Soft Infrastructures

Usually, the term ‘Infrastructure’ conjures up images of mega structures such as roads, bridges, dams, telecommunications and water supply systems. However, the meaning of the term can (and should) also be extended to include institutions that uphold key systems such as health, education, law & order and finance. Such institutions/organisations/collectives are often categorised as Soft Infrastructure.

In the context of water and natural resource management, Self-help Groups (SHGs) are a pertinent example of soft infrastructure that serve multiple purposes. SHGs were first conceived in the 1980s in an effort to tap into the possibilities presented by the concept of rural microfinance. They are typically groups of 10-20, formed by members to pool their resources (savings, human resources, skills), share their risks, and link with financial institutions to raise capital for small enterprise.

SHGs now operate across the developing world (although most prominently in South and Southeast Asia) as variations of this basic model framed around credit, enterprise and empowerment. Successful SHGs are well-organised, and are well-embedded in their social contexts. Their involvement often goes way beyond business and finance. They are well tuned into the state of their local environment and water use. SHGs meet regularly and discuss issues affecting them. They represent the more active members of the community, and are therefore a good entry point for any initiative/program that requires collective action. It is for these reasons that SHGs and those who work with them (governments, NGOs etc) have come to realise the key role they can play in implementing large-scale natural resource management efforts.

In this regard, SHGs’ potential has come to fore most notably in instances where they have helped implement soil-water management efforts at the watershed level. They have turned around degraded eco-systems and struggling local economies. The following videos help recount some specific instances:

Based on such success stories, the SHG idea has now travelled well beyond South and Southeast Asia and now emerging/evolving in the African context. In Ethiopia, where natural resource management is the cornerstone of the government’s poverty reduction policies, SHGs are seen as key partners in the process. The following excerpt from the national Participatory Watershed Management Guidelines illustrates this well:

The contribution of self-help groups (SHG) to watershed planning and implementation could be at various levels. Firstly at decision making level for interventions planned at the scale of individually used lands and for interventions that may need to be implemented in communal areas.

Secondly, self-help efforts could also be a collective effort undertaken by the community for specific activities targeted to help specific categories of people, particularly some vulnerable ones (for example women headed households).

Thirdly, the role of SHG should not be seen only as a means to provide the groups’ own contribution. Its role should also be to efficiently utilize available resources from other sources (projects, safety nets, and the like) to cover specific areas and activities as well as to help most vulnerable categories of people in the community. In this regard, the role of SHG is broader.

Do you know of more examples of Self-help Groups (or similar collectives) being involved in activities other than microfinance/enterprise? Do you have any ideas about their potential that has not yet been realised? Please share them in the Comments section below.

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November 1, 2013  
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