Top down help or bottom up development

It’s a common theme and a source of debate with big consequences to the giver and receiver of aid.

Top down help typifies the big rescue efforts. Feed people now. Provide medical aid now. Build homes now. Generally this seems to be externally directed and funded. It may also be staffed externally. It’s quick, addresses immediate needs and works for a period of time.  It may be one of the few solutions that work in dire circumstances.

But those in the bottom-up development circles highlight the issues with top-down help. At the core it is not sustainable as those in need will continue to rely on this outside assistance and never develop their own ability to help themselves. Those providing aid find themselves tied to providing an ongoing line of support with no favorable exit strategy available.

Development proponents, an approach which Canadians are good at, endeavor to help those in need help themselves. Development can be many things but it seems to be big on knowledge exchange both in skills and methods, collaborative projects that are destined for local ownership and fostering self governance.

These are longer term initiatives needing patience to wait for a series of small successes to lead to something significant. There’s a foundation of inclusion, respect and collaboration in this work that attempts to bridge  diverse needs, motives and cultures. It’s not a quick fix and success or failure may not be apparent for many years. It doesn’t fit the political or business climate of today that expects immediate returns delivered against a centrally administered strategy.

I guess that’s why development type folks can spend a lifetime focused on a single issue or area. That’s also why operational excellence in disaster relief also works. It’s fast, efficient, in-and-out with methods that are focused on fixing. Both are needed and a hand-off between them is a critical inflection point.

As I explore my work as a strategic volunteer, I need to understand my skills and temperament to determine whether I am more of a coach or a commander.


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