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Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group
Robert Katz, 4 Nov 06
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It is a familiar story: post-college volunteer (Peace Corps, etc.) returns from the developing world with a desire to help the community in which he or she has been staying. The subsequent projects are also familiar – they often involve selling local handicrafts to first-world markets, or aggregating donations of used computers and cell phones to send back to the community. I don't question the motivation behind such initiatives, and I applaud some of them for attempting to bolster the local economy or jump-start development with first-world technology. More often than not, however, these small projects operate much like typical top-down development projects; that is, they depend on human and physical capital that only the donor/benefactor can provide. In order for such projects to become truly sustainable, they must be able to stand on their own.

Peter Haas knows this story well, having spent years traveling to and volunteering in low-income communities, where well-intentioned development projects often failed without constant donor intervention. With his first-hand knowledge of the problem, Haas set off to find a solution, founding the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) in 2004. The AIDG web site describes exactly what it is they do:

The Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) works to provide rural villages in developing countries with affordable and environmentally sound technologies...Through a combination of business incubation, education, training, and outreach, the AIDG helps individuals and communities gain access to technology that will improve their lives. Our model provides a novel approach to sustainable development by empowering people with the physical tools and practical knowledge to solve infrastructure problems in their own communities.

In short, the AIDG tackles infrastructure development – energy generation, clean water, sanitation, cooking – though a combination of locally-appropriate design and small business development. Much like Amy Smith's famous D-Lab at MIT, they work directly with local communities to design technologies appropriate to local needs and conditions. Then AIDG combines the local needs assessment and appropriate design with cutting-edge small enterprise development services. Similar to KickStart, AIDG helps set up locally-staffed workshops to develop, manufacture, and repair the systems. The shops get off the ground with a recoverable grant, financed by the workshops’ profits. These monies are then funneled back through AIDG to start more workshops in new locations, completing the cycle.

Sustainability – of the environment as well as of the model – underpins the entirety of AIDG operations. Its appropriate technologies are explicitly designed to be environmentally sound, such as high-efficiency combustion stoves, solar-powered water heating, animal waste biodigesters, and low-tech, high-efficiency windmills. Creative commons reigns: their designs, technical manuals, and other intellectual capital are available – free of charge – on an AIDG web site. The organization itself is a 501(c)3 non-profit staffed by young, well-educated volunteers and supported by a grant from Echoing Green. They aren't out to make money for themselves, but rather to bolster the economies of the communities in which they work while simultaneously addressing some of the most grievous affects of poverty. All that, and they’re environmentally friendly to boot. If there were ever an organization that single-handedly embodied what it means to be Worldchanging, this is it.
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This is great! Please do more of this!

Posted by: helen on 4 Nov 06

I am a current post-college student, who is 2 months into a 3 month product design internship at Freedom Technologies ( in the Southern Philippines. An organization funded by Handicap International and US AID.

I support this program for its ideas on financial sustainability and the needs for infrastructure development. I am torn about the focus on environmental sustainability.

It seems to me that this is imposing the ideals of the already developed world, who have the luxury to be able to think of sustainability, on the developing world.


Posted by: Joe Mellin on 4 Nov 06

This is nice, but what the developing world needs far more urgently are the big, ugly, real infrastructures: railroads, rural roads, canals, harbors, ports, dams, nuclear power plants, huge electricity interconnections,...

Without these, all the smaller initiatives remain problematic. We need to be highly modernist here: the developing world needs to be 'opened up' to world markets via large infrastructures, instead of 'contained' in a Western romantic 19th century vision of small sustainable and deadpoor communities of cute natives enjoying technologies made by them by some white Anglosaxon protestant aid worker.

It is good to see that big fat ugly infrastructure is now the top priority of the EU's Africa initiatives. It has just launched a €5 billion fund for intrastructure works in the South. This totally worldchanging.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 5 Nov 06

I wonder... couldn't the technologies made available on the AIDG website be used in developed nations, too? ...couldn't, for example, suburban homes also make use of all this? ...very useful site!

Posted by: matt on 5 Nov 06

I think you're on to something there, Matt. If there is any place on earth that really needs an Appropriate Infrastructure Group, it's the United States. Our infrastructure is as inappropriate as heck.

I think transportation would be a good place to start.


Posted by: Cindy on 6 Nov 06

Thanks all for your comments.

Joe, you write "It seems to me that this is imposing the ideals of the already developed world, who have the luxury to be able to think of sustainability, on the developing world." I would argue that it is precisely the developing world for whom sustainability is no luxury - low-income communities depend on their environments more than we do here in the West/North. Here at WRI, my colleagues have done great work quantifying the value of "ecosystem services" to the poor, documenting the ways in which environmental conservation actually fights poverty. Check out the World Resources Report for more info.

Matt, Cindy - you can do these designs yourself. That's the beauty of AIDG and their CC-ish approach. Just check and you can download the appropriate info.

Thanks all for reading and taking the time to comment...I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say.

Posted by: Rob on 6 Nov 06

Hey folks, This is Cat from the AIDG. Thanks for all your comments. We're really interested in learning what you all think about our work.

First I want to comment on what Joe has said. I would agree with you up to a point. There does need to be more large scale infrastructure development (roads, safe building construction, water treatment plants, etc.) in developing countries. The problem is that a lot of this type development is centered around the capital cities and other large economic (usually urban) centers leaving the rural poor underserved for years, if not decades. Worse, as in the case of the hydroelectric dam project in the Artibonite River Valley in Central Haiti, the poor residents are displaced from fertile land AND still don't get basic services in the bargain. Large infrastructure projects are necessary but they don't tend to favor the rural poor.

The bottom line is that the people we are most looking to help have been waiting for YEARS. And even if a large infrastructure project started today and all the principles of fairness were observed, they still would not see the benefit for another 5-10 years. In the meantime, they desperately need access to intermediate technologies that will fulfill their basic needs, help alleviate their poverty, and prevent disease NOW.

Also we have no romantic notions of natives using cute technologies. What you are talking about is a legitimate concern with foreign aid, but you'll find no "white man's burden" mentality here. And just because we're doing appropriate technology doesn't mean that they are low-tech or low-quality. On the contrary, our ballast load controllers use printed circuit boards made in our shop. We're going to be looking at using white LEDs for lighting, etc. etc. We try to keep our designs simple so 1) they don't break, 2) they can be made/repaired with local materials and 3) they are affordable. We try to find solutions given the material constraints of our location and the needs of the shop's potential customers.

Also, and I say this with beaming pride, we start businesses using local talent. Our team at XelaTeco is Guatemalan through and through. I'm not sure if the AIDG shop manager is a WASP, but his Guatemalan wife might have a thing or two to say if he developed any delusions of grandeur.

Posted by: Cat Laine on 6 Nov 06

Oops, my last comment was for Lorenzo. This one is for Joe. Sorry.

It seems to me that this is imposing the ideals of the already developed world, who have the luxury to be able to think of sustainability, on the developing world.

I want to expand on Rob's comments. In our experience in Guatemala, people are interested in sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies because 1) you pay for it once and get a relatively rapid return on investment, 2) you are not relying on technologies where prices are very volatile (e.g. the cost of gas or diesel if you are running a generator or electric water pump, etc.), 3)it fulfills a need at a price they can afford, 4) it is a status symbol, etc. etc.

This has been really important for us to understand. People are not interested in buying these technologies because they are green. That's just a bonus, and a small one at that. They are far more interested in all the other benefits the technologies provide.

So for example, we could say that buying a hybrid car would be a luxury, but getting your car to run on biodiesel or vegetable oil in the face of skyrocketing gas prices would not.

Posted by: Cat Laine on 6 Nov 06



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