By: Murray Hunter

One of the greatest problems facing today’s rural societies across the globe is finding culturally sustainable activities that provide both material and social well-being for the individuals and families in them.

Traditional skills are eroding and the logistical supply chains that can propel rural products to international market places are inadequate. Access to opportunity within many rural regions around the world is mostly missing. Thus rural communities require a new model, built around community enterprise, which has been experimented with successfully in Thailand and throughout Latin America with the Fair Trade program.

Too often, government agencies try to develop communities within the “occidental development paradigm,” which destroys traditional skills, cultural integrity and the social fabric of local communities. Factories, plantations, and other corporate for-profit endeavors intrude. When enterprises are located within an area purely for profit purposes, there are usually dramatic costs to traditional communities including deforestation, erosion, and loss of the means to live off the land.

In 2014, many rural communities exist within a form of poverty not even defined by the Millennium Development Goals. The greatest ignored form of poverty is the absence of opportunity to better oneself on one’s own terms within one’s cultural persona. From this perspective, ways should be found to assist communities to create their own opportunities, where opportunity poverty can be eliminated.

Markets have shut out opportunities for community-based enterprises, which are seen as 150 years outdated by the corporate and industrial paradigms we have assumed as givens. To all of this there must be an alternative, or else the gap between the urban wealthy and rural poor will certainly widen. This is the basis of concern for our very existence, where the only spiritualism that exists is materialism of excessive consumption without any thought, defined and shaped by the urban cultural frameworks that exist today.

This is where community enterprise can provide some hope that alternative paradigms can help elevate the imbalance between the out-of-control urban virus and growing rural death. The international Fair-trade and Thai One Tambon One Product (OTOP) movements have shown that this is possible in making positive impacts upon local communities.

So imagine a world where products could once again be individually produced by proud craftsmen with an intrinsic quality that industrially manufactured products cannot provide. This intrinsic quality coupled with the knowledge that it sustains a remote community carries with it a sense of humanistic spiritualism.

Thus through this compassionate consumption, any and every individual can make a difference and change the nature of the modern economy, which has brought so many such heartache over the last few decades through downturn, manipulation, and fluctuation.

Through compassionate consumption, we can keep in check the ever more concentrated economy, and put in place an alternative people-based system based upon community rather than globalization. Entities can become truly economically independent and evolve through interdependence based on people rather than corporation based supply/value chains. Communities can then trade with each other on their own terms rather than those imposed by traditional market-based economic models.

We can have a society where people can use the finest traditionally made soaps and cosmetics, handmade bags and home-ware, where we appreciate the beauty of indigenous art, while domiciled in the center of New York, Oslo, London, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, or Sydney. Anybody through their purchase can vote for maintaining cultural integrity of far away communities, and help to sustain them.

Trading enterprises can develop to assist these products reach urban communities through alternative supply/value chains to the Walmart Stores of this world. If a small percentage of consumer spending can be diverted to products produced by rural communities, sustainability can be supported in many eco-systems and hinterlands around the world.

So opportunity exists for people of the world to create an alternative economy , where the benefits go back to community based enterprises based upon traditional skills and appropriate technology rather than corporations. Achieve this and the world economy may expand beyond a one-dimensional system, which has failed to date to solve our economic problems.

This invisible hand has been devious and dealt the world a bad hand. It is time to make the invisible hand visible and seek a more sustainable world. Production, technology, supply chains, and the way we consume are important components of sustainability.

It is time to adopt alternative economic visions. Governments and consumer movements have to date been unable to do this, and this initiative can only be achieved through people genuinely working together. It’s time for new economic thinking which must start at the micro level, building community-based enterprises that base their activities upon cultural pursuits where goods are transferred to other community-connected enterprises that are empowered to make a difference. This is the brave new world that could be, as an alternative to a world controlled by multinational corporations, which are bigger than many governments.

Community enterprises in rural areas will bring a revival in the use of simple artisan based appropriate technologies which bring meaning to producers and value to consumers. It will allow people to exercise some sense of spiritualism towards humanity in knowing that their purchase sustains others with low access to economic opportunities than themselves. Moreover, community enterprises will provide an alternative, be it small, to the dangerous trend of massive multinationals that control the supply chains that urban communities rely upon for survival.

There are numerous barriers to this concept, mindset and acceptance of the status quo being very powerful forces. The current economic model is supported by government regulation all around the world which states what enterprises must do to start-up and comply with the prevailing economic rationality. These very regulations for example that have stifled many small businesses in the food and beverage sector within the EU, allowing multinational chains which have the financial resources to comply to regulation like McDonald’s, KFC, Dominos, and Burger King, etc., dominate many markets at the expense of family businesses.

It is well time to take a relook at the current economic models that dominate our lives and question its sanity and long term consequences to our social existence.

Murray Hunter is an Australian academic and development specialist currently living in Thailand