Approximately one billion people live life entirely on foot. Their communities lack vital transportation infrastructure, which means long, arduous daily commutes often dependent on seasonal weather patterns for safe travel. In other words, because of living in remote areas, nearly 15% of the global population does not have year-round, reliable access to basic necessities such as healthcare, education, or employment. Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a US-based nonprofit, aims to change that. Working with local governments and other non-governmental organizations, B2P builds durable, sustainable footbridges to help address the overwhelming challenges caused by rural isolation. The organization currently supports over 1 million people with 250 bridges around the world. On January 29, 2020, Yale SOM’s Social Impact Lab hosted the President and CEO of B2P, Avery Bang.
Bang joined B2P as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, where she earned a BSc. in Civil Engineering. Inspired to expand the organization’s work, Bang went on to earn a master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an MBA from Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Her experience at B2P has led her to a unique philosophy on economic development: the power of physical connection as the foundation for growth and opportunity. She explained that B2P’s footbridges provide year-round, safe travel for people, bicycles, and livestock over dangerous rivers and treacherous mountain passes. In improving a community’s geographic connectivity, this infrastructure opens access to new markets as well as previously inaccessible vital resources such as healthcare and education. By simply providing physical access to goods and services, the results are extraordinary. An initial study revealed that one footbridge in the right place had the potential to increase labor market income by 30%. Bang noted that this result stemmed from other positive behavior changes associated with connectivity such as increased healthcare-seeking and a rise in school attendance.
To build these bridges, Bang and her team collaborate with local governments as well as what the organization calls “Industry Partners” – local and multinational engineering firms that partner with B2P to provide resources and expertise. Governments negotiate for placement of bridges and garner community support while Industry Partners aid in implementation, ongoing maintenance, and inspection. The average bridge takes about eight weeks to complete, depending on the level of community engagement and availability of labor, and costs about $60,000. The majority of the organization’s funding comes from grants and from in-kind contributions from Industry Partners.
In addition to building bridges, B2P implements unique monitoring capabilities, which include SMS feedback surveys to bridge users and a spatial mapping platform to help identify future needs. Bang also emphasized that their data collection efforts have supported global research on the impacts of rural isolation and the power of physical infrastructure. She concluded her talk with a brief overview of results-based financing, a key component of her research at business school, and a strategy she hopes will fund B2P’s projects in the future.
The work that Bang has accomplished with B2P supports innovative approaches to poverty alleviation that go beyond traditional philanthropy or micro-lending. Her passion for infrastructure was infectious and even hours after the talk, students reconsidered the value of a paved road and an easy walk home.
By Laura Wood ‘21