Stories about unscrupulous behaviors visited upon unsuspecting innocents are commonplace these days. From politics to business, from banks to non-profit organizations, from developing countries to supposedly well-developed nations, from organized fraud to scam artist, the tales all seem to end with a similar result: somebody entrusted with power and/or authority has stolen from somebody else who could not see the deception coming. Nicaragua, unfortunately, has had more than its share of such history and the result is that such acts have tended to spawn more of the same.
I recall meeting the members of a second-tier cooperative up in a coffee growing town in the Madriz province area years ago, and discovering a philosophy and practice that really got me excited about what might be possible in working with rural coffee coops. Here was an organization which spoke of holistic, community development, educating its members on all aspects of what it means to become whole and healthy, and involving its women members in financial education. We provided loans which were always repaid timely. The coop grew in stature among producers in the countryside and in many ways modeled what was possible when peasant producers linked up with a progressive, connected leadership. In several subsequent visits over the years, we re-connected with this organization, always coming away with a renewed sense of hope that organizations like this one could be replicated elsewhere in the countryside. On more than one occasion, we referenced what was happening there to other coops with whom we met. When Winds of Peace began funding a series of workshops in the area, including all members in the coffee value chain, this group responded with its presence and its participation as a leader in the territory.
Quite suddenly two years ago, there came “rumblings” from the territory that something was not right with this second-tier coop, that some mishandling of coffee and revenues had occurred and that the family occupying the primary leadership role within the organization had been misappropriating resources. The claim was a bombshell in the region, both for the members of the coop and the people of the surrounding communities. Police were involved, auditors came to assess, funders nervously checked in with the leadership. We did, too.
Not wanting to believe that the accusations were true, WPF met with the president, who is also the son of the original founder and president. We spoke directly about our concerns arising from the accusations. We asked point-blank whether the principles and objectives espoused years earlier were still in place, or whether they had changed in some ways. We asked whether there was any hint of truth to the allegations and, if not, what might be precipitating such claims. (Politics was the culprit, we were told.) More importantly, we had the opportunity to look straight into the eyes of this young man and discern for ourselves whether we were hearing the truth. We came away convinced that the coop was still on very solid footing.
The sad truth is, he lied. In subsequent months it became clear to everyone that in recent years the coop had been used for the personal enrichment of its leading family, that some loans received by the coop never made it into the hands of its producers, that coffee commitments made by the leadership could not be fulfilled, and that an enormous indebtedness had been incurred in the name of the coop, while none of the funds could be accounted for. This once brightly shining star had tarnished seemingly overnight, and the tarnish had been spread to the unsuspecting peasant producers who had trusted in its integrity and promise. This has been a tale of corruption and betrayal of profound impact, and its victims completely undeserving of such fate. Except for one small matter.
The cooperative is nothing more or less than its name implies, an entity owned by its members, its benefits and responsibilities shared by those members. Therein lies a significant piece of the problem. For as deceiving as the perpetrators have been in this episode, it is the closed system that they created which allowed them to syphon coop assets for their own use. The lack of transparency made for an easy cover-up, long enough for the family to temporarily cover their tracks, recruit several key confederates, avoid suspicions and establish a set of outcomes which would both insulate them from prosecution and further enrich themselves even as the coop’s bankruptcy plays out. Their plan was fiendishly clever and utterly without regard to the financial impact upon the hundreds of family members who had trusted them. But this closed system which allowed the cover up was also the direct result of coop members who did not pay attention, who trusted blindly, who shed their own responsibility in exchange for the ‘ease” of letting someone else do it. Too little knowledge, too little participation, too much trust, and too late to prevent a collapse.
It’s a formula all-too-common in Nicaragua. The “gatekeepers” of coops and Indigenous governance and other organizations occupy a place of control, whether intended or not. And in that space they can come to recognize not only the power they wield but also the ease with which they can deceive. It’s a temptation that might infect any of us, but especially after being in a position of want and need for so long. Finally, we might think to ourselves, there is a chance to do something for myself, for my own family, even at the expense of my neighbor. It might be a price that any of us would be willing to pay and that too many elected leaders have chosen to accept, and never with good result; in the end, somebody must absorb the hurt.
That pain is not the burden of WPF. We have sustained disappointments in the past and there will be more in the future; the human condition does not encourage perfection. Nor does the continuance of our work depend upon the performance of any one actor or group. The pain is the burden of those brothers and sisters who relied on the integrity and honesty of their leaders only to discover that the enticements of easy money were too great for such leaders to ignore. And the pain, eventually, is also the burden of those who would abuse the trust of their neighbors. Because in time, the easy money is spent away on things that do not last. But the scars of betrayal last forever and leave a legacy of shame that remains long after the violation. The pain burdens both the victims and the perpetrators alike, and the circle of loss is complete.
Such a postmortem as this may seem to offer a despairing view of future development progress. But the remedies for this ailment are relatively available, clear and demonstrably effective. The wall of betrayal is prevented when members of a group stay connected and active. The disease of unilateral decision-making is cured when participants decide to participate. The veil of deceit is pierced when leaders are held accountable for transparency and truth by the peers who they represent. These remedies could be cited as requirements by funders and technical groups which purport to serve our sometimes inexperienced partners; organizational leadership and governance are hardly topics taught in whatever limited schooling partners may have had. And the irony of these actions is that they not only maintain the integrity of the organizations, but also enhance their performance, as people can openly see the cause-and-effect of their actions. In the U.S. it’s sometimes referred to as “open-book management” or “ownership thinking.” Whatever its label, it represents the curative for the ailment of the closed system. And in the case of a once-promising coop in Madriz, it might well have derailed what has become an organizational and community train wreck….