Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
Son to his Father: old man, you are not making money on the blocks of sugar; you are just doing it to work.
Father: Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it.
Mom: And where do you think our clothes come from, this roof … and part of the food? From sweating over these blocks of sugar!
(Conversation with peasant family, Yoro, Honduras, 2017).
Sugar cane was domesticated 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. It came to the New World based on slave labor and environmental degradation between 1425 and 1493. Slavery began to be stopped in 1807 when England prohibited the slave trade which happened through the purchase of slaves in Africa with sugar itself; at that time more than 11 million slaves had been brought in, more than half to sugar plantations (R. Cohen, “Passion for Sugar” in: National Geographic). These plantations were established at the cost of dispossessing the indigenous populations of their land. With sugar cane we see that “a lot of water has passed under the bridge” – more than water, human blood.
In Central America part of the elite continues in the sugar industry with enormous human and environmental costs (see case of Guatemala: Labrador, Villagrán, Sánchez y Alvarado, “El cartel del azúcar de Guatemala” in: El Faro 25-4-2017, https://elfaro.net/es/201704/centroamerica/20091/El-cartel-del-az%C3%BAcar-de-Guatemala.htm). In the face of this reality, peasant and indigenous families have included sugar cane in their family strategy for self sufficiency and income generation. Does sugar cane allow them to resist? Is this sugar cane, that has planted so much death, also an instrument for life? We argue that if families organize to add value to their sugar cane, they can resist dispossession, remain in their communities without being driven to migrate, and at the same time contribute to environmental sustainability. Consequently, in this article we describe the peasant perspective on sugar cane, the dispossession that they have suffered, their viability, and the challenges that accompanying these processes of repossession imply.
When peasant families see themselves forced to migrate, they tend to take with them some sugar cane plants, and other families even take the sugar mill. The families get to the mountains or places where they can buy less expensive land. There they start to produce corn and beans, they establish their banana plants and sugar cane, they preserve patches of forest for wood and firewood, and they raise small livestock (poultry and pigs) and 2 or 3 cows. Their strategy is to diversify and reduce risk: the forest for wood (home construction, fence posts) and firewood for the kitchen and the oven of the sugar mill; they plant corn, beans and bananas to ensure their food; they grow sugar cane that they turn into blocks of sugar for their own use (to sweeten coffee and natural juices, make honey, pastry, coconut squash, mangos with honey, fritters, corn bread, and liquor – and as young D. Mejía tells us “the recipes of my grandmother are the best with brown sugars”- and for selling it. The sale of the blocks of sugar during a good part of the year, and the sale of 2 to 3 cows a year, is cash to cover other needs (salt, soap, matches, etc) and to buy “new clothes.”
Due to their distance from the market, the idea of the peasant families is to depend as least as possible on outside products. That is why it is easier to take blocks of sugar out to sell in the towns to generate income, than bunches of bananas or corn. Taking 100 lbs of brown sugar blocks generates a little more than double the income of 100 lbs of corn. In addition, sugar is one of the crops that are least affected by diseases or insects, and once established, requires little work and can resprout year after year for more than 50 years. So it is that wooden mills and then iron mills emerged, along with the sugar cane, powered by a team of oxen, and in some communities by a motor. In some communities the blocks of sugar are the only way to connect to the market and get some cash.
Table 1. Transformation of brown sugar block (20 tons / mz)*
L / block
$ / block
Sale (load of blocks)
Weeding (1 mz)
Guide for oxen (load)
Team of oxen (load)
Cutting cane (mz)
Transporting cane (ton)
* 20 tons of sugar cane in 1 mz (0.6988 has) = 33.33 loads of blocks, 1 load = 48 blocks, 1 block= 3 lbs. ** L750/load of blocks; price varies between 700 and 1000/load. L = lempiras, currency of Honduras
Source: based on family producers of cane and with/without mill (Yoro, Honduras)
Table 1 shows its profitability. A family with sugar cane, a mill and a team of oxen could generate income of 13,533 lempiras (balance of 9,600 + 2000 transportation + 3,333 team of oxen – 1,400 for weeding). A family with sugar cane, but without a mill and oxen, that turns in their cane so that it gets processed and they get half the value in return, gets L10,500 (half of L25,000, minus 2,000 for the transportation of the cane). If that same family with a mill takes on the cost of the weeding, leading the oxen around the mill and the cooking, their income increases. Both families get more income as they produce more than 20 tons per manzana.
Pressure combined with dispossession
Living in these communities for 25 to 30 years, families now feel pressure on their economic strategy (income diversification and generation), social strategy (sharecropping relations and sharing labor – mutual support) and political strategy (decisions and autonomy). The “domino effect” of the so-called agricultural frontier is being felt (see: Maldidier, Ch., 2004, “agricultural pioneer fronts, the crest of a far-reaching wave”). The land is tired and its productivity is declining, it needs to be fed, which in turn creates pressure for financial resources to buy fertilizers. Because of world sugar demand and how lucrative it is for the oligopolies, large sugar cane, african palm, rice, and extensive ranching plantations require more land and more water, and that pressure is being felt in the communities whose families at times of greater economic fragility (e.g. sickness of a relative, indebtedness, lack of water), or when the pressure suffocates them (e.g. plantations that close off the road to a community), are left with no choice but to get rid of their land. The sons and daughters who form their own homes press for their inheritance, with the consequence being that the areas per family are getting ever smaller. And the milling of the sugar cane begins to suffer from a scarcity of labor: the work of the ox guides and the cook is hard, from midnight to 9am, because the workers, with the passage of time, take advantage of other opportunities like working in sawmills, coffee fields or migrate in search of other opportunities.
Slowly the sharecropping relationships get eroded and the capacity to decide gives way to the force of the market that comes in with different consumer products, with different labor relations, with credit that finances mono-cropping, with the “deadly embrace” of expensive farm inputs and low prices for peasant products; this is when the population murmurs, “our money doesn´t go very far”. Also state law imposes taxes and restricts the use of their forest areas, while the laws do protect the sugar industry. So human groups, like an ear of corn that shells itself when it loses one kernel, cede their places and go off to other land or become workers. That is why we do not find mills close to the cities; they get farther away tas the “domino effect” intensifies. That is when the profitability of Table 1 gets complicated, because it begins to operate less frequently.
In the last 15 years this practice of establishing oneself, and being forced to migrate to the mountains, appears to be facing drastic changes. Practically speaking there are no more mountains to go to, which is why that escape valve is now being shut down. So increasingly the population migrates to the cities and leaves the country. But at the same time countries like the United States are closing their doors to migrants. The paradox is that that “domino effect” that starts from the demand for sugar mediated by oligopolies, on the one hand expels the peasant families from their land, and on the other hand, they are rejected by the metropolis. This is the second “deadly embrace.”
Adding value to the product in an associative way
How can you resist for more than 25-30 years and stop the “deadly embraces?” The COMAL Network is trying one way, where the peasant families organize into associative enterprises to add value to the sugar cane, producing granulated brown sugar (See: “Eco comal, una marca campesina que cobra auge” in: Diario Tiempo, 4-8-2015).
Table 2. Transformation of granulated brown sugar (20 tons / mz)
Granulated brown sugar
Purchase sugar cane (ton)
Labor (hrs work)
* 1 ton sugar cane = 240 lbs (60% granulated brown sugar 40% crumbs). Exchange rate $1 = L23.3
Source: Records of the granulated brown sugar processing plant of APROCATY (Yoro, Honduras)
In the municipalities of Taulabé, Jocón and Yoro in the last 5 years 100 peasant families that have sugar cane on their diversified farms have organized into 3 associative enterprises. With the support of international aid, they have established 3 processing plants on their farms. Even though their yields vary between 60 to 72% of granulated brown sugar, the calculations in Table 2 are encouraging, even based on the lowest yield. Let´s take a look, a member family sells 20 tons of of sugar cane at L8,800; and then, depending on the policies of the organization, that member family has the possibility of accessing part of the remainder of L5,753 that their sugar cane generated in the organization. In only 3 years, on average in these experiences, the difference of the “value added” is noticeable.
The outlook that they offer us is even more interesting. According to the table the costs are 81.8% of total sales, and to the extent that they grow in volume and yield (let´s say from 60% to 70% of granulated brown sugar), those costs drop from 81.8% to 70%, then the remainder will go beyond L10,000 and also $0.10/lb. This is the commitment of the three organizations.
Going back to the communities, specifically Laguna de la Capa (Yoro) which was already on the outer limit of the 25-30 years, the impact of the processing plant made itself felt. When the APROCATY organization began, the prices for the blocks of sugar were falling below L500/load (48 blocks), the cane fields were being lost and all the symptoms described in section 2 began to appear. “The ear of corn was beginning to lose its kernels” . The entry of the production of granulated brown sugar helped raise the price of cane and blocks of sugar to L700, 800 and even L1,000/load of blocks, because a good part of the sugar cane was turned into granulated brown sugar, which put sugar blocks into short supply. This slowly began to re-energize the production of sugar cane as part of the diversification systems of the families, promoting the consumption of an alternative product to refined sugar, and a production alternative to the human and environmentally degrading practices of the sugar industry.
In spite of the short time line of these experiences, they teach us that it is not just a matter of adding value to the sugar cane and generating profits, but learning to cooperate under associative and business rules. For example, knowing the principle of accounting identity, where the expenses of a business are accounted for separately, understanding that the more effective the organs are (board of directors, committees, assembly) the more efficient the business is that transforms and sells the products, and regulating the use of the profits so that they contribute to the sense of ownership of the members of their organization, and that at the same time allows the equity of the organization to increase. They also teach us that there are risks in the future: that the aforementioned initiative might end up promoting monocropping of sugar cane and erode the peasant-indigenous resistance strategy; that a group might take over the business; that the administration might run the organization behind the backs of the members…
The challenge of accompanying these processes
To manage the risks and create conditions to make the expressed goal viable, it is important to start from the experience of the peasant-indigenous families themselves. They have learned that they are going to make the changes IF they have long term allies – in the good times and in the bad times. The COMAL Network is an expression of that commitment. That committed role, nevertheless, faces enormous challenges, three of which we will introduce here.
For centuries peasant families have counted on the organization and self sufficiency of their extended families. Getting this commitment to scale up organizationally for an effective resistance that would take them beyond the threshold of the 25-30 years implies overcoming centuries-old, deeply rooted institutions. “Yes, I was raised in this and I miss it”, the phrase from the Father quoted at the beginning of the article, means that the practices that he learned and the institutions (e.g. extended family, exclusion of women from the inheritance and from organizations) in which he was raised are going to persist, and even “will be missed.” In this dialogue, the son as well as the father ignored the fact that making blocks of sugar is profitable, as part of a diversification strategy, for 25-30 years. How to understand those perspectives in their contexts in order to accompany them is a monumental challenge for any external ally, because you have to study those realities and ask about alternatives, something difficult when we are accustomed to provide standardized solutions for any situation.
Peasant distrust toward outside actors, particularly merchants, is another institution deeply rooted because of centuries of plundering. Now that distrust is expressed as: “we will go to the meetings if they call us.” This assumes that the one calling the meeting is the external actor or a local person with the aura of being the representative of the external actor, and that they are not going to take the initiatives to call their own meeting and meet on their own. Getting the rules (statutes) and democratic mechanisms of an organization to be followed and used, as a way of “calling your own meeting”, is another challenge for any organization accustomed to going out to the communities and being “the big man” with resources in hand.
Member families in organizations with important physical investments tend to hunker down and prevent the entrance of new members. They do not allow even their sons to join the organization, much less their daughters. It will be difficult for organizations to respect their democratic mechanisms in their statutes if there are no changes in the heart of their families, changes in equity in terms of inheritances and in decision making where the mother and the offspring participate like the father. Without members that are experiencing changes in their families, it will be difficult for the organization to make progress. This is the third challenge for any ally organization.
In conclusion, sugar cane came into Latin America spurting human blood and subduing nature, a practice continued today under “modern clothing.” In the face of this, as the Mother at the beginning of this article would say, granulated brown sugar is more than the block of sugar, and the block of sugar is more than sugar cane, it is “sweat”: work and life. Behind it are peasant-indigenous families that are organized around blocks and the granulated brown sugar, while at the same time they are going deeper into their logic of “not putting all their eggs in the same basket.” Will it be possible that they might begin to express a path for transforming peasant-indigenous products as they transform their families and their organizations toward greater equity?
 René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-Universiity of Antwerp (Belgium), a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS cooperative; firstname.lastname@example.org. Hector is an agronomist, coordinator of the Technical Unit for Business Consultancy of the COMAL Network, and technician-expert in the transformation of granulated brown sugar; email@example.com
Eve left the Garden of Eden over chocolate! Anonymous.
Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Forrest Gump
The exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Bible says, had a decisive moment when, pursued by Pharaoh and his Army, they arrived desperately to the sea, and then Moises raised his staff and the sea opened up; so they turned a page and wrote their history. The chocolate industry predicted that by 2020 they will need 30% more chocolate; nevertheless, the cacao supply does not seem to be responding to the demand. Said figuratively, the state institutions, the market and society, like Moises, are raising the staff of productivity, quality, inclusive businesses and fair trade so that there might be more cacao and Eve might have a reason to not go back to Eden, but the sea is not opening up! Why? What “staff” is needed for the sea to open? This article deals with that question.
 René (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/), an associate researcher of IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and a member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative RL. We note that the name of the municipality “Sasha”, the Dalila cooperative, the ABC and RDA NGO, Flesh company, and the last names Konrad, Peñaranda and Peña, mentioned in this article, are ficticious. We did this to protect those identities from any inconvenience that this article might cause them.
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….
-William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act III, Scene iv
It’s good advice for any of us. The only way to really understand the point of view of “others” is to walk a mile in their moccasins, experience what they experience, see life through their lenses. Truth is ultimately made up of our experiences, what we have seen and felt. If we have never exposed ourselves to the reality of others, as well as our own, we will never have the knowledge to move closer to the truth.
Most immigrants seek to enter this country for reasons which have nothing to do with terrorism or destruction. In fact, most immigrants would prefer not leaving their own homelands at all. But the prospect of losing family members to the violence of war or the ravages of hunger will overshadow nearly any other consideration. What wouldn’t you be prepared to do for the protection of your child, or spouse or parent? Necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps especially when it comes to survival.
It might be instructive for the billionaire leaders of our new administration to encounter hunger or violence face-to-face, for a personal understanding of what’s behind many of the immigrants’ motivations. For example, I have found sharing a meal of egg and tortilla- when such food might well represent the entirety of a host Nicaraguan family’s larder- to be an educational, humbling and emotional event. I’m fairly certain that our new President has never wanted for clean water, so maybe a visit to areas of Central America where clean water is an absolute rarity could provide an alternate view on trading water security for oil pipeline routing in the Dakotas. (Along the way, he might find himself grappling with the question of why some of the pipeline was re-routed after wealthier folks to the north expressed alarm that the pipeline ran too close to their own properties and thus needed to be located elsewhere. Like where the Native American reservations are.) Actually, a second trip into Mexico could be a useful journey for the new President if, this time, the stay included a hike into a barrio where most of the inhabitants are poor; it could provide a different slant on Mexico’s ability to pay for a wall, one that would serve the U.S. border.
I like the idea of being “first.” In many ways, it’s encoded in our DNA to strive and succeed. Competition has been the engine which has brought about many of the most important inventions and discoveries in human history. I readily confess to having lived a good share of my life in this mindset. It wasn’t until my first venture into an impoverished world that I was able to truly “feel what wretches feel.” The awakening might not have been pleasant, but it was important.
That experience provided the insight to understand that being first is not only a hallmark of success, but a label of obligation. When we are first, we have the duty toward the last. In fact, we need the last to be with us, to advance with us, to complete us. How the poorest of the world’s humanity lives is not a reflection on them, but upon the rest of us. It is not only the elite members of the new U.S. presidency who could use exposure to the rest of the world’s realities. After all, a presidency is presumably a reflection of its constituents. Rather, such perspective is needed in all of us, each of us, who claim to be seeking truth as part of the human journey.
A shared vision is only possible with a shared experience….
It’s not often that I’ve yielded the blog space here to some other writer or article, but tonight I’m utterly compelled to do so. The news story, here presented from the Associated Press, speaks for itself.
Below, an Indian woman uses a traditional mud stove in the area in front of her hut in a slum area, outskirts of New Delhi, India, Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
DAVOS, Switzerland — The gap between the super-rich and the poorest half of the global population is starker than previously thought, with just eight men, from Bill Gates to Michael Bloomberg, owning as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, according to an analysis by Oxfam released Monday.
Presenting its findings on the dawn of the annual gathering of the global political and business elites in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, anti-poverty organization Oxfam says the gap between the very rich and poor is far greater than just a year ago. It’s urging leaders to do more than pay lip-service to the problem.
If not, it warns, public anger against this kind of inequality will continue to grow and lead to more seismic political changes akin to last year’s election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
“It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, who will be attending the meeting in Davos. “Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.”
The same report a year earlier said that the richest 62 people on the planet owned as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. However, Oxfam has revised that figure down to eight following new information gathered by Swiss bank Credit Suisse.
Oxfam used Forbes’ billionaires list that was last published in March 2016 to make its headline claim. According to the Forbes list, Microsoft founder Gates is the richest individual with a net worth of $75 billion. The others, in order of ranking, are Amancio Ortega, the Spanish founder of fashion house Inditex, financier Warren Buffett, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helu, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.
Oxfam outlined measures that it hopes will be enacted to help reduce the inequality.
They include higher taxes on wealth and income to ensure a more level playing field and to fund investments in public services and jobs, greater cooperation among governments on ensuring workers are paid decently and the rich don’t dodge their taxes. And business leaders should commit to paying their fair share of taxes and a living wage to employees.
Max Lawson, Oxfam’s policy adviser, urged billionaires to “do the right thing,” and to do “what Bill Gates has called on them to do, which is pay their taxes.”
The ability of the rich to avoid paying their fair share of taxes was vividly exposed last year in the so-called “Panama Papers,” a leaked trove of data that revealed details on offshore accounts that helped individuals shelter their wealth.
“We have a situation where billionaires are paying less tax often than their cleaner or their secretary,” Lawson told The Associated Press. “That’s crazy.”
It’s because of this kind of inequality that trust in institutions has fallen sharply since the global financial crisis of 2008, according to Edelman, one of the world’s biggest marketing firms.
In its own pre-Davos survey of more than 33,000 people across 28 markets, Edelman found the largest-ever drop in trust across government, business, media and even non-governmental organizations. CEO credibility is at an all-time low and government leaders are the least trusted group, according to the survey.
The firm’s 2017 Trust Barometer found that 53 percent of respondents believe the current system has failed them in that it is unfair and offers few hopes for the future, with only 15 percent believing it is working. That belief was evident for both the general population and those with college education.
“The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging,” said Richard Edelman, the firm’s president and CEO. “It began with the Great Recession of 2008, but like the second and third waves of a tsunami, globalization and technological change have further weakened people’s trust in global institutions. The consequence is virulent populism and nationalism as the mass population has taken control away from the elites.”
Edelman highlighted how “the emergence of a media echo chamber” that reinforces personal beliefs while shutting out opposing views has magnified this “cycle of distrust.” According to the survey, search engines are trusted more as an information tool than traditional news editors, 59 percent to 41 percent.
“People now view media as part of the elite,” said Edelman. “The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers. The lack of trust in media has also given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses.”
Edelman said business may be best-placed to help improve trust. Companies need to be transparent and honest with their employees about the changes taking place in the work-place, improve skills and pay fairly, he said.
The online survey was conducted between Oct. 13 and Nov. 16, 2016.
This, readers, lies at the core of nearly all of the unrest and discontent that exists in the world today. Philosophical disagreements run deep, to be sure, but even behind such issues, there is almost certainly a clash between economic deprivation and overabundance. It’s an untenable reality, much like the pending impacts of climate change. In both cases, we collectively will step up to face the problem, or we will become victims of our own inaction.
We’re now down to the top eight wealthiest people in the world, in a game of “last one standing.” I cannot help but wonder what he/she will do in the face of a fully dispossessed humanity….