Antonio Paz Martinez has built a remarkable community organization out of the wreckage wrought by the 1985 earthquake in poor neighborhoods of central Mexico City. He's now spreading its ideas and adding a vertically and horizontally integrated economic machine built up from small back veranda "informal sector" neighborhood producers.
The New Idea
Antonio is helping a rapidly growing network of cooperating small informal producers achieve economies of scale. By working together they can afford market analysis, get access to credit, take control of more and more of the distribution chain, and begin to ensure stable market outlets and margins -- i.e. both become more efficient and gain market power hitherto impossible. The result is more jobs; jobs with upward career possibilities (through the new organizations); jobs with more training and security; higher profits; a better chance to build equity; and the opportunity to learn broader management and organizing skills.
Noting that the public supply of tortillas in central Mexico City runs out by 2:00 in the afternoon, mothers organized in one of Antonio's groups are producing the missing supply. Others raise chickens on the rooftops. Another organization he's building that distributes basic consumer goods (e.g. coffee and powdered milk) at prices even below the government's, provides the organization's own retail distribution arm for such products. A number of other products grew out of Campamentos Unidos' initial concentration on helping the tentdwellers build new homes. A growing carpentry group makes furniture inexpensively from building demolition wastes. It plans to begin moving down its distribution chain soon by opening its own warehouse. Once self-help construction cuts out the roughly 50 percent of the cost of a new home that is labor, one of the few significant ways to lower the cost of such housing further is by reducing the bill for building materials. A new group that makes low cost aluminum window frames is one example of how the virtuous circle of lowering costs can lead to more community self-help housing and on to yet lower costs.
In the three years since the earthquake, Antonio has built up his core organization in one neighborhood; learned and demonstrated creative and effective methods of self-help housing design, construction, and finance; demonstrated housing-based, heavily preventative health services; created new jobs; and started a small planning office that looks beyond his immediate neighborhood. Building on this base, Antonio is now moving out to the surrounding areas and plans over the next three years to put in place an increasingly broad-based model of how the informal, small scale economy can achieve critical economies of scale.
Modern, large scale industry cannot begin to provide jobs for most people in the developing world. As urbanization continues (Brazilians and Mexicans, e.g., are already over 70 percent city-dwellers), more and more people have to create their own jobs. This is especially so for the poor, exactly the people with the least training, the least access to credit or other supports, and the fewest contacts. Through hard work and grit they scavenge, build, cook, sew, and provide a thousand other goods and services, almost always in tiny, weak units.
When the 1985 earthquake struck, moreover, it demolished much of what these people had built up. Antonio created his organization, Campamentos Unidos (tentdwellers united) when those it serves were still living in tents near the ruins of their homes.
Central to Antonio's model is building up the organizational strength of those with whom he's working. The new communities he's building, the social services that follow, and now his newer vision of an increasingly organized informal economy of scale are all designed at every step to build this cornerstone capacity. The success or failure of the vision rests on this foundation.
Antonio's initial focus after the earthquake was in helping the tentdwellers build their own new homes. This work now, increasingly focused on upgrading, continues. It is important not only because decent, affordable housing is a critical need, but because it is also a key tool to help people learn how to collaborate together. Antonio's view of his housing work is not about the construction of some housing units but about the building of a community in a much broader sense:"People in the community choose their own houses. The drawings were done by an architect that also lives in our `colonia'. It's important that people could see the prototype of the houses and play with the furniture inside it, getting a feeling for the space available. All the houses have little verandas that overlook the traditional courtyard common to all the houses in the `vecindade'. The women work in the verandas or in the courtyards while the children play under their watchful eyes.
This set up creates the framework for the development and strengthening of the community. For example, most of these vecindades (from 6 to 50 units) have a health worker trained by Campamentos Unidos. A part of this 'community living', they know that the problems and the needs of the people are -- far better than outsiders guided only by formal research. They work as bridges between the health post and the community, providing information and rendering services.
This updated version of traditional housing designs also encourages the creation of the base level economic cooperatives that feed into our larger supply and distribution cooperatives. Traditionally women work at home making candy, sewing, etc., and sell some of their production to increase their income. Now they want to do it in groups. They want to organize cooperatives. They need to learn marketing, accounting, and the legal implications of becoming a cooperative or an `asociacion civil'".
A critical ingredient in Antonio's work is creative, intelligent analysis. One of the greatest weaknesses of the poor, and of the informal sector of the economy on which they depend, has been the great difficulty both have had gaining access to this increasingly essential competitive factor.
Antonio is building an ambitious institutional model. To succeed, that institution must be able to think as clearly, analytically, and strategically as those against whom it must compete. Antonio knows success requires building an institution with a brain.
Consequently, one of the most important elements in his strategy is his Centro de Estudios de Barrio. Through its six departments (legal, education and training, ecology and environment, research, cooperative organization and communications), it provides the analysis, training, and broader education his increasingly complex venture needs. In addition, organizations from other poor neighborhoods are increasingly turning to it for help.
Antonio's design also includes an innovative, cleanly executed nervous system. One element is an internal largely barter exchange among those participating in his umbrella cooperative organization. For example, obligations can often be repaid in labor, tortillas, or health services.
Antonio scintillates with creative intelligence, energy, and commitment. The pattern has been clear everywhere he has gone.
At the leading school of social work he was not only the top student, but he took hold of a largely moribund student organization, turned it into a national organization, and used it to upgrade the school and profession (e.g. by encouraging changes in the pattern of student involvement in practical service projects).
After graduating his first assignment was to a large neighborhood soup kitchen. He reorganized it, turning it into the foundation of a broader community development organization. Then the earthquake came, and Antonio launched his own experiments in helping the urban poor find new ways to organize and compete.