Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Unintented Consqueneces of Top-Down

It is popular to say that good development efforts - and market-based development efforts in particular - should be "bottom up" as opposed to "top down."

It is less common to articulate, with examples, why. A recent article about the current political crisis in Zimbabwe by Stephanie Nolen of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper provides a haunting one.

(For those unfamiliar with Stephanie - she is Canada's leading journalist on Africa and international development. Some-myself included-would say she is one of the world's best.)

The full article is well worth a read particularly if you are puzzled by the unexplicable ups, downs and delays of the resolution on Zimbabwe's Presidential election in May. But for those short of time, here is the quick synopsis:

> The International Criminal Court has been set up over the past few years, at great expense, to bring international war criminals and despots to justice.

> The threat of extradition and prosecution by the ICC creates even more incentive for despots to cling to power, since they cannot simply flee or buy their way to safety after losing their grip on power.

> Mugabe himself was ready to concede to the MDC in the days following the general election, but dozens of powerful henchmen in his inner circles - who have been responsible for committing crimes against Zimbabwe's citizens - fear so greatly about the ICC coming after them that they have not let Mugabe and ZANU-PF go down.

> The violence (most brutal in the past few days) is more than a party lashing out for political survival; it is a group of powerful, nasty and desperate people fearing for their lives.

What a twisted outcome. The notion that Western-led efforts to bring justice and safety to protect innocent citizens ends up backfiring by making it harder for perpetrators to let go.

This is a powerful lesson for us trying to make the world a better place: oftentimes the pursuit of what we believe to be "better" ends up making things much worse. It shows that it is particularly dangerous to apply Western-style ideas (in this case about justice; but I think the same is sometimes true of health care, communications, financial services, social progress, etc.) to developing country-contexts in an effort to help without a full understanding of ground-level realities and/or an unwillingness to compromise Western values, which we think should be universal.

I've long thought that "goodwill makes sustainability harder." It needs to be isolated and eventually weaned out of market-based development efforts in order for them to succeed in the long run. But this article makes me think goodwill is even worse; not just leading to unsustainable outcomes but to unintended consequences that make a situation even worse.

If only those worse consequences were unsustainble.