Posted August 30th 2010 at 2:55 pm by
in Colombia Political Economy

How to Reconcile National Economic Strategies with Bottom-Up Development Initiatives

The B.R.T. (bus rapid transit) system in Bogotá beats car traffic.  This photo by Scott Dalton for the New York Times originally appeared in the slide show Bogotá’s New Transit System.

Throughout my first year in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT, I battled with what many thought was a false dichotomy that I had artificially constructed in my head. I was struggling to identify whether micro or macro development strategies were more effective in terms of their impact on human welfare, which for me, quickly became synonymous with the distinction between planning and economics approaches to development.

This is how I distinguish between micro and macro development initiatives:

Micro: All projects and policies that are space-constrained, urban, local, and naturally tied to planning approaches to development. This includes urban transportation, public space, community empowerment, and other bottom-up initiatives.

Macro: All projects that are centrally planned, unconstrained by space, aimed at impacting the national policy framework and generally tied to economics approaches to development.


Before graduate school I worked on bottom-up electrification strategies in Nicaragua which involved direct participation from beneficiary communities (planning approach).  After one year in planning school, I chose to go to Colombia and get involved in macro policy issues (economic approach) to learn more about economic policy’s potential to have a large-scale impact on development.

Interestingly, it was not directly through my work on employment generation and economic policy where I found the answers, but rather through observations on a long walk I took during my last week in Bogotá.

Here is how it happened: I had just gotten out of a meeting at the Department of National Statistics where I was collecting data to support my study, and had spent thirty minutes trying to flag down a taxi to get home. It was still light out, so I gave up on the taxi and started walking towards the Andes, the rough direction of my apartment.  My plan was to cross through the campus of the Universidad Nacional to catch a ride home on the TransMilenio, an internationally-lauded BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system imitated off of the Curitiba model in Brazil. After nearly three months in Bogotá, a city of nine-million people, my first steps onto the farm-like campus quickly reminded me of how long it had been since I last heard birds chirping, could smell the trees, or sit in silence with my own thoughts rather than in a traffic jam full of car horns, pollution, and white noise. I felt a bit embarrassed that I had not recognized earlier why public space (and its associated effect on the psyche, environment, crime reduction and a number of other public goods) was such a planning priority and prerequisite for a high standard of living.

I originally went into international development to work on poverty alleviation, but the projects I saw left me disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of small-scale initiatives, catalyzing my subsequent shift toward macro policy. It was clear to me while sitting on that campus, however, that certain urban and micro development approaches should indeed be policy priorities in the development budget, and I started to reconsider my stubborn commitment to economic strategies. When I finally boarded the TransMilenio, and got to take part in Bogotá’s prized urban planning story, I was further reaffirmed of the need for micro and urban policies, such as transportation, as long as they actually worked.

While referred to as a success story, the transportation system is often called Transmi-“lleno” by locals –  a play on words which refers to the overly-full capacity of the bus system and the associated unpleasantness. Stuffed like sardines, I started to ask myself what I would do if I were in charge of a Colombian budget that was supposed to address multiple development challenges at the same time: displacement, violence, public space, transportation, job creation, economic growth, and more. It seemed to me that the scale and approach of a strategy had to be tailored to the specific development goal, where some goals warranted larger scale interventions than others. But who decides which strategies come first?

In the language of urban planning 'Bottom Up' generally refers to community-generated initiatives, whereas 'Top Down' refers to larger initiatives planned and executed by the central government.

As I got off the bus and continued my walk, I passed a row of about fifteen informal vendors, all of whom were charging unusually low prices for food, probably student prices, which must have been barely yielding a living wage. I was quickly reminded again of why I had recommitted myself to economics last year; to me, economic policy (trade, industrial, fiscal, monetary) was the only vehicle that had enough potential for large-scale structural changes toward the end of employment generation. I had seen how bottom-up initiatives had failed to generate employment, and while well-intentioned, had in some cases even wasted scarce budget resources in the name of good intentions. This is how I found much of the appropriate technology world, non-profits diverting resources to risky projects that had the potential for great changes but low probability for success. But I had never considered that micro strategies were good for some goals, and macro strategies were better for others, such as employment generation.

It is now clear to me that both macro and micro strategies are necessary for development. The challenge lies in figuring out which strategy is best for addressing which aspect of development. What makes micro and macro really clash is not that one is better than the other, or even that one is better designed for certain development ends than others, but rather that real-world decisions often have to choose between them. A policymaker decides between allocating funding to a large industrial policy or multiple smaller urban policies, and must consider how the projects interrelate. If we invest in Bogotá employment now, will the tax revenue be enough to create an effective transportation system in five years? The decision is often based on one’s personal experience with a strategy and sector.

For example, if I were in charge I would probably not invest in small-scale electrification projects due to my personal experience.  Instead, I would look for grid-extension solutions. In the case of Colombia, it seems that between the internal conflict and volatile relations with neighboring Venezuela, issues of security and trade will always be important, but the longer-term five and ten-year questions have to do much more with the question of when to invest in which projects.

While I don’t have the answers, I think both planners and economists should focus more time on understanding which strategies are most effective for which development ends, and which types of policies need to precede the others for them to both be successful. For now, I’m going to keep focusing on employment generation from the macro level, until someone comes along with a more effective micro-level strategy that gets more jobs for the same amount of budget.

Ben Hyman is a Masters Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, where Economics is his focus. Ben is working in Colombia this summer. This past year, he contributed extensive research to the Cartagena Practicum, which examined the viability of moving a major outdoor food market in Cartagena, Colombia.

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