I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making. In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies. In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.
Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics. They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S. We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies. The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.
We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance. We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops. We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests. We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.” And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.
And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.
The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.” In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.” Unfortunately, there is no such country. The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.
In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.
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….
As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years. Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.
It has been very personal work. We can describe the organizations. We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live. We can name names. That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources. It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side. It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua. But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”
The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years. The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself. Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived. This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16. It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development. And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.
In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza. Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves. Specifically, Rene will highlight the efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries. And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning. Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.
The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers. They are (hopefully) big names. The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus: the producer and his/her family.
As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees. In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact. It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components. It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua. Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.
Why? Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves. There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own. Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”
I attended the Nobel Peace Prize Forum during this past weekend. It was the 25th annual gathering of Nobel laureates and an eclectic mix of others who have activist interests in the pursuit of a more just and peaceable world. The Forum has now grown to an attendance of approximately 6,000 at the Minneapolis site, with perhaps thousands more connected by Internet livestreaming technologies that linked up with more than 20 countries around the world.
The theme of this year’s gathering was ‘The Power of Ideas: People and Peace,” and there is no question that the big ideas represented by the plenary speakers, in particular, have had a great impact throughout the world. Participants were afforded the opportunity to hear 2006 laureate Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, the father of social business, the founder of Grameen Bank, and of more than 50 other companies in Bangladesh. 2011 laureate Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work for the rights and safety of women and children in Yemen. Malcolm Potts is a Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive scientist, whose most recent book is a fascinating look at Sex and War: How Biology Explains War and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World. Dr. Paul Farmer is one of the world’s leading thinkers on health and human rights and the consequences of social inequality. Dr. Farmer has written extensively on the right to health care and the sanctity of every human life. Powerful thinkers with powerful ideas, all. The chance to hear these activists and “pioneers” is always inspiring, usually thought-provoking, and even occasionally life-changing.
It’s fascinating to hear the stories of how single, decisive actions on the part of seemingly everyday people can generate such transformational movements. Appropriately, the Forum served, in part, to celebrate the enormity of the ideas; such celebration is absolutely warranted in the face of the enormity of the issues to address. But as I sat in the audience during the three days and soaked in the inspiration from these gifted activists and storytellers, I was struck by something significantly smaller than the big ideas attributed to them. Quite the opposite.
If one considers the story of Muhammad Yunus and the birth of microlending, it is not essentially a tale of Grameen Bank and the billions of dollars that have been loaned to impoverished people around the world. At its heart, it is the story of a university professor who could not reconcile his knowledge of economics with his empathy for a poor woman begging on the streets of Bangladesh. In a moment of feeling, whether from guilt or practicality, he loaned her a small sum to be paid back whenever it might become possible, whenever he might again meet her on the street. They did meet. She did repay him. And the rest, as they say, became history.
Paul Farmer has become a veritable medical force in the world, working against convention and bureaucracy on behalf of his patients, almost all of whom reside in the very poorest reaches of the world. But he began practicing medicine in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere- Haiti- with the idea of simply helping every patient he met. “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world,” he says. His story is less about the organizations and medical movements he has influenced and more about his commitment to a patient. Every patient.
Tawakkol Karman never set out to become the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Essentially, she could no longer remain quiet in the face of an oppressive culture which denied basic rights to women, including the right to express their own ideas freely. With other female journalist colleagues, she simply said “no” to the continuation of censored speech, and “yes” to the promotion of all human rights, “particularly freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights.”
Their impacts have become huge. Yet for each of these change agents, the starting point was a single, small act. Each sought to be an influence within his/her own niche of life, to make a difference in the life of a beggar or a patient or a colleague. The outreach was close and personal. And in that mix of connectedness something singular was created among its actors, something which possessed the capacity to grow far beyond its original dimensions and to become more universal in character, a force too strong in its makeup to remain unknown, a movement which captured the imagination of the entire world. Not Yunus nor Farmer nor Karman sought to change the world. Each only sought to do what could be done, one borrower, one patient, one step at a time. From such seeds, movements can bloom.
One Peace Prize Forum attendee asked what she could possibly do in the face of the immensity of the world’s problems, citing hunger, disease, poverty and oppression of all kinds. I thought I heard in her question the wonderment about what the Forum speakers had shared and the initiatives that had developed under their activism. But really, her wonderment might have been better directed to the simplicity of how these pioneers have acted. For the power of their ideas stem from a basic truth: there is no cause greater than the love of your neighbor, no gift more important than the role of servant to those in need, whether helping a neighbor, an organization, a village or a country. Each one of us represents a single piece in this great puzzle of life. It’s a piece we each need to play….