly writes that individuals everywhere are dynamic and entrepreneurial. Small, local successes can build and ultimately lead to a more sustainable market culture. 

SGBs and the Value Chain

Although Easterly believes that local microenterprises and sole proprietors are the most important elements in sparking a capitalistic culture in developing countries, the World Bank makes a different argument. They write that the most impactful economic expansion comes from “small” and growing businesses (SGBs) that have up to 250 employees. They argue that enterprises of this size have much greater growth potential (and can therefore potentially employ many more people) than microenterprises, which generally have fewer than 10 employees. 

According to the World Bank, SGBs in developing countries tend to be in the primary sector of the economy—that is, industries based upon the extraction and production of raw materials, such as logging, mining, farming, ranching, and fishing. SGBs play a special role because they forge economic links between different parts of the primary economy and create a value chain that connects farmers, traders, refiners, wholesalers, retailers, and customers—with the input from each link in the chain creating more value.
Why the Bottom-Up Aid Model Is the Most Successful

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Here's what you'll find in our full The White Man's Burden summary :

  • How the global humanitarian aid system is fundamentally flawed
  • Why bottom-up aid models work much better than top-down models
  • Why the West can't change bad governments

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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