Trickle up Instead of Trickle Down

By Glenn Ashton · 7 Apr 2011

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Picture: Kim Nowacki
Picture: Kim Nowacki

With between 24% and 44% of the South African workforce out of work, joblessness and poverty are ticking time bombs we cannot ignore, especially given that more than half of 15 to 24 year olds are unemployed.

The neo-liberal economic stance of the government has failed the poor. The results of top-down job creation policies appear equally ephemeral. Perhaps the answer is to turn things on their head and look at creating work from the bottom-up, trickle up instead of trickle down.

There are many novel and valuable concepts that can be adapted or leveraged to create job opportunities while encouraging local and individual autonomy as well as assisting economic entry into novel commercial niches. 

An interesting recent example has been the rollout of the “pothole brigade” project in the Gauteng area. This project, jointly funded by government and an insurance company, supported by commercial media interests, has brought in technologically sophisticated but simple to use technology to properly and rapidly repair potholes. This provides employment to three teams of workers who have repaired thousands of potholes, reduced insurance costs and assisted local government to provide an essential service. 

Unions may consider this to be outsourcing, a perspective which obscures its true efficiencies because this is the sort of work that would conventionally be managed by municipal, possibly SAMWU workers. On the other hand this kind of project reduces demand on limited municipal resources. 

We also must consider whether we are not paying twice for this sort of service – once as road users who pay towards tolls and fuel-related road taxes, then again a second time through increased insurance premiums and job creation initiatives. This could be addressed by realigning the existing system.

To ensure sustainability, teams should be assisted to acquire the machinery and acumen to manage this work against the guarantee of a suitably watertight contract, with fixed deliverables on all sides.

Many other local problems can be tackled using similar approaches. For instance the inefficient manner of dealing with illegal dumping could be contracted out to suitably qualified sub-contractor teams who police, report and assist the courts and green scorpions in convicting dumpers. Fines can be levied; enabling cost recovery for cleanup, following the polluter pays principle. 

All that is required is to create local frameworks for sustainable, mandated sub agencies. Illegal signage can be similarly dealt with to remove the plethora of roadside and neighbourhood guerrilla marketing we are illegally bombarded with.

This model can also be used to create teams to trace and fix leaks in our aging water infrastructure, assisting municipalities to efficiently recover these costs. Households can reduce wasted water by having access to maintenance teams subsidised through water saving measures. Local and national government struggle with these tasks, yet they can be readily addressed and managed by empowered individuals in communities supported towards attaining self-sufficiency.

The problem of illegal and stray animals could also be decentralised and outsourced. Fines can be levied on lost or stray animals, working along with animal welfare agencies for adoption, euthanasia and management of feral, problem or domestic animals. This would be far more efficient than state or municipally run pounds, or rodent removal services, which have effectively collapsed. Other income could be gleaned by introducing dog-licensing fees, policing animal waste problems. All that is needed is suitable enabling legislation.

Alien vegetation clearance in urban and rural areas can be dealt with by legally forbidding the sale of a property infested with aliens, through augmenting existing legislation through supportive provincial or local regulations. Just as all property transfers require beetle and electrical certification and clearance of municipal rates and bills, transfer can be forbidden until an “alien free” certificate is produced. This could provide entirely new niches of work for clearance teams and inspectorates, operating in tandem with municipal and national deeds offices. Local government resources would be supported and efficiently enhanced.

Systems can also be devised to deal with community sustainability, centred on the pressing matter of food security. Surely providing the means to grow food need not be complex? While national and local governments have focussed on food security they have achieved limited success. As the dub poet Linton Kwezi Johnson warns, “A hungry man is an angry man.”

There are many examples of extremely successful NGO run food production programmes, both urban and rural. Abalemi Bezekhaya in the townships around Cape Town and Food and Trees for Africa elsewhere have done amazing work in establishing community food production systems, along with dozens, if not hundreds of other groups around the country.

Local food security networks can also be supported through local, regional and national social media peer-to-peer networks. Support of marketing and transport infrastructure is money better spent than subsidising food parcels, as are mechanisms to assist provision of healthy food to vulnerable groups like the elderly or immune suppressed. These can reduce health costs and social spending, while supporting the growth of a primary industry. 

Some may reject local food security projects as being in conflict with best agricultural practice, as managed in intensive, industrial farming. However several recent studies, including the largest single modern global agricultural analysis, the UN and World Bank funded International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which involved hundreds of agricultural specialists, concluded that food security is most sustainable and efficient when agro-ecological farming models are pursued at local community level.

However this presents a threat to the present economic model, in that a self-sufficient farmer does not visibly contribute to the national GDP. Instead, a food secure community inhabits a universe where work is food and where a proportion of that food will be sold, bartered or traded to provide other necessities. The creation of grassroots empowerment structures, based on both simple and sophisticated technologies, will gradually and inevitably draw the presently excluded into the formal economy. It must be preferable to encourage the poor and unemployed to feed themselves, their families and their communities, rather than expend vast amounts on endless social support? 

If we are going to provide sustainable and meaningful ways to assist the poor and unemployed we need to consider the benefits of pursuing a trickle-up rather than a trickle-down economic system.

These bottom-up solutions challenge the status quo, not just of the market but also of how organised labour and the three tiers of government have traditionally operated. Monolithic organisations change slowly yet perhaps some minds are becoming focused by the continual outbreaks of so-called “service delivery protests,” which are really protests about the politics of exclusion. 

Surely it is wiser and more practical to encourage the formation and local ownership of solutions than to continue to push the broken lorry of our struggling local government up an endless hill?

There is already an established grey survival economy. If it is supported, encouraged and nurtured it provides extensive opportunities to augment and repair our broken system. Trying to impose a sophisticated, westernised, neo-liberal model has repeatedly failed. Rather foster change from within than impose it from without. Why reinvent what is already working? Why not enhance what we have? 

Creating transition from poverty and economic polarisation is our most urgent and pressing challenge. We have utterly failed to achieve much beyond cosmetic change since 1994. If we are to have lasting peace and real change then it cannot be imposed, it must be nurtured. 

Thinking at the level that created the problem is like insanity -- expecting a different result from the same behaviour. Failure to change is no longer an option and will inevitably create deepening social marginalisation, strife and collapse.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Mike Meyer
6 Apr

Who Benefits?

This scenario is nothing more but seeking a neo-liberal economic panacea for a neo-liberal economic problem. In whatever form,

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Zandile Ngobeni
7 Apr


Actually I thought that this was very practical and useful. People can't eat ideology.

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Glenn Ashton Verified user
7 Apr

@ Who Benefits

I think that Mike has either misunderstood or misread what was written. Perhaps it was not clear enough. What is proposed above is the antithesis of any kind of neo-liberal solution.

The central point I tried to make, and apparently did not manage, is for bottom up control, for the public to take control of 'public' services, to hold the gatekeepers responsible by not just allowing involvement in local governance and structures, but of opening up local governance and structures to participation; of being part of the solution, not part of the problem; not of privatisation but of public-isation. It is the total dismissal of trickle down, replacing it with trickle up, so that most of the resources stay with the workers and operators and the fat cats are cut out of the loop, or at the very least held accountable.

I hear Mike about the risk. Yes but then where do we start? Should we continue to talk about how things must and should be done instead of actually trying something completely different? Or do unions perhaps want to continue to speak for the poor and unemployed and deny them making any choices for themselves by thwarting any sort of formation of a union of the unemployed? Perhaps that is too great a threat to the status quo? Maybe we should just carry on as things are?

If we see what is happening to base, SDM and other social grassroots movements then we glimpse of how any attempt at bottom up development is being thwarted by established structures.

Attempting to call these proposals "privatisation" is like trying to call anyone who questions Israel an anti-Semite. It is a noisesome attack devised to distract rather than to analyse what is being said. It is a meaningless in the context of what was said.

I don't know if it was all so poorly explained but I can only assume that Mike did not get it. If so, my bad. I thought the title said it all.......

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