Rob Katz

Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group

AIDG at workIt 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.