In rural Poland, Kazimierz Jaworski is modernizing long-neglected physical infrastructure, starting with telephones, in a way that generates independent local organization and investment.
The New Idea
Kazimierz Jaworski is countering the lethargy and mood of helplessness that pervades post-communist rural Poland by mobilizing communities to build long-neglected physical infrastructure such as telephones, drinking water, sewage, electricity, and roads. His originality in doing so lies in the fact that this new infrastructure is built and serviced through local investment by local cooperative social action. This represents a 180 degree turn from the prevailing pattern of waiting for things to be done from above-by central government, Western Europeans, Americans or anyone else.To get things moving, Kaz started with a telephone service. Many of the people in his home region of Chmielnik had never used a telephone, nor did they particularly see the need to do so. But Kaz believed that by providing this powerful means to communicate, the larger goal of promoting social collaboration would be advanced. His strategic insight was to structure the service initially so that local phone calls were free. This variation of the well-known retail practice of the "loss leader" worked a small miracle. Where people generally had seen and spoken with one another only once a week in church, they were now talking incessantly on "their" telephone network. And just as Kaz had hoped, the experience of owning, operating and, most of all, using the telephone network together has created an appetite for more such local action.
The community has subsequently initiated a number of other cooperative development efforts. Meanwhile, Kaz has begun to spread his approach to other regions of rural Poland and neighboring countries.
Polish farmers courageously resisted Communist collectivization and retained their family farms. As a consequence, they were persecuted heavily throughout the Communist period. One form of persecution involved the systematic denial of physical infrastructure. Fewer than ten percent of rural households currently have telephones and more than half are without indoor plumbing or electricity. Rural households were also deliberately impoverished by the Communist State, which forced the farmers to sell their products through government marketing institutions that systematically cheated them.
Regrettably, the rural situation has not improved significantly since the collapse of communism. Poland's early transition to a free market was chaotic and even now delivers benefits unevenly. Budgets for public services are shrinking and the urban areas capture the overwhelming share of this limited public investment. The provision of rural infrastructure has not been seen as "profitable" by commercial and quasi-commercial investors. As a result, a mood of lethargy and helplessness pervades the rural areas. The dominant posture is one of waiting for things to be done from outside by someone else. This is reinforced by the larger historical process of economic integration into the global economy, which implies that capital and expertise are "out there" in massive quantities "just waiting to be tapped." The result is that rural Poland is lagging behind the political and economic reforms of the new democratic era.
Kaz believes that sustained development in rural Poland needs local collaborative social action. Because infrastructure needs are so great, it is possible to show immediate benefits and get a "quick win" for the larger goal of promoting local self-organization by beginning with core infrastructure needs. Accordingly, Kaz started the first independent telephone company in Poland in order to trigger the peoples' capacity to forge their own communities.
Initially there was considerable resistance to Kaz's proposal, which emphasized that the company should be owned by local citizens within a "cooperative" legal structure. Many felt that it was "the government's responsibility." Others chided Kaz for advocating a cooperative legal structure: "You, such a good Catholic, and you are organizing an anti-Christian coop?"
With a core of volunteer professionals and backing from the local government, Kaz raised the capital required to launch the service from the commercial banking system. He then set about providing a quality service that would transform its customers into active owners of the company.
The telephone service that he established provided the most advanced telephone features in all Poland (e.g., call waiting, three-way calling and caller identification), and was a source of immediate pride and delight. The most important feature was its fee structure, in which all calls within the local network were free. This policy was designed to promote local communication and build social capital, and it worked almost magically. The people of Chmielnik began talking to each other, incessantly, on "their" telephone network.
Just as Kaz had hoped, the experience has legitimized cooperative social action more generally and has spurred further collaborative initiatives to improve local infrastructure. "In a way," says Kaz, "the telephone cooperative has been too successful. Now some people want cooperatives for everything! At a meeting we organized to consider an investment in waste and ecological cleaning plants, I had to work hard to convince them that this time they have to look for some other, more relevant solution." In that instance it was decided to incorporate the initiative directly into local government, where it is now well underway.
The program has also diversified in Chmielnik to commercial ventures, including a joint stock company, Chmielnik Spring, to bottle and market local spring water, and a milling cooperative. Plans are well advanced to establish a cooperative for water quality protection.
In order to facilitate this economic and social transformation, Kaz set up a nonprofit organization, the Foundation for Promotion of Telephones Co-ops, which promptly established the Tyczyn Regional Telephone Co-op and continues to catalyze and facilitate new community initiatives. It is a fixture in the community as a resource bank of technical expertise, of assistance in accessing investment finance and, most importantly, of ongoing training and support to run a now perennial stream of new community projects.
From the outset, Kaz envisioned the process in Chmielnik as a model for rural Poland and beyond. To ensure that his approach was replicable, Kaz designed the Foundation as a low-budget, high-social capital organization that works predominantly through volunteers. His initial program in Chmielnik includes nine part-time technically-skilled persons as well as 25 volunteers (e.g., teachers, engineers, business managers, priests, farmers and youth).
Building on the success in Chmielnik, Kazimierz has begun to turn his attention to spreading his model. His spread strategy involves inviting leaders from other parts of rural Poland (so far Mielec, Ustrzyki Dolne and Brzozow), Bulgaria, and the Ukraine to the area to experience the Chmielnik program. Visitors see the social benefits from the program, observe local seminars and training, and study the operations of the cooperatives and other project initiatives. For those who choose to replicate the model in their own areas, Kaz has developed a specific course on how to put together a low-budget, high-social capital organization like the Foundation for Promotion of Telephones Coops. Replications are underway in Mielec, Ustrzyki Dolne and Brzozow in Poland and in the Ukraine as well. Kaz's Foundation provides ongoing training, advice and support to these groups, which Kaz sees as the nucleus of an emerging rural revitalization movement.
Kaz is also seeking to influence national policy. In 1996, he was appointed as one of five members of a expert advisory committee to the national government on rural telephonization. He also organized an international conference in Warsaw in 1996.
Kazimierz grew up in Chmielnik and knows the hardships of rural Polish life firsthand. He frequently speaks of the suffering of his family at the hands of the uncaring regime which purposely kept his family and his village in poverty because of their unwillingness to submit to forced collectivization.
In the 1980's, he was an active member of the Solidarity movement and was persecuted during the period of martial law. During the Solidarity years, Kaz saw and seized the opportunity to promote and spread the idea of local self-government as an integral part of the transition to democracy. Then, with the collapse of Communism, Kazimierz was able to return to his village and begin his life's dream of bridging the gap between urban and rural Poland.
Kaz is a dedicated father to his four young children, and even in his personal life he cannot repress his entrepreneurial bent. After he observed that children in his community who do not dance were more likely to drink vodka and get into trouble than those who dance, he launched a program for teaching all the children in his area how to dance. He also set up the Sober Rural Community Foundation to promote a healthy lifestyle and to combat alcoholism and other dependencies.