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Promoting Economic Development

Post:

02

Date:

Dec 1, 2000

From:

John Middleton


A few thoughts on "community infrastructure":

Maybe some of the uneasiness has to do with the term itself. "Infrastructure" may seem non-dynamic and impersonal. The older sociological term would have been "community organizations" or perhaps "social institutions." These are not particularly attractive either, I suppose, but at least organizations and institutions have certain dynamics.

In the developing countries where I do most of my work, there has always been great interest in community organizations, and many successful examples. I think of the Mothers Clubs in South Korean Villages in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed village life, including making birth control a fully available option and raising the status of women. Much of their success was due to an entrepreneurial approach to self sufficiency -- many mothers pawned their jewelry to get the capital needed to start small businesses. Or the Grameen Bank credit groups in Bangladesh that empower very poor women with small loans to start businesses, with a repayment rate of 98%. Grameen now enables poor women to have cell phones and accounts, becoming in effect the village telephone company. Or the women in Peru who now take orders for cakes off an international website, bake and deliver locally, and are paid by the international dot.com.

What these examples have in common (aside from the central fact that they are operated by women) is that entrepreneurship and income generation provides the energy that keeps the groups together, and that some level of capital is needed. The strategic investment approach to building community infrastructure that we are discussing seems to include this as well, and that is encouraging.

When we look at the importance of earnings, shouldn't we also consider the workplace as an important kind of community infrastructure? Especially small businesses?

We have done some interesting research on the World's Poor in the last couple of years. For those interested in an international perspective on how the poor see their lives, including their community infrastructure, I recommend that you visit: http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/voices/index.htm.

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