Category Archives: Innovation

Microcredit, the innovation of the century

 Microcredit, the innovation of the century

René Mendoza Vidaurre *


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.


(Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532, The Prince)


Grameen Bank (“village bank”) emerged nearly four decades ago in Bangladesh. In 2006 its founder, Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts in creating economic and social development from below”, achieving world recognition for microcredit. Apart from the criticisms that microcredit pacifies poor families so that they do not fight for their rights, and that the US$130 average amount is not enough to buy a cow, and much less a hectar of land, its achievements are impressive: 3,000 branches, 7 million borrowers (95% are women), and 3% arrears rate; nearly 100% of Grameen children that start their studies finish them; education, health, retirement and pension programs, and services of access to new technology – cell phones in more than 2,000 villages (Grameen Telecom), solar panels (Grameen Skakti) and internet in the villages (Grameen Communications). What made posslbe this change of the century in finances in favor of the poorest of the poor?

Distancing themselves from conventional finance

After years of war, Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, a year later Yunus returned to his country as a university professor, and in 1974 the country experienced a great famine. Yunus, his colleagues and students wanted to help, and went to live – and study – in the village of Jobra. There they found usury with interest rates of up to 10%/day, and their dependence on those loans made them live as semi-slaves. In Jobra they counted 42 people under these usurious conditions, and the total loan amount was only US$27. He lent them those US$27 at 0% interest, and to his surprise they paid him back; then he discovered that they were paying interest rates higher than 60%/year to the commercial banks. So he observed something contradictory in the banking system, they were there to give loans, and acted under the principle of “the more you have, the more you get”, but they were exclusive: “when you exclude people for no fault of their own, it is apartheid.” Without the first dollar they could not get the second one, this was the situation of the poor. From there emerged his vision: end poverty.

He requested a loan from the bank to provide “small loans for the poorest.” The banks rejected the request: the poor do not receive loans because they cannot repay them, they do not know how to fill out the forms, and they do not have material collateral. After six months, and after Yunus himself offered collateral, one bank lent him US$300. Yunus and his team organized the credit and recovered up to the very last cent. The manager of the bank attributed this to luck, and when that credit experience was replicated in five, ten and fifty villages, that manager did not change, “because people can make mistakes, but the banking system does not.”

The more he lent, the more they saw the need to found an organization: Grameen Bank (1983) (GB), in order to place the first dollar in the hands of the poorest. What was the motivation for the people to pay and improve their lives?

Microcredit in groups and the social movement

GB followed a path opposed to the logic of the banks and what economics teaches. The bank waits for the client in their offices, requires material collateral, and provides individual loans, high loan amounts, and to people with more resources; it is a system built on the basis of prejudices; “Those who have more resources pay.” GB started microcredit (small amounts), without material collateral, with groups of five people as the basis to build a culture of credit, members with different businesses that mutually support one another, if one member does not pay the rest do not get a loan; the groups meet weekly to pay, save and renew their commitments to 16 norms (have a small family, build latrines, send their children to school, stop the practice of dowries, drink water from healthy sources or boil their water, grow vegetables, vote in elections…); they were mostly women because they were the poorest and those most affected by the purdah norms (conceal women from men who are not direct relatives), because they made better use of the loans and they paid on time. The GB officials stay out in the villages, explaining the microloans and accompanying those that have been disbursed, and because of the role of the groups, the credit and the savings in good measure are administered by the people themselves; the transactions are done in front of everyone. The basis is trust; without lawyers, nor taking people to court for lack of payment.

The novelty is in the learning capacity of GB and in its social movement nature. Yunus and his team immersed themselves from the beginning in order to understand the reality; so they understood the bottleneck of usury, discerned their vision and maintained it. Then they experimented, it if did not work out, they would study the banks to do “just the reverse”; trial and error forming groups with women. These circles remind us of the microfinance institution known as Bora founded by Munro and 50 beggars in Kiberia (Kenya) (“small loans, big changes”), Toyota (“if one worker makes a mistake another worker corrects him”), and Wikipedia (“one writes and others anonymously correct, improve and edit the text”). The key: combining decentralization (circles) and centralization (GB), economics (credit) and social-cultural movement (freeing women from the conservatism of Islam), and personal and social change.

Erosion of microcredit and the imperative to recover its novelty

Thousands of NGOs and microfinance institutions got involved in microcredit since 1980, they even adopted the circles called “solidarity group lending” (SGL). Most of them fell by the wayside, or turned into conventional banks, brandishing the prejudices that GB fought against: “the poor do not pay”, “credit only with material collateral”, “arrears are recovered by lawyers”, “credit is done by people who have studied it”, and “SGL only for recovering the loans.” In spite of the path shown by GB, those who followed, took it and added the microcredit discourse and SGL in the old form of making credit exclusive, and have been “scaling up” to social groups with more resources. Albert Einstein said it well that  “it is easier to split an atom than it is to break a prejudice.”

How can this innovation of the century be recovered? Following the path of Yunus and his colleagues, doing immersion and creating conditions for experimenting. Recognizing that in our countries upward of 70% of the population continues to be excluded from credit, and that they constitute an enormous sector to innovate (e.g. with larger amounts for family agriculture). Rethink SGL as “pressure among themselves to pay”, to believe in themselves, improve their businesses, take on norms like erradicating domestic violence and having sustainable practices. Understanding credit (from the Latin credititus, “having trust”) as the “door” for a strategic alliance between SGL with the poorest organized into associative forms, groups with more resources and better organized, and financial institutions, around financing and social change, and scaling up in that alliance, combining technical assistance and commerce.

Even though the government of Bangladesh has been working to take over GB since 2013, and there are growing criticisms that GB is being dragged along by the market, GB has shown that is can change the world with $27 dollars, and do it bringing the people from the base of the pyramid to a financial system open to learning and to alliances with the poorest of the poor. This can be an initiative that begins “a new order of things”.

* I thank F. Huybrechs and J. Bastiaensen for their comments on the draft of this article.

René Mendoza has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher for IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and for the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua).


How Far Can You See?

IMG_4884Spend any time around an ocean beach or any huge body of water and sooner or later someone gazing out over the water will be asked, “How far can you see?”  It’s an inevitable question and one which the beachcomber invariably cannot answer.  How far is that horizon, anyway?  Can you see what’s there?

We humans can see about 3 miles into the distance, before the horizon disappears with the curvature of the earth.  We can also detect a galaxy 2.6 million light years away, to a time when the first galaxies formed.  With the barest of light, we can see in the dark.  Our eyesight is a remarkable sense, indeed.

There’s another category of sightedness that begs the same sort of question, “how far can you see?”  It’s the view forward, what we can see or anticipate for the future, and what that portends for our current circumstances.  Understandably, we tend to be less accomplished in this effort, because what we endeavor to see is not yet physically visible.  So we do our best to impute, deduce, and imagine.

Many entities try to see, with varying degrees of success.  Within the communities of Nicaragua, leaders often pretend to see bright opportunity for their constituents, when the real view is only one of self-aggrandizement or patriarchal gatekeeping.  For its part, the U.S. government is afflicted with a malady which prevents its elected representatives from seeing much beyond the end of the day; it virtually defines short-sightedness.  Some business leaders work very hard to see into the future, though for many their acuity dims after about one quarter on the calendar.  Fortune-tellers would have us believe that they can see the future with clarity, but I don’t think they do much better than the rest of us.   Unfortunately, too many of us simply hope that the future will be as we might wish it, without working to shape it.

The reality is that in order to “know” the future and create a means to it, we have to be pretty clear about what is happening at present.  That work is more difficult than it sounds, as we tend to fall prey to factors like misinformation, data that makes us look different than we actually are, shorter-term motives and even egos.  If we start from a point of obfuscation, the chances of shaping a realistic future direction are very slim.  But knowing the truth requires self-honesty and discipline, characteristics that are cultivated through courage and practice.

Unfortunately, most of us lack sufficient courage or practice  to express openly those shortcomings and mistakes that have impeded our sight.  Since it isn’t a comfortable or easy thing to do, we don’t practice it much.  And that lack of practice, in turn, renders us less courageous, less open to understanding our truths and being able to use them as the basis for where we’d like to go.  It’s a vicious circle that ever-lessens our ability to see what might be.  And without such vision, we limit where we can choose to go.  We simply can’t see that far.

Later this Spring, a certificate program for cooperatives will be taught in the rural reaches of Nicaragua.  The program will be more than a week in duration, as rural producers will come together to learn holistically about seeing a future of their own making, to create the conditions and circumstances which can better allow those visions to become reality, to open their eyes to their own truths.  Like staring into a bright light after an immersion in darkness, there will be discomfort, disorientation and maybe even even distress.  But like the gradual adjustment our eyes make to that bright light, the emerging views will become clear and free from the drowsy effects of the dark.  And the courage, the practice, the habit, of far-sightedness just may take root in people eager to see further than ever before.  (I’ll be sure to write about the process in April, after the workshop has been completed.)

Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to keep asking the question of myself, “How far can you see?”  It’s one of those introspective probes that just might help me prepare myself for the future….





Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

René Mendoza V., Edgar Fernández and Yeris Lanzas


“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then humanity would only have four years of life left”

Albert Einstein

 Recently there has been a worldwide alarm about bees. They produce honey and pollinate crops and vegetation; their reduction would affect agriculture and biodiversity. Here we ponder their impact on agriculture, review their evolution, and based on an experience in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco (Madriz, Nicaragua) we suggest innovating in a beekeeping connected to its economic, ecological, agrarian and social surroundings.

A study of Klein and his colleagues (“Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops”), with FAOSTAT-2005 data, found that out of 115 crops, 87 increase their production with pollination (39 of 57 crops and 48 of 67 products derived from crops); 20% of total production is by crops that increase the production of seed with animal pollination. They confirm the effect on production in 92 of 108 crops: without pollination in 13 crops (atemoya or custard apple, Brazil nut, cantelope, cacao, kiwi, macadamian nuts, passion fruit, papaya, rowanberry, sapote, pumpkin, vanilla and watermelon) production drops by 90% or more, in 30 crops it drops from 40-90%, and in 27 it drops from 10-40%, and in 21 crops it drops by less than 10%. For Central America, Roubik (2002, “The value of bees to the coffee harvest”) writing on Arabica coffee in Panama, concludes that the pollination of non-native bees increases its production by up to 50%. From this we see that if the pollination services decline, our diet will become nutritionally and culturally impoverished.

Bees are important, but are they being reduced in number? In England the Bumblebee Conservation Fund states that 2 species of bees have become extinct in the last 70 years, and that 6 are in danger of extinction; in the United States the Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that they have been reduced from 6 million in 1940 and 1950 to 2.5 million in 1990. Nevertheless, the United Nations Development Program (2010) states that the data on the worldwide level on their reduction is not conclusive; Aizen (2009, “The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination”) states that in the last 50 years the amount of beehives has increased close to 45%, while the growth in crops has been 400% in that same period (Manzano, 2014, “Beeodiversidad”). The alarm finds meaning in the growing deforestation and agricultural intensification – mechanized and dependent on chemical inputs; from there comes the reduction of bees in Europe and the United States so far, the “death” of bees in zones of intensive agriculture in Latin America, and the “migration” of bees in extensive agriculture zones because of drought (no flowers) or rainy season (flowers unsuitable for bees). The more deforestation happens and intensive agriculture is promoted, the less bees there are, the less pollination there is, the more agriculture stagnates.

Beekeeping needs to increase. Its innovations began when the human being perceived that (s)he can harvest honey and wax regularly from the same colony, and built hives with clay vessels and conical baskets (5000AC). In the XVI century Francois Huber innovated the mobile frames, Lorenzo Lorrain Langstroth the standardized use beehive (1851), the carpenter Juan Mehring an apparatus for stamping wax (1857), Franceso de Hruschka the extractor or centrifuge for removing the honey from the honeycomb without breaking it (1865), Abbé Collin perfected the queen excluder (1865), the farmer George Layens the horizontal beehive appropriate for transhumance (seasonal migration, 1874). Correspondingly worldwide production of honey grew from 678,759 tones in 1961 to 1,592,701 in 2012, the year in which all the countries of Central America provided 0.46% of world production. Nicaragua went from 20 tons in 1961 to 100 in 1979, to 200 in 1995, to 300 in 1996, and to 400 since 2000. According to CETREX in the period from 2007-13 Nicaragua exported an average of 211 Metric Tons/year.

In 50 years of beekeeping Nicaragua, according to data from the 2006 National Beekeeping Census, has 733 beekeepers and 24,903 hives. Beekeeping in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco illustrates something about what is happening in the country and in the world; between 1963 and 2014 investments have been made of over 3,000 beehives in more than 300 beekeepers, but the Census shows that there are 85 beekeepers with 619 beehives. What is happening? In the decade between 1960-70 beekeeping emerged as an initiative of the large estate owners and with technical assistance from the state, under the logic of pollinating coffee  and extracting honey; the hives lasted more than 10 years, and transhumance was not practiced because there was a forest, in the rainy season they would complement the forest flowers with blocks of sugar and they did not regulate the shade of the trees close to the beehives. In the decade of the 1980s the initiative came from the CORCASAN cooperative with farmers seeking to extract honey and pollinate, the hives lasted up to 5 years, they did not practice transhumance and they would give sugar to the bees during the rainy season. Since 2002 the initiative has been coming from international aid and from the market, they seek to extract honey and in isolated cases pollinate, the rotation of hives is almost annual, they do transhumance in the rainy season because there are no suitable flowers, they provide sugar to the bees and are not investing in the flower supply.

This stagnation in beekeeping is due to a vision where the context in which the innovations emerged is ignored, in a Europe that went through the Renaissance, a humanity that sought to control bees in an environment of flowers, and from there, the innovations focused on the biology of the bees and the physical conditions that made them more productive. Current beekeeping is based on the belief that its greatest challenge is “physical work” of receiving-providing resources, technologies and trainings from outside, and on that “everything has already been invented.” It is an economic vision that is dependent on the bees and separates them from their agrarian, ecological and social surroundings.

beekeeping graphic

In the face of this reality, from one experience in SanJuan del Río Coco, we are suggesting innovating with a holistic visionrecognizing and managing the tension inherent in the connections between bees, beekeeping and biodiversity, and between the improvement of the common good and individual appropriation, disputes that are transforming the territories with flowers, crops, bees and organized families (See Diagram). In this vision, technology, credit and commerce respond to the connections in tension; thus, productivity is not “getting more hives and mechanizing them”, but investing in the connections that result in honey, wax, propolis, coffee, cacao, passion fruit, air, water, land…Part of this process is the crop rotation providing flowers at different times of the year, “sharecropping” between large producers that need to pollinate their plantations and small beekeepers, pollination services, flower inventory as a collective good, and cooperatives facilitating these connections. Seen in this way, beekeeping breaks out of the shell of its “little box” and re-emerges from the connections.

If this innovation in process has the potential of responding to the 50 years of stagnated beekeeping and agricultural productivity, how can we improve it and replicate it in the wet tropics of the country and in Latin America?

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar i a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation. Yeris is a beekeeper and innovator in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco.

Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Ronie Zamor


“The policies can be good, but not work; it is like we put a coin in the jukebox, choose a song, and a different one plays” (X. Gorostiaga sj, 1983).

 What is happening with the “social jukebox” that transforms policies and creates even undesirable outcomes? The British aid agency, DFID, the OXFAM family, state institutions, organizations like RUTA and the World Bank have used the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), initially proposed by academics R. Chambers and G. Conway (1992, Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century) and I. Scoons (Sustainable rural livelihoods, a framework for analysis), for getting poor families out of poverty. Can this SLA approach overcome the “social jukebox” phenomenon? Supported by concrete experience, we argue in this article that it can, but under certain conditions.

The critics of the SLA say that it only works for assessing, that it is illusory to make families participate in their multiple strategies because the projects and policies are defined outside the communities. Others say that it makes the poor become empowered. In Boaco, Chontales, RAAS and Rio San Juan the FOMEVIDASA program was executed between 2004 and 2011 with the support of the government of Finland, and within the framework of the then Rural Development Institute (today the Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy), a program that used the SLA as its principal approach, and was aimed at the poorest families that were living “where there are no signs announcing projects.” The results from that experience were mixed, successful cases, cases that did not change, and failed cases.

The SLA recognizes the multiple dimensions of poverty and wants empoverished populations to get lasting improvements to deal with the poverty that they themselves identify, so that organizations might help to finance and that other local organizations might co-execute, and that there be affective and effective closeness among the different actors. While other approaches focus on the scarcity and needs of the families, the SLA assumes a vision of development focused on the person, begins with an analysis of their means of living, their strong points, their different forms of capital (financial, social, physical and natural), and how these have been changing; it involves the families, respects their visions, and helps to identify the multiple influences and their strategies.

Boaco, Chontales and a large part of the RAAS is characterized by their ranching culture –“the sprawled cow” -Rothschuh Tablada called it, a writer from Chontales. The assymetrical power relationships between ranchers, the peasantry, fieldhands and the indigenous families has a great impact; it is a social jukebox that regardless of who “inserts the coin”, shelves the families into the alleys between the farms and the highways, or in marginal places – without water and roads. These families become “untouchable” families, excluded by their own communities –“there is no exclusion worse than that of your own community”, said a Finnish aid worker. In light of this, following the SLA approach, listening to the impoverished families awakens in them a sense that they have value: “I am poor but I have dignity, my voice is part of my dignity”. Listening to them (“touching them”) is also dignity.

The assessment and ideas for solutions can be left truncated by these “local – global power bottlenecks”, by the nature of the poverty in the minds of the impoverished families themselves, and by the technicians and consultants who create walls between “those who know”, i.e. the technicians, consultants and those who execute the projects, and “those who do not know”, the beneficiary families; so it is that when they are in the communities they call one another “engineer”, “Licentiate” and “magistrate” (lawyers), as a code of differentiation and authority, while in the offices these same people call one another by their names.

Given this reality, going to the communities and formulating polices in accordance with the demands of the families in order to expand their capacities is a monumental challenge, because the tendency is to formulate what the institution is going to “give away” (if it is the central government, the “bonus”, if it is the Municipal Government it is “paving stones” and if it is the aid agency it is a “harvest collection center”), what is in the logical framework, known by the technicians and what is going to be evaluated. After the assessment, a good step is to give the communities back the conclusions and demands, so that the families can monitor them during the execution. The more they participate, the more they exercise the role of social auditor, the more co-responsible they are; participating is contributing ideas, labor and attending meetings without charging as a service; co-responsibility is a social audit for all institutions.

This process has a transformative potential. It changes the technicians and the families; the technician becomes convinced that there is information that only the families know (e.g. sites for drilling wells outside of the areas where the river runs during the rainy season), and a critical perspective on the participation of the families helps to discern between their voice and what is imposed as if it were their voice. It helps to understand that where the water passes is where life passes; it makes visible that in the dry season all of Nicaragua is a road, while in the rainy season a good part of the country is a quagmire; without a road the sick person dies before getting to the hospital and the vegetables rot along the way. It questions organizations and institutions, that for sustainable changes to happen in the lives of the people multiple investments are needed, that perhaps do not fit within a logical framework, but that are possible with complementary alliances, recognizing that one organization or institution alone does not have the capacity to transform these situations.

The SLA approach is not the panacea, but it can be a good tool if three conditions are met. First, understanding the “social jukebox” as a “machine” that distorts policies and approaches, and is a space of dispute and two way negotiation, about realities that are transformed and getting less inadequate “songs” (policies and approaches like SLA). Secondly, investing and monitoring the process of change of the “jukebox”; inclusion of the “untouchable” families that are discovering their own capacities, and the possibility for change for the staff of the organizations in recognizing that even the most impoverished families have value, have something to give and teach. Thirdly, trust in the people themselves, that the families themselves might negotiate (their) resources to repair roads, have potable water or organize their savings and loan system; this requires the organizations to mature and treat the families as mature people, accepting what birds do, that as soon as their baby birds have feathers, they let them fly and give them distance.

The innovation is not in the SLA, but in connecting it to the “social jukebox” under conditions of understanding its dynamic character, that the change is in the impoverished families and in the organizations that work with them, and in that you have to have courage to trust in the “untouchable” families. Otherwise, it does not matter whether the coin is silver or gold, the song that you choose will not be the one that gets played.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Bélgica) and the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). Ronie was an adviser with FOMEVIDAS and currently is the Sustainable Livelihood and Risk Management Program Official for TROCAIRE (Nicaragua).


Universities and their debt to society

Universities and their debt to society

René Mendoza V.[1]


two burrosThe Figure of the two burros is illustrative: there is food for both, but they are individually struggling with one another under the idea of “everyone for yourself” and “the law of the jungle”, and in the end neither eats, until they see one another, recognize their situation, and collaborate in order to survive. Something like this happens to us humans, many times we are not able to see one another, the myth that “the one who pays the piper gets the tune” ensnares us. Recognize one another? Collaborate? Using this image, and taking advantage of a panel of representatives of Universities that was held in Colombia (November 2014), I analyze how universities, generally in an environment where urgency takes precedence over importance, define their teaching and research agenda; then I argue that that importance has to do with the agrarian issue and forms of rural organization, particularly cooperatives; and I conclude pointing to a mechanism so that universities and organizations, like the two burros in the Figure above, in the end might cooperate to produce the most precious resource of our time, knowledge.

The University agenda for research and teaching

Juan P. Martí (La República University, Uruguay) identified three subordinate models: the inbred model, where the university, independently and isolated from society, believing itself to be on the frontier of knowledge, decides on topics to research and teach; the state model, where the public university that, because it depends on public funds, conforms its agenda to the interests of the government, which are not necessarily the concerns of society; and the business model, where the agenda is defined according to the interests of companies, subject to capital. This subordinate character turns the universities into institutions of consultancies.

Antonio Cruz (Federal University of Pelotas, Brasil) thinks that the university is an institution composed of autonomous units with various heteronomic and hierarchical views. If some of these units respond to the logic of the market, and are connected to cooperatives that also respond to the market, the resulting agenda is “more of the same”, a model subordinated to companies – as Juan P. Martí would say. And if some sectors of the university committed to change are connected to cooperatives with similar objectives, there are possibilities of composing a transformative agenda. This agenda implies collaborating, producing a new approach linked to sustainability, and consequently changing the content of the teaching from “economic growth at the cost of the natural resources”, like the practices of some cooperatives of “growing”, similar to agrobusinesses.

This change includes pedagogical and ideological practices. William Delgado (Catholic University of Colombia) questions how to be cooperative if the incentives in the teaching (e.g. award the one who gets the best grade) produce selfish students, like many cooperatives awarding the individual action of their members. Yolando Ruíz (Uniminuto de Dios, Colombia) argues for an economy freed from liberal theory, which according to Antonio Cruz requires an ideological change in the professors to recognize that there is not just “Emilia Romagna” but also the “Mondragón cooperative” with empirical and theoretical evidence that show high collective yields. And Sonya Novkovic (Research Director of the International Cooperative Alliance) stresses the need to correct a half century of free market economic policy focused on ideas of being rational, the miser that seeks his profit, and that instead work be done on the principles of a new economy focused on people, a localized economy, constructed on social relationships, practicing economic democracy, using finance in an ethical manner, and being sustainable and with the power of recovery.



Historical importance of the peasantry and small scale production

Even with the changes discussed, the unfortunate thing is that the Universities have turned their backs on peasant families and small scale producers. The United Nations declared 2014 “The International Year of Family Agriculture”. Even with the growing urbanization of Central America, agriculture continues to be its basis of development. And that, theoretically, comes from centuries ago in terms of the agrarian question; let us remember Lenin´s question of accumulation, Kautsky´s question about production, Engel´s political question, and Chayanov´s question about differentiation. The peasantry in Latin American weighed in as a political-economic actor in the decade of the 50´s and 60´s, considered “small production” by the farm modernization imposed by the dictatorships of the 70´s, and later by the neoliberal policies from the 80´s. The topicality of these issues is so real that Peter Marchetti (Rafael Landívar University, Guatemala) finds that the 2008 World Development Report on “agriculture for development” is in line with Lenin´s question.

This weight in terms of ideas is also expressed in the numbers. Out of a population of 45 million in Central America, 50% is rural; according to Eduardo Baumeister, assessing the percentage distribution of the gross agricultural aggregate value by type of farms, family agriculture is 48.7% According to studies of  IFAD and the World Bank the region needs to increase its productivity, which according to Adolfo Acevedo is possible only if agricultural activities improve their productivity – in other words, the peasantry and small scale production.

The universities have turned their backs on these hundred year old ideas and forces. Because they prioritize business majors and teach the economic and administrative logic of large enterprises, which is adverse to the peasant/small production logic. The “solidarity economy” that is growing in Latin America is not taught in any University of Central America. André Martin (Sherbrooke University, Canada) says that the students who finish administration do not know how a cooperative is managed, and adds: “the cooperatives in Canada say that they know how to manage the cooperatives, but for 20 years they do not know why they are managing them”; we have cooperatives in the region offering services of financing, commerce and/or technology that are responding to the neoliberal approach and to the ideology of “growing in order to later share” where generally that “later” never arrives.

Mechanisms of cooperation in order to generate knowledge

The debt of the universities with society is a debt shared by some of the cooperatives. Marietta Bucheli (Rural Studies Institute of the Javeriana University, Colombia) says that you have to understand the rural sector through their organizations within a framework of “a dialogue of knowledge” and study the solidarity organizations in the sense of recognizing their contribution as innovative organizations, and not just highlighting their participation in some activity.

Let us go a bit further. It is a matter of recognizing the importance of the agrarian issue, farming families and their organizations, building non “neutral” mechanisms that point toward a way of being  society and university. It is “getting smaller in order to grow”; sustainability and redistribution. It is work done between universities and rural organizations, expanding horizons and mechanisms for rewriting the economy and recognizing realities like “Emilia Romagna” and the Mondragón Cooperatives in the region. This is the way to work on a research and learning agenda with society, and interacting with the state and the markets, replacing the myth of the University as the “house of knowledge” with that of a path, sharing and debating, a place for the construction of knowledge.

The burros in the Figure took a step, cooperating in the short term. Universities and cooperatives need to take another step, producing knowledge, developing a new vision in order to solve 100 and 1000 years of challenges, like the pioneers of Rochdale. Is it time to repay the debt?

[1] Collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua).

“Passing on the gift”, an innovative mechanism for erradicating poverty

“Passing on the gift”, an innovative mechanism for erradicating poverty

René Mendoza V. and Abemelet J. García


“These hungry children do not need a glass of milk, but a cow”

(Dan West, 1938)

 An innovative mechanism for erradicating poverty is “passing on the gift”, a mechanism invented 70 years ago. We describe it in this article, analyze its erosion and suggest recovering it.

The novelty in its origins

Dan West, a farmer from Ohio, working with the Quakers and Mennonites, directed a program that distributed milk rations to children during the Spanish civil war (1936-1939). There he came to understand that those children did not need a glass a milk but rather “a cow.” On returning to Indiana, West promoted that vision among his neighbors and the Church, founding Heifer International Foundation, and in 1944 sent the first group of bred cows, donated by local farmers, to Puerto Rico.

The idea was that farmers with cattle would donate to other

families, so that they might have a “cow” that would give them milk for years, instead of a “glass of milk” for days; the families who received it would donate the first calf to another family–passing on the gift, now keeping the cow, in an unending chain. Its principles included being donors to one another, and all that within a religious environment that helped to build trust, faith and social relationships, that they accompanied and made the chain continue.

This innovation assumes that there is dialogue among the families, a study of their real needs (they are not going to give a calf to someone who already has cattle, but in accordance with th

e conditions of the places and the families) and a shared decision between the communities and organizations like Heifer. There is a harmony between endogenous and exogenous factors, in accordance with the circumstances.

When Innovation loses its novelty

“Passing on the gift” has been applied in a good part of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Heifer International uses it; as well as other aid organizations with and without the advice of

Heifer. It has varied over time and also in different places, some continue with bovine livestock,  others go with sheep, pigs, camels, poultry…They have also been adding environmental aspects.


The accompanying Diagram illustrates this system for poultry. One woman receives 6 improved hens, and crosses them with her native rooster. The three month old chicks resulting from the crossing are given to three other women that she chooses. Then each one of the three families chooses a family to give them a similar number of poultry. Along with the chicks, know-

Passing on the gift poultry

ledge is also transferred on the preparation of concentrates, construction of homemade incubator, improvement plan, poultry management, production and financial records. It is a “passing” of products (poultry) and knowledge, while at the same time social relationships are deepened.

Its great potential is the possibility that it become an unending chain, but it has been losing the essence of its novelty. The chain begins with resources (material and non-material) from international aid, and the attention of the families is toward that organization; the chain ends when the project ends. The initial innovation was, more than a “cow”, the vision that emerged in one experience, responding to felt needs, now poultry, pigs or cows are provided to families that many times already have one and their real needs are different. The initial innovation combined exogenous and endogenous factors, now the implicit message is that “what you have and are does not have value”, and the fact that there are different breeds of poultry and different management in the same community goes unnoticed. The initial innovation included a base of social capital that nourished the “passing of the gift”, now the networksand their institutions are ignored, and instead they come in preaching values. The more organizations like Heifer grow, the more they modernize and receive large amounts of resources, and the less they study the realities in which they move, the more they turn the “passing of the gift” into a decontextualized recipe. Something that creates dependency could have counterproductive effects, increasing poverty instead of reducing it.

Recovering the innovation in light of its origin and today´s challenges

Many other innovations, like the Peasant to Peasant Program, that started in Mexico and expanded to the rest of Latin America, have “died on the vine” in turning into a project moved only by international aid. How can the innovation of  “passing on the gift”  be recovered? First, following the rules (“whoever receives, gives”; “the calf is born and is given to another family”; “delivering the calf and sharing knowledge about its care”), adapting the novelty to the realities of the families and communities; 1) not giving a pig that eats more than a family, or that is a “tiger” that eats the hens; 2) recognizing that no one is so rich that they cannot receive, nor so poor that they cannot give, and that “no matter how screwed you are you always have something to give to others” (President  of Uruguay José Mujico, 2014), which is why the inital resources like the “cow” would come from ranching families in each country.

Secondly, innovating progressively following the advice that in Nicaragua, L. Arguello (2009, The government maintains a curative health care system and Nicaragua needs a preventive system) gives us: “if you distribute animals, it should be in this order: improved hens, rabbits, pelibuey sheep, tilapia fish, pigs and cows. And all with the proper prior training and accompanying it with environmentally agricultural techniques: soil and water conservationm composting, humus based on earthworms, crop rotation…”

Third, adoption of the “passing on the gift” on the part of already formed organizations like cooperatives, associations, churches and communities. Each organization provides followup so that the “passing on the gift” of improved hens covers their entire membership; then that organization “A” passes on the first group of improved hens and the knowledge of their care to organization “B”; and organization “A” starts the “passing on the gift” with rabbits…

Finally, the accompaniment of this process is done by the board of directors of each organization; the local government monitors and audits it; the Universities study it and disseminate their findings for the training; and international aid mediates so that the initial resources are provided and the relationship among “donors” gets cultivated.

The “passing on the gift” is a mechanism. The real innovation is that each organization takes it on, recreates it based on their reality and vision, and makes it unending – gradually (from one family to another, from one organization to another) and progressively (from poultry to…cattle) – sustainably, causing this process to take on the “snowball effect” for poverty reduction.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). Abemelet is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.

Innovation in a providential society

Innovation in a providential society

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Edgar Fernández[1]

 A teacher invited his disciple to drink some tea. They spoke for awhile. The teacher served the tea, and even when the cup was full, continued pouring it; the tea spilled onto the floor. His disciple, surprised, said to him, “Teacher! The tea is spilling, nothing is going into the cup! The teacher responded, “good observation! The same is happening with you, if you want to learn, first you have to empty what you have in your mental cup.”

The beliefs of a community or society are expressed as truths that make up the cosmovision of a people. They are codes, rules or assumptions that mold our minds about how to produce, govern, or live; they trap and limit movement. In the work of innovation with youth and rural leaders we found dozens of beliefs, among them religious ones, that have an immense power to block innovative initiatives. How can these myths be overcome, and have instead God as a support to the people who innovate? This article deals with this issue.

The potency of beliefs beliefs unlearning article 3

In accordance with the attached Table, people believe that “God” made them poor and stupid- like the families with material riches believe that God made them rich and “clever” (not “stupid”); they conceive of a God who creates inequality, and that the life of each person is already predestined. Under this mentality that produces victims and external culprits, the spaces are closed for innovating. These codes in the minds of people appear as sacred truths, which is why daring to innovate could be understood as a sin, because “only God can create”.

The Pew Research Center in an extensive study (Religion in Latin America: widespread change in a historically Catholic region), included the question about what can Christians do in favor of the needy. The Catholics responded that a way of helping the poor is through charity, while the Protestants emphasized that you have to bring the poor to Christ (2014:87). In a number of works, J.L. Rocha (2012, Los jinetes del desarrollo en tiempos neoliberales, tercer jinete: los neopentecostales), studied neo-Pentecostalism, which expresses a theology of prosperity: “The preachers insist on love for children, the time dedicated to them, the need for a positive attitude, the paternal image of God, the duties with the family, the entrepreneurial spirit, the proper administration of money, personal prosperity…The neo-Pentecostal preachers provide practical advice so that the middle class family man  might know how to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.”

Both studies reveal different perspectives about two types of religions, at the same time that they show common points coherent with the above mentality “written down” through the beliefs. We observe no awareness about inequality, the realities appear to be generated by natural (divine) causes and by individual attitudes – charity and closeness to Christ – and the change (innovation) is determined externally. Note that this perspective is similar to neoliberal fundamentalism: let the market (“the invisible hand”, like the Holy Spirit) guide society in a reality where inequality does not appear and where there are only individuals seeking profit. It is a logic that affects above all the majority of the population, while the “middle class” and the rich families assume a God (“the market” the large capital enterprises would say) that gives them prosperity, “an entrepreneurial spirit” and the capacity to give “charity”.

The “mental cup” of our societies is full of this providential framework, incrusted in institutions and cemented into the depth of the soul, whose questioning is prohibited, which is why the possibilities for societal innovation spill out like the “tea”. How can we work on them? 

Un-learning and cultivating a contingent awareness

 The advice of the teacher was, “if you want to learn, first you must empty what you have in your mental cup.” In other words, un-learning in order to learn, which assumes that each person and society is co-responsible for their realities, including the beliefs. The key is to have an effect from within on two complementary manners, through religion itself, and the other way is by making the beliefs controversial. The former involves analyzing the Bible in a shared fashion with the potential innovators, with the support of educators that theologically do discernment on the scriptures, providing a different (critical) vision to that expressed by the 11 beliefs, with a proactive Gospel passage like the Sermon on the Mount, even taking up M. Weber again (“The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”), that it is the orderly, meticulous and thrifty life that provides the reasoning for methodically managing and organizing a business or an organization. In the latter, understanding innovation as a cognitive process, of making the reality controversial: “Juancho says I am fine, while he is in the jaws of an alligator”; the need to improve emerges in mentally producing the crisis that he is not doing “so good”, and that this improvement is a collective process (of groups, networks). Correspondingly we look into the origins of the 11 beliefs, and we clarify in dialogue what underlies those beliefs: a God of inequality and of injustice, with human beings as puppets whose destiny was defined before they were born, passive people, victims and servile people, and a God who dispossesses them of their capacity to innovate; in the case of the ants, we find that they are not kept by anyone, they live through organized effort and work.

Through this process the “mental cup” is emptied a bit, with the challenge being to provide criteria with which to cultivate a contingent awareness: that situations are generated by human actions, they are changeable, people write their own lives (“free will”), and that at the same time humanity does not control everything, as T. Namiki says, believing in God is necessary…in an unpredictable world we all need to depend on something. This is when the innovation begins.

Innovating is questioning and …

This path, nevertheless, is full of obstacles. Old Marx said that ideas are materialized; the 10 beliefs paralyze innovative actions, making people believe that innovating is divine work or the work of the market.

Innovating is “swimming against that current”; in fact, that is how humanity advances. Socrates 2400 years ago was condemned to death by the system that did not put up with being questioned – the question is more important than the answers. Cardinal De Cusa in the XV Century questioned the geocentric model of the universe and with that the idea that God was in the center of the universe. J Fichte in the XVIII Century questioned the universities for being “secondary schools” where the professors would repeat what the books said instead of introducing innovative ideas, for which he was fired from the University. The list continues up to our times.

The priest Ignacio Ellacuría envisioned a change for humanity 25 years ago, “take down the crucified people from the cross”, and he was murdered. In our case the “cross” are these beliefs maintained by religious and neoliberal fundamentalism. Innovating starts from within people in a dialectical relationship with social change; it is un-learning, cultivating a contingent awareness, questioning, coming  down from the cross and believing in a God of justice.

René Mendoza has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). Edgar Fernández is also a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation.

[1] We are grateful to the theologian J. Arguello and Jorge Wills, a Methodist pastor, for their comments on the draft of this article.

Innovation in Latin America: worldvisions and the force of markets

Discovering consists in looking at the same thing as everyone sees it, and thinking something different

Albert Szent-Györgyi, Nobel in Physics

 “It is not ideas, but interests, material and ideal, that immediately govern the conduct of men. But the “images of the world” created by the “ideas”have with great frequency determined, like switchmen, the rails on which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interests.” (Max Weber, 1946, Essays in Sociology, 280). World visions, like switchmen, have given form to the “rails” (interests) that move human action like innovations. In this article we review close to a dozen innovative experiences systematized by the Latin American Center for Rural Development (RIMISP) between 2011 and 2014, experiencies referring to fruit of the forest, raw sugar, fresh vegetables, crafts, local currency, infusions, coffee and environmental services, implemented by cooperatives, associations, NGOs, donors, financial institutions and businesses. As we review them we ask ourselves what worldvisions made them emerge – and read them – as innovations?

World visions

RIMISP says that the objective of these experiences is to “obtain economic success through the conquest of broader markets” and “increasing income through an improvement of prices and the increase of quantities produced and sold” (Cheaz e Isa, 2012, Empoderamiento económico en América Latina, 5). The leaders of these experiences say: “we grew to have a greater impact”, “we are 25% of exports”, “we are in supermarkets with organic products”, “we invested US$600,000 in infrastructure”, “we are empowering them so that they might be rural enterprises”, “we are the first Small and Medium Enterprise in the stock market”… The desire of a first tier cooperative to be part of a second tier seems natural, as well as a rotating fund to become a microfinance agency, and then a financial entity, for small ranchers to become businessmen and to export cheese, or a professor to become a consultant and to found a business or an NGO. All rivers run to the sea.

That “sea” is the market and the longing to “grow” is being big, getting to the ocean (supermarket, large capital enterprise) following its rules. The credit, marketing and technical assistance services, as well as physical investment, are aimed at this purpose, to access the market: volume, product quality, administration, individual values and organization. (Inter)national aid, also sharing this perspective, talks about “assisting”, “financing” and “empowering”. The approach for systematizing them is synchronized, it assumes that the economy is the basis for everything, it says how much and how they access markets and businesses are made, it defines the experiences as “islands of success” when they are not large corporations, and ponders policies in terms of markets, because “without market conditions nothing happens.”

Thus market is the vision and guide to experiences and systematizations, looking more like economic understakings. How is entrepreneuriship and innovation different? Entrepreneurship is enterprising and deals with the creation of businesses, where the entrepreneur contributes capital and coordinates economic and human resources (Solé, Aguirre y Areyuna, Emprender o innovar ¿Dónde está la diferencia?). Innovation is “implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), a new process, a new method of marketing, or a new organizational method in business practices, place of work or external relations” (OECD-2005, Oslo Manual), it assumes new ideas, their implementation and acceptance by the market (Nemeth, 1997, Managing innovation: When less is more).  Both coincide in the creation of new things and in assuming risks, a context of uncertainty and economic impact; entrepreneurship requires something of innovation and vice versa; they differ in their scope, entrepreneurship focuses on the interior – and in the creation – of businesses, in the magnitud of the innovation which is incremental or radical, and in that entrepreneurship has economics as its basis, and innovation has multiples bases (social, economic, political, cultural). Seen from the financial perspective in terms of the market, the systematized experiences seem more like entrepreneurial undertakings.

Unseen effects

Accessing markets is laudable, subjecting oneself to it hides other elements of equal or greater importance. The rancher succeeds in exporting cheese without leaving milk for cheese in his home, nor trees in his pasturelands. The rotating fund that works in rural communities becomes a microfinance organization and then a financial organization, tending to grow for the commercial sectors and large producers. Producer organizations become exporters and see their members only as providers of products. They strive to put organic products in supermarkets, while they exploit them for profit; the “fair trade” organization wants the large companies to buy that brand. When a corporation accepts buying fruit from an organization for profit, this is seen as the big novelty. Correspondingly, services (credit and technical assistance) are so that the families might produce what the market wants; organizations revert their attention, they look to the market (companies or donors with a lot of capital), and no longer at their communities; rules and values are remade to serve the market. It is assumed that growing is aligning up with large capital enterprises, and having sale volume, physical investment and technical-administrative staff. What is unperceived is that the larger an organization gets, the more it centralizes, the more it bureaucratizes, the more it limits itself to the economics, the more it distances itself from its members, and the less democracy it has. The “iron law of the oligarchy”, developed by Michels in 1911 seems to get enforced.

Not all rivers run to the sea. Some cooperatives told Pope Francis, as he said in the 2013 III Festival of the Social Doctrine of the Church, that in the face of the economic crisis they decided  to reduce their margin of profit to save jobs; while “for the economy and markets solidarity is almost a bad word” – concluded the Pope. Nakauchi and his friends organized a retail distribution network maintaining some small family stores within the vision of a chain and with a key social role after the earthquakes in Japan. The philosophy of “good living” of some of the Andean countries sees the markets as a means and not an end. In other words, the economy is not the basis for everything; there are multiple “bases” and “visions”; not everyone are resigned to the “law of the chicken coop”,  that the chickens on the higher stoop defecate on those on the lower stoop.

Re-discovering innovations

The tragedy is reading innovations as if they were only economic enterprises, and as if they were only one rail leading to the market without “switchmen”; how much ideas matter so that “paper notes might speak” for multiple visions! Growing is not just becoming large in capital, volume and bureaucracy, it is “thinking differently” and building visions like collective “switchmen”, even getting smaller in order to catalyze greater changes. Some of the experiences reveal glimpses of novelties not picked up by the systematizations: infusions and organic products; combination of homemade products using historical means (milling) and a nostalgic transnational market in raw blocks of sugar in an adverse context of plantations of sugar cane; social networks of women in fresh vegetables and in the incubation of companies mediated with e-markets; balance between exogenous and endogenous factors in many experiences.

Rediscovering these experiences reveals glimpses of visions with the potential to change the world. Building and capturing these visions, in an adverse and uncertain context, is the greatest challenge to “thinking differently” in our times.

René Mendoza has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua).