Tag Archives: Nicaragua

The Inherent Lens

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.

Adam Turville

It’s an interesting study and a sobering one.  I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?

A Tale of Two Countries

I was just thinking….

The reality is that there is a singular head of the country who has caused some very deep divides among the population.  He is known for saying  controversial things about his opponents and his own achievements.   He governs in a very hands-on fashion, a style which many call autocratic.  That style is accentuated by the fact that he has family members serving within his administration, affirming decisions and positions which are not always popular.  It’s not helped by the fact that he is wealthy and that there are so many within the country who are in serious need.

The government has seemed to be consumed by controlling the press, one of the foundations of a strong democratic government. It has repeatedly discounted any news story that is critical of policy or the president himself.  As a result, the president only speaks with media which represents his positions favorably.  For example, even long after the election results of last year, the administration continues to challenge how many voted.

Even in this age of unprecedented political divide, where polarization is the norm, the administration has adopted an extraordinary agenda of intense marginalization of those who do not support the party in power.  It might mean losing one’s job.  Loyalty is prized above all other traits, even at the expense of truth and integrity.  Within the administration, officials follow only the party line as the singular means to the truth, even to the demonization of those who disagree.

A continuing puzzle is the apparent friendliness of the government toward Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.  Unlike a vast majority of nations of the Western Hemisphere, this government has been silent in criticisms of Russia and consistently praising of Putin as a great leader.  Perhaps there is some expectation of return favors in the future, but the government raises suspicions by its unusual posture and kid-glove handling of Russia.   Are we, in fact, independent of “the bear?”

This is one of only three nations to decline participation in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.  Whether that effort is sufficient to have a significant impact upon climate change, the country’s unwillingness to participate in the agreement along with 195 other countries creates a signal of dissonance with the rest of the global community.  There is a great deal of disappointment within the country over the unwillingness of government to work with the other nations of the planet in addressing the global warming threat.

So are my musings about Nicaragua, with some interesting comparisons to the U.S., or vice versa?  The reality of both countries is that there is great distress as a result of increasing polarity and fewer opportunities for full participation in  society.

Maybe we’re more alike than we think….

 

 

 

 

The Nica Act: America First

It’s a comparatively obscure bill in Congress, especially in light of the “big one” having to do with health care and the flurry of Executive Orders signed by the President.  But The Nica Act is legislation that has been floating around the halls of Congress for months now, having recently received new life with a new version submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives in April and a companion version sent to the Senate several weeks later.  It’s a bill that likely won’t even register on most U.S. citizens’ radar. But for Nicaraguans- and especially the poor- it’s a very big deal, indeed.

The U.S. has made an entire history out of intervening in Nicaragua’s politics, nearly always to the detriment of that country and its people.  The history is easy to find, so it does not warrant recounting here.  But if the intention of the U.S. government is to improve the lives of Nicaraguans, once again it seems to have itself in a backwards posture, facing the usual unintended consequences.

The draft of the Nica Bill [Nicaraguan Investments Conditionality Act], threatening to impose economic sanctions on Nicaragua in response to the authoritarian drift and corruption of  Daniel Ortega’s regime, was revived recently for discussion in the US House and Senate.

Republican senator Ted Cruz reintroduced the measure, together with Republican Ileana Ros- Lehtinen and Democrat Albio Sires.

“This legislation would direct the United States to use our voice and vote at international financial institutions to oppose loans for the government of Nicaragua until President Ortega’s regime is held accountable for its oppressive policies and anti-democratic actions, and the Secretary of State certifies that Nicaragua is taking effective steps to hold free and fair elections and combat corruption,” Cruz stated.  In April, twenty-five members of the House demanded not only the reestablishment of democratic institutions in Nicaragua but also an active effort to combat corruption and to investigate the high officials tainted by this type of action, as conditions to prevent a funds stoppage.  In addition, they accelerated the timeline for the State Department to present a report about these conditions, making it a ninety-day period instead of the 120 days stipulated in the original proposal.

The new version of the Nica Act that is now in the Senate, also tends to ignore the agreement between the government and the Organization of American States (OAS). In it, the Nicaraguan government agreed to negotiate over the presence of an OAS electoral observation during the 2017 municipal elections. As a result of that agreement, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has expressed his concern about the reactivation of The Nica Act, observing that “it is not a constructive contribution to the work of the government of Nicaragua and this Secretary General on issues of cooperation for the country’s democratic, electoral and institutional strengthening.”  Almagro invited the bill’s sponsors to reconsider the initiative to provide Nicaragua and the OAS “the time and space needed to move forward with the work agreed to by both parties.”  The Nica Act does take up concerns from the OAS observation mission’s report, a document that signaled clear flaws in Nicaragua’s electoral system, but apparently doesn’t have any faith in OAS ability to work in concert with Nicaraguan officials to address those concerns.  Once again, the U.S. presumes to know best what Nicaragua needs and to force feed it.

The problem, of course, is that if The Nica Act becomes law, those who will pay the price will not be President Ortega or members of his administration or the large business interests aligned with the government.  The oppressed will be the same as always: the poor, the marginalized, many of whom still experience the effects of U.S. interventions from decades ago.  The poor almost always become the debtors, the ones who must pay the price for whatever U.S. policy dictates.  The Washington-based social justice organization Quixote Center, long present in Nicaragua and working on behalf of those without strong voice, concurs that The Nica Act is punitive legislation that will perpetuate the suffering in Nicaragua, one way or another.

Without doubt, there are significant needs that exist in this second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere.  But before the U.S. makes yet another foray into Central American lives and futures- from whatever motivation- perhaps we should devote our energies and attentions to our own election difficulties and inconsistencies, and the state of our own democracy.   Maybe we should take to heart the President’s call for “America First.”  Before touting democracy to others, we must first model it well….

 

 

Not Invented Here

Can I vent here?  I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations.  I understand that.  But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK.  I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.

As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16.  This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day.  The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.  They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies.  We’re excited about the topic!

In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion.  The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong.  In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.

To that end, we have identified key organizations which have  significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective.  Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers.  To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to  the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself.  In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual.  (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)

All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address.  I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap.  I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys.  But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.

First, there is the receptionist.  The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation.  This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow.  (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.)  When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.

Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message.  As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long.   So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions.  I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached.  But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call.  Eleven days later, I have had no response.

I’m frustrated.  So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished.  Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success.  My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call.  I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant.  (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day.  Is it possible that  large development organizations share administrative assistants?  Or do they just all come from the same schools?)  When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y.  And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available.  She will be pleased to pass along my name and number.  I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up.  In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.

I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy.  I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day.  I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate.  (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant?  Or has that become too plebian these days?)  Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff.  Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve.  Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination.  There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.

There.  I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore.  My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered.  It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more.  Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….

 

 

Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….

 

 

 

What Lies Beneath

I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.”  I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and  the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative.  (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)

The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies.  (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.)  Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort.  (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?)  It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.

“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at.  We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones.  Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Wow.  I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us.  Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?).   Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem.  But, within our own circle of family and friends?  (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)

The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be.  Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes.  Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself.  I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise.  But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext.  (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.)  Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?

I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.”  If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives.  There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it.  It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced.   (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)

But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to.   When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it.  Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away.  (All lies should be marked as spam.)  They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment  and loss.  Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth.  And those erosions hurt.  A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth.  The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching.  (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)

We each have little in this world that is truly ours.  (What about my guitars?)  Material items come into our lives, and then they go.    The people in our lives enter and exit.  Always.  We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success.  It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.

I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.”  But like any nagging habit, we can work on it.  We can make it better.   Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….

 

 

 

 

The Need to Own It

I have written here often about some of the cooperatives with whom we work and, especially, the remarkable people encountered in these organizations.  Along the way, I have shared descriptions of some of the tools that we have shared with Nica partners (like Open Book Management and Lean principles), because many rural producers have become convinced of the need for organizational strengthening.  It should be no surprise that Winds of Peace Foundation regards these tools, and others that encourage inclusiveness and participation, as key to sustainable organizational strength.  So do many Nica partners.  But thinking that something is true does not automatically prove that it’s true.  So I decided to share some data about ownership that has recently been published.

The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) has published a new study of employee-ownership in the U.S.   Now, the U.S. is not Nicaragua, and employee stock ownership is not cooperativism.  But the results cited in the report focus on enterprise ownership, owning the business and social equity of an enterprise, and that definition encompasses an entire spectrum of stakeholder models.  And this is a portion of what the study has found:

*Enterprise-owners in this dataset have 33% higher median income from wages overall. This holds true at all wage levels, ranging from a difference of $3,160 in annual wages for the lowest-paid employee-owners to an extra $5,000 for higher-wage workers.

*Median household net wealth among respondents is 92% higher for owners than for non-owners. This disparity holds true for the great majority of subgroups analyzed, including single women, parents raising young children, non-college graduates, and workers of color.

*Enterprise-owners of color in this data have 30% higher income from wages, 79% greater net household wealth, and median tenure in their current job 36% over non-employee-owners of color.

*For families with children ages 0 to 8 in their household, the ownership advantage translates into median household net worth nearly twice that of those without employee ownership, nearly one full year of increased job stability, and $10,000 more in annual wages.

The report is full of additional data which supports the organizational value of ownership; take a look at it for lots of details. But the picture being painted here is one of many colors: organizations that involve their workers as owners are more successful;  greater opportunity comes from ownership; greater participation through ownership yields greater strength and organizational growth; there is a central tendency in us as human beings to nurture and protect that which we own.

Concurrent with the publication of this groundbreaking study was the publication of Fortune Magazine’s 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For.  Of the 73 corporations recognized for their outstanding workplaces, more than half of them (35) incorporated ownership plans for their members.  It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the best companies to work for are companies owned, in whole or part, by the employees or members themselves.  (The Fortune list is traditionally weighted heavily toward technology and healthcare providers; the preponderance of ownership would presumably be even higher in a more representative sample of U.S. businesses.)

There is no mistaking the fact that Nicaraguan cooperatives are owned by their members, in at least the structural, legal sense.  But like their U.S. employee counterparts, Nicaraguan owners need the understanding of what ownership is, of what their ownership obligations and rights are, and how their success truly rises or falls based upon the members taking responsibility, collectively.  Successful ownership is not reliant upon heroes or the efforts of the few or the presence of a beneficent patron.  Success follows a basic understanding of how their cooperative works, how A+B=C, and importance of each member to the whole.

So when the third Certificate Program is convened in August, there will be modules about family strategic planning and access to markets and means of improving production and quality.  But at its core, the Program will be about ownership, seizing the opportunity for self-improvement by embracing both self and collective responsibility.  We’ll be there to help conversations about Open Books and Lean, but the days will really be about our partners’ futures, and their appetite to own it….

 

Falling In Love Again

I’ve been thinking about a blog post written by my colleague, Rene Mendoza, and posted here last month.  The title of Rene’s article was, “Can the Youth Fall in Love with the Countryside Again?”  It’s a provocative idea, in that the data suggests the Nicaraguan youth see little hope in remaining on the family farm, their conclusions relying on analyses of family farm economics as well as, ironically, their own education.  (My apologies, Rene, if I have over-simplified or simply missed their outlooks!)  Rene goes on to offer an alternative and hopeful conclusion, one that I’ll affirm here, though for different reasons.

I’ll first need to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”  The independent producers in rural Nicaragua are, for the most part, extremely poor.  They have little margin for error in their production cycles, whether the difficulties are the result of natural calamity, market gyrations or corruption.  At best, farmers face incredibly difficult logistics: availability of crop inputs do not always coincide with available finances, most producers rely on mill services at other locations, the roads are often little more than unimproved paths, and transport of the harvest to  a reliable marketplace can be a game of chance.  So, yes, let’s acknowledge the very real and complex issues facing the grassroots producers.

Next, I guess I should recognize the “rhino in the room,” the seductive “siren call” of modern society.  Though rural Nicaraguans lead lives far-removed from the technologies and industries of large urban populations, they do not live in solitary confinement.  Televisions, smart phones and Internet access provide an all-too-clear depiction of conveniences and gadgets that are sleek and enticing enough to beckon even the most resistant young person, even those who are prone to remain in the countryside.  It’s a call that reaches nearly all youth these days, with amazements that have names like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google.  The names even sound like a playground.

Then, there’s also the “hippo in the room,” that vast and universal gulf between one generation and the next, where the elders are seen as archaic and the youth as inexperienced children.  Although Nicaraguans do not have an exclusive monopoly on this circumstance, they do endure the contextual reality of being called the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  That’s more than just a bad name, it’s a brand, and one that any new generation would not appreciate receiving from an older one.

So, locked in a small room with the beasts of the wild, is it realistic to really believe that the youth can fall in love with the countryside again?  I think the answer is yes, and for reasons that transcend the presence of the beasts which prowl there.  The beasts are capable of being tamed.  It’s part of the reason Winds of Peace and others are there, in the effort to at least tame the wild game.

The beasts are not immortal.  While their visits can be life-threatening and sometimes long, they can and do move on.  What’s required is the chance to eliminate their feeding grounds: despair, lack of education and a forgetfulness.

Our partners in Nicaragua have never lost hope.  Despite battles with natural disasters and man-made troubles and sometimes fickle and deceiving markets, some Nicaraguans are seemingly impervious to despair.  It’s a critical matter, because where despair is denied roots, hope grows, confidence takes hold and what was once old becomes new.

New.  It’s what seems to attract youth no matter what the context.  The next generation is always focused on charting a new way, their own way, and even if the way is remarkably similar to the way of their elders.  The education of the youth permits them to experience the countryside and its character in ways very different from their parents.  Education of the youth is the fundamental building block for the progress of the country; ability to read and write and conduct basic math are the keys to doors long-closed for many in rural Nicaragua.  But sometimes what the youth learn in class contradicts what they have experienced in the fields: the taskmaster of economics and the glamor of a technological revolution can quickly mask the solitude of the morning, the presence of neighbors, and the strength of community.  Economics might suggest that money is made by selling off components of life, by trading what is inside them for things that will never be truly part of them.  The Internet allows access to virtually everything that is fantasy and fact, but sometimes overlooking that which is really of value.  The education of the youth is the essential ingredient for their development, but only when  they are  taught within the context of all of life’s values.

The real hope for the youth falling in love with the countryside is perhaps not so much found in the technical and operational teachings derived from their education, nor in their search to separate themselves from the known; children eventually come to recognize the wisdom of their parents.   Maybe it’s as much dependent upon the youth remembering what it is that they have loved before, in the days when they climbed trees and fetched water and helped in the fields with family things.  Maybe it’s in the recollection of a history wherein basic dignities of life were worth a family’s struggle, and where human compassion and decency outweighed the heavy obligations of a competitive modern life.  Maybe it’s the discovery of liberation that comes from truth.

Can Nicaraguan youth fall in love with the countryside again?  Yep.  And maybe a good place to start would be for them to talk with those of us who actually search for a love of countryside ourselves, seeking capital in its non-financial forms, hoping to satisfy a longing for honest self-sufficiency, and to remember life in its most basic components….