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Poverty alleviation: Top-down or bottom-up?

This article is a follow-up to a previous one and is a take on debates in the approach to poverty alleviation. As mentioned in the article, the culture of poverty I have experienced in my work persuades me to support Gawad Kalinga’s top-down approach in running its communities (the current emphasis on social entrepreneurship, however, merits a separate discussion). Those government and NGO efforts known to me have so far tried to be bottom-up and ‘participatory,’ engaging the poor as ‘partners’ in development. I fully agree with the premise of a bottom-up approach – the importance of listening to the voices of those who are systematically excluded, of respecting their values, and arriving at courses of action as interpreted by the poor themselves.

My concerns stem from experiences that indicate how i) community-based programs are never completely participatory. The poor are seen as partners in theory, but not in reality. Control over programs resides in institutions implementing the program, regardless of how much leverage is given to communities in making decisions. In many instances, once a project has been concluded, the community is left on its own, albeit with, for instance, slightly better infrastructure. But the culture of poverty remains.

Further, the very act of implementing something or wanting to intervene in particular ways are already in themselves reflections of the ideologies of actors, whether these are social entrepreneurs, private corporations, or government and non-government organizations, many of whom are not part of the poor community that they intend to help. Yes, the messianic complex also exists, even in bottom-up interventions, which are not so different from top-down ones, after all.  Both approaches require a great deal of reflexivity.

In the article, I mentioned as well that what usually happens in interventions that supposedly prioritize the voices of the marginalized is that ii) the poor are enabled, but only to make their voices louder, to make further assertions in terms of what the government should do for them, to demand accountability, but not to uproot structures of inequality. In the drive to be politically correct and to use uplifting discourses, these programs do little to even allow the poor to see how their actions reproduce the cycle of poverty. In fact, recent evaluation studies of programs that aim to break patron-client relationships have admitted to the need of these programs to work within the system so as not to antagonize local governments or the elites. In such cases, would descriptions of the poor really matter, when poverty discourses are in fact shaped by elite institutions, and very rarely are the opinions of the poor included?

It would also be worth considering that the poor are not homogenous. There are the “elite poor,” the more vocal ones in the neighborhood, usually the community leaders, and their presence brings about another layer of dependency.

While I am not discounting bottom-up approaches, these can perhaps make a dent in the structure, or at the very least, contribute to a shift in mindsets, if the above concerns are addressed moving forward. In denying that a culture of poverty exists or in saying that we should just respect the values of the poor (acquired through years of structural deprivation – as I say in the article) and not impose our own middle or upper class ones, we might be inadvertently supporting structures too. If these values are cogs that enable the cycle of poverty to continue, then shouldn’t they need to be changed? Perhaps only then will structures change as well.

We have yet to see whether or not top-down approaches also have the capacity to change structure. In GK communities, what is particularly of note is the discipline and accountability required of beneficiaries. There is indeed an imposition of middle class values – something its proponents have NEVER denied – but there is also the effort to make the poor see the value in taking action to better their condition. And yes, this is extremely difficult for them given a system that just does not want them to move up. So far, evaluations of GK areas have shown positive impacts in terms of livelihood, basic education, and family relations. But regardless of the approach, only time will tell if the middle and upper classes, the ones at the helm of these interventions, are willing enough to pave the way for greater equality. Otherwise, even bottom-up approaches will remain impositions of middle class ideologies, masked in the language of participation and partnership.

Featured image taken from this site.

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