The Bridges Intern Corner: What does economic development mean with Bridges?

Bridges to Community does more than help to bridge cultures and provide a house for a deserving family in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic. Yes, when on my trip, I did learn a lot about the local culture, and I did help put four walls and a roof together, which was incredible. But there was so much more than that.  I was participating in something much bigger than just building a home for one family–I was becoming part of a sustainable economic development cycle that would help the community I was working in for generations to come.

Let me explain.  Bridges to Community volunteers like myself form a part of a larger system of community development.  Before the volunteers arrive, for example, full time Bridges to Community staff are already working with the communities to help them get legal titles to their land, determine what the community needs are by meeting with community leaders and members, and holding workshops to explain Bridges programs. Then, the volunteers and Bridges to Community supporters help to raise money to pay for the projects that the community selects.  In my case, this project was two houses for two families.  Then, the volunteers go down, help build the project, live with and learn from the community, and come back.  That’s when the real magic begins.

Each time a family is selected to be a beneficiary, they agree to pay 20% of the cost of the materials for that house through small monthly payments at 0% interest.  Why does the family have to pay anything at all, one might ask? The answer is simple: Nicaraguans work hard to provide for their families, and they feel a sense of pride in their accomplishments.  Helping to pay for their own home contributes to this sense of pride–a sense of true ownership.  This is the same reason that many families take time off of work to build their new home alongside volunteers–pride in true ownership of a dignified home.  In addition, community members understand the importance of the cause they are contributing to with their payments.

What cause is that?  The cause is a community fund.  Since volunteers and Bridges to Community supporters have already raised money to pay for the house itself, the money that beneficiary families are paying goes into a community fund that operates like a small community bank.  Community leaders are trained in how to write proposals, hold assembly meetings to hear requests, and manage the community fund through Bridges to Community workshops.  Then, the community decides how they want their community fund to be used.

Many communities use the money for small individual loans to help community members open small businesses or do home repairs or extensions.  Since finding loans through a bank can be risky and sometimes impossible for many Nicaraguans, having a local community fund that loans money at 0% interest can be a life changer.  Indeed, many flourishing local businesses have started through small community fund loans.

After a loan is given out to help community development in some way, the loan is then repaid with 0% interest, and the money goes back to the community fund.  This allows the cycle to keep going, and the community to keep improving.  It can keep growing to the point that a community can function completely independently.

In the village I worked in, Ticuantepe, the community formed its own legal cooperative to better manage their community fund.  Now, Bridges to Community no longer has projects there, but the community has been able to continue to grow and utilize its community fund, supporting local businesses and even building its own houses for families in need.

Other communities have shown similar successes–in one community in Masaya, community leaders used community fund money to pay for a diagnostic study to be done on the viability of constructing a well to bring the village its own source of water.  Using the diagnostic study, leaders were then able to solicit the assistance of water organizations to help them construct their well.  Last month, they signed an agreement with Crossway International who will donate all materials and labor toward the construction of a well that will serve 2 communities and help alleviate the overused well in another.  The total cost of the project will be $50.000.

Even individual stories have great impact. Karelia tells of how her life has changed through a small loan from the community fund that turned into several others as her small business of raising chickens continued to grow.  Another community member, Tamariz, was able to leave her job as a factory worker and now spends more time with her family as they run their family business of crafting mirrors.

Never would I have guessed that the week I spent in Nicaragua would have such positive repercussions for the community for so long.  It makes me feel proud to have been a part of such an important and community changing experience.