Category Archives: Education

Losing Your Nose to Spite Your Face

I’m puzzled.   As a fellow of reasonable intelligence (despite the claims of a few irrational friends), I do the best I can to understand the motivations that drive people to think and do as they do, but occasionally I encounter actions that make no sense to my need for sensibility.  One such item occurred this past week in the strange case of Donald Sterling, current owner of the National Basketball Association L.A. Clippers.  Now, before you quit reading this as another Sterling-bash, consider staying with me.  Much has already been shared about the Sterling recording that should be insulting to every one of us, and I have little more to add to such perspectives about racism in the United States.  But in addition to and beyond his racist tripe, Sterling has also managed to reveal something puzzling, something that should be uncomfortable for us for other reasons.

Actually, there’s probably not a great deal of similarity between Donald Sterling and the rest of us.  He’s a billionaire,  a high-profile owner of a professional sports team, a man who openly flaunts  mistresses of his granddaughter’s age and who does so in full view of his wife.   He’s not the first high-profile person to shoot himself in the foot, nor even the biggest.  But when those infamous recordings were made public, Sterling also revealed himself to be a sadly myopic creature, one who is ironically unable to comprehend and capitalize on his own good fortunes.  And this is where we might have something in common.

In just one recorded tantrum, Sterling managed to disparage an entire race of people, but also: insult the fan base that has fed his basketball investment, betray the human assets on whom he relies to conduct that business, cheat financial sponsors who have supported the team and enflame an entire nation which loves to feed upon the missteps and awkward utterances of those who should know better.  In short, Sterling tore apart the foundation of his own well-being.

For the rest of us, our consequences may be less dramatic and immediate, but our stumbles are no less inscrutable.  We humans possess the innate ability and curse to ignore our self-devised catastrophes despite the wealth of history, science, self-awareness and technologies available to us.  We too easily look away from impending consequences of widening poverty, climate change, loss of liberties and other looming realities in the same way that Sterling dismissed the importance of a personal moral standard.  Our blind tendencies are even endemic within the conduct and pronouncements of our nations.

For instance, the United States.  It’s clear that our government is either oblivious to or content with the inexorable erosion of a middle class which has been the bedrock of the nation’s growth and strength for decades.  As the disparity between the super-rich and the lower economic class continues to widen,  only the wealthiest citizens will be capable of buying goods and services to fuel economic prosperity.  That’s something which this small portion of the population is incapable of expanding, simply due to their limited number.  It’s the death-knell to coveted growth.  But like Donald Sterling, we seem to be unmindful of the very strengths that got us to this unprecedented level of national economic wealth. Like Sterling, we take for granted that such standing will always be there for us.  Yet the illusion foreshadows a very Sterling-like destruction of our own well-being.

It’s no less true in a place like Nicaragua, where our human propensities play out in the very same ways.  The powerful and elite systematically marginalize the powerless and peasantry, to the detriment of sustainable development.  Meanwhile, this second-poorest country of the Western Hemisphere has been attempting for decades to build upon its foundational strengths- agriculture, natural resources, social and cultural heritage- while at the same time ignoring the reality that most Nicaraguan children aren’t even graduating from grade school.  It’s like trying to lay a building foundation on wet sand, and it’s self-defeating.  As in the case of Mr. Sterling, somehow it’s easier to ignore the truth rather than acknowledge the very elements necessary for survival.

Condemnation of Donald Sterling has been swift and nearly unanimous, even among those of us who do not follow the NBA or NFL, MLB or NHL.   And I remain puzzled over this, not because I would in any way condone the boorish behavior of a clueless narcissist, but because I wonder whether we are not all guilty of the same kind of shallow, short-term and self-inflicting pain that Sterling has created for himself.  Maybe we are galvanized in our collective emotions around all of this because deep down we fear that we see something of ourselves in the guise of an 81 year-old who surely, finally comprehends his own hubris, albeit too late….


Innovation leads to productivity, the greatest challenge in the era of sustainable development: The experience of the “sandal clad innnovators”

Innovation leads to productivity, the greatest challenge in the era of sustainable development

The experience of the “sandal clad innnovators”[1]

René Mendoza V. and Edgar Fernández[2]


Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth. Archimedes (287-212 ac)

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. Albert Einstein


The economy of the country is growing, but it shows its fragility because of the weight of external factors in the growth, like remittances, the international prices for raw materials and international aid. The importance of productivity underlies the economy as the motor for sustainable development; nevertheless, Nicaragua is behind the countries of the region in practically every product. In this situation of productive stagnation within a context of a slow economy and the increasing importance of the climate change factor, that affects and is affected, innovation is fundamental for raising productivity, more than offers of services and equipment in line with the “green revolution.” But Nicaragua, according to world ratings, is one of the countries with the least amount of innovation. How can innovation then be generated? In this article we reflect on this question from the experiences of innovation with youth and cooperative organizations.




Nicaragua´s economy has been growing in a sustained fashion since 1992 (3.8%), as has its exports (34.5% coefficient as % of GDP)  and investments (26.1% as % of GDP), accompanied by low inflation. It is a growth that goes along with that of the region. But it is a slow growth: between 1950 and 1977 the economy grew by 6%, and with just an investment rate of 17% and 3.1% annual population growth, it had a 2.9% per capita GDP; while between 1992 and 2011, in spite of high investment and low annual population growth of 1.6%, we are achieving only 2.2% per capita GDP, accompanied by the highest poverty in Central America (42.7% with less than US$2/day in 2012, according to FIDEG) and since 1993 only dropping 1% every two years.


What explains this slow growth, low per capita GDP and relative persistance of poverty? Acevedo (2013) thinks that the investment is concentrated in higher  capital intensity sectors and greater comparative productivity, like energy, mines, transportation and communications, which generate only a fraction of jobs, while the agricultural, commercial and service sectors generate 76.7% of jobs; that those sectors where there is more investment have less linkages to the rest of the economy, which is why there are not positive externalities; and that the internal demand has expanded on the basis of imports (54.7% coefficient as % of GDP) of non durable goods (from 6.3 as % of GDP in 1994 to 18.4% in 2011), which means that instead of absorbing the national production, the remittances are demanding more imported products.


The key is in the agricultural and commerce sectors where most of employment is concentrated. They are low technology sectors that generate little learning, demand low quality and low remunerated labor, that result in low productivity, and that consequently lower the productivity of the economy overall. In reviewing the agricultural technology we find that between 1961 and 2011 the farm area of Nicaragua, in contrast to the rest of the countries of the region, has increased, revealing the historical pattern that the production has increased on the basis of adding area instead of technology; there is less use of farm machinery, 450 tractors/100 has in 1979 to 200 in 1999, while fertilizers/ha, from 0.22 grams in 1983 to 0.7 grams in 2000, and farm and industrial credit has been reduced since 1978. There is then consensus in the need to increase the productivity and the competitiveness of the agricultural and commerce sectors; but what are the determining factors of productivity? The first perspective, the conventional one (e.g. Acevedo 2013) assumes that it is through an increase in mechanized technology, greater use of agrochemicals, infrastructure, increase in credit for investments, and technical assistance, let us say, in line with the “green revolution”, ignoring climate change, for example, that is already a structural factor that cannot easily be avoided (Mendoza, 2014).


The second perspective is that of Nuñez (2012) who thinks that the low yields in products like corn, beans, and livestock raising “are affected progressively by the agro-ecological environment as well as by climate change” and proposes a formal modality of “corporative associativity for each crop”, that includes “indicative and programatic state and private planning, associativity and the industrialization of the agricultural production.” Then he clarifies what that model is: “By associativity we understand it to be the horizontal integration of the producers and vertical integration of the value chains, be they at the national or local level, in such a way that it allows public and private leadership to indicatively plan, in other words, voluntarily and democratically plan the performance of a programatically determined product: diagnose and forecast the situation of the crop, bring producers together, design and indicate concrete policies, techniques and practices, follow up on results, movement of levers that would facilitate access to the inputs and information, price and local and Central American market stabilization. A good example of corporative associativity are the agricultural roundtables where the principal institutions connected to a crop come together with the principal aassociations around those crops.” In other words, the government and the business sector would direct (and plan) the productivity of each crop, connecting themselves with leaders of organizations through the agricultural roundtables.


Both perspectives ignore three structural factors. First, in the present, climate change is not only affecting agriculture but also agriculture is having an impact on climate change, which is why, at least rationally, it is not possible to increase a productivity that at the same time is contributing to the generation of the green house gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrious oxide); this means rethinking the productive matrix in accordance with the specificities of the territories. Secondly, the technocratic measures of suggesting certain packages of services, ignoring the assymetry of the power relations within which our societies move, end up implicitly supporting the return of what we have called the “modern hacienda” – land concentration, practices of monocropping and plantation systems, accompanied by technology intensiveness in agrochemicals – and in the legitimization of the relations of domination between organizations and those who make up those organizations (Mendoza 2014). And thirdly, both perspectives ignore that productivity requires more than supplies, but innovation on the part of the rural families themselves, accompanied by services with high knowledge generation components. The following sections focus on the issue of innovation, taking into account the role of agriculture in climate change, the asymmetry of power in which the rural societies find themselves immersed in their different spheres – that of the family, the social networks, the organizations and the territories – and in the need that any formal coordination (“roundtables”, “commissions”) might have the rural families as actors and might respond to the specific contexts of the territories, strengthening the autonomy of the grassroots organizations.


  1. 1.     Innovation, the motor of productivity


Even though innovation is increasingly recognized as the path to development, let us start recognizing that Nicaragua is practically at the tail end of countries in this aspect. In The Global Innovation Index 2013: The Local Dynamics of Innovation Are Well at Play, based on entry indicators (institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market and business sophistication) and on results (knowledge and technology, and creativity) out of 142 countries, Nicaragua is in position 115, while in 2012 it was at 105, it dropped by 10 points, putting itself in last place among the countries of Latin America, while Costa Rica displaced Chile for first place. In the World Bank study (Lederman, Messina, Pienknagura, and Rigolini, 2013, Entrepreneurism in Latin America: Many Businesses and not much Innovation), refering to the 2006-2010 period out of 57 countries evaluated, Nicaragua is in position 52; the study expressed serious doubts about the sustainability of growth in Latin America, t due more to the rebound in the prices of raw materials, and concludes that the emergence of many businesses in Latin America (high entrepreneurism compared with other regions), regardless of their size, show a deficit of innovation expressed in their investment in R+D, patents, introduction of new products and management practices. With these results it seems that the country is touching bottom. What are the conditions for generating innovation? In this section we summarize what is suggested by the two international organizations, and then what a good part of the large innovators are teaching us.


1.1  Conditions that can contribute to innovation


Let us start from the two international works that refer to innovation, that of the World Bank which is in line with conventional thought, and then with that of the Global Index to get the more micro part. Lederman, et al (2013) think that the growth of the economhy in Latin America is slow because of the lack of innovation on the part of the small and large enterprises, including the Latin American multinationals and the multinationals that operate in Latin America. This is shown in the fact that businesses are introducing new products less frequently, invest little in R+D, their activity in patents is low, the businesses hire people with lower levels of university studies. This World Bank study suggests that in order to have an impact on innovation, in addition to listing aspects like legal rights, transparency, policies refering to industry and commerce, the quality of the human capital and policies for supporting R+D, also needed are policies aimed at increasing competitiveness and addressing the gap in human capital. The former, because entrepreneurial enterprises react better to crises, along the line of the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”; and the latter, to have an impact on the quality of education, above all on the training of engineers and scientists instead of sociologists and macro-economists that have predominated – according to the study mentioned – in Latin America.


This study starts by looking at the work of Schumpeter (1911), taking into consideration that “the successful entrepreneurs are individuals who turn ideas into profitable initiatives,” and adopts a definition of “entrepreneurship that emphasizes innovations for the market”, coherent with the conventional approach of the economy promoted by the World Bank, of freeing up markets in protected sectors – they call it “increasing competition” – conceiving of the private sector as the motor of innovation. In their recommendation on the need for more engineers and scientists, Graph 5[3] shows for Nicaragua the predominance of majors linked to business (economics and business administration – marketing, finance, tourism), engineering and architecture (computers, technology, engineering and general and applied architecture) along with arts and humanities (social sciences, education, esthetics, communication, languages), followed by legal sciences, medicine (biology, chemistry, medicine, nursing) and agriculture.


Under the same tent of the free market, liberalization policies and investment climates for promoting innovation, the Global Innovation Index 2013 (GII-2013) focuses on the micro environment of the 142 countries, and recognizing that innovation is no longer restricted to the R+D laboratories and to the publication of scientific articles, but includes social and business innovation, takes on the definition provided by the Oslo Manual (OECD, 2005): “An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), a new process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization, or external relations.” If before innovations were carried out by experts in closed, internal and localized places, now GII 2013 thinks that the capacity for innovation is seen more as the ability to exploit new technological combinations, and that it is incremental innovation “without research”.


Along these lines, GII 2013 works on the following ideas: 1) innovation centers under the leadership of the large corporations that are the local “champions”, with the participation of the government, businesses, academics and society, developing capacities for innovation in clusters, inter-regional networks and value chains; 2) these “champions” support the innovations with capital and connections, facilitating the creation of knowledge and bridges to the commercialization of ideas; 3) the importance of government policies to attract these “champion businesses” to invest in businesses and ensure the participation of experts; 4) the importance of the tacit knowledge that prevails in local spheres, and that does not respond so much to the parameters of R+D, patents or publications, but to the pysche of individuals, groups and society; 5) connectivity, in this era of communications, it has become a basic human right, because it makes the world smaller interacting and accessing information and knowledge; 6) and the democratization of the innovation to free up the real potential for value creation.


From here GII 2013 develops a broad vision for local innovation, encouraging high technology, creative knowledge or industry, building excellence in research, attracting global companies, and stimulating spinoffs. Its approach, coinciding with that of the World Bank (Lederman et al, 2013) in the neoliberal policies, is aimed at local innovation that comes from the confluence of the new growth theory, focused on the intensity of knowledge, and the cluster approach. The importance of leadership stands out in the local innovations, which they assign to the large enterprises that they consider to be “the champions” .


1.2  Elements that define innovation


From Archimedes to Florence, where a generation of geniuses were concentrated thanks to the Medici brothers, up to Steve Jobs and James Dyson, a lot of water of inventions and innovations has passed under the bridge of humanity. The invention of the wheel in prehistory shortened the distance between places, the telephone reduced our dependency on the wheel, internet eliminated geographic borders and connects people around the world, shortening the innovation cycle and reducing the barriers to innovation. Most of the great findings are inventions, that “did not exist before”, is something unique or a new mechanism, method, composition or process (Wikipedia).


The invention is a phase of the concretization of an idea, while innovation is a phase that includes the use of the innovation, the transformation of a production process, and is more incremental implying a change in the status quo. For Schumpeter (1911) innovation is not just a discovery but “the emergence of a technical or organizational novelty in the production process”; for him an innovator is a “business person creator” that promotes the process of “creative destruction” (transformation process that accompanies the innovation) motivated by having temporary monopoly rent before the innovation gets disseminated, that is, for example, the high productivity that an innovation (product, methods, new forms of business organization, new markets and new sources of raw materials) causes.  Along these lines OECD (2005) refers to innovation as the introduction of a new – or improved – product (good or service), process, commercialization or organizational methods inside an organization (company) or in the exterior relations. And to add to this array of expressions of innovation, Drucker (2002) introduced the idea that businesses are no longer competing with products, but with business models that spring from innovation.


Under this framework the promotion of innovation moves from the challenge to the status quo, the vision, a different perspective of  the world, high purpose and trust in your own brand. Innovations emerge challenging the status quo, appear as highly technical but respond to a larger context of challenging what is conventional, intolerant and logical: “ If at the beginning, an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it” (Albert Einstein). It is not creating something new out of nothing, but combining existing things: “Creativity is just connecting things.” (Steve Jobs). Innovation is vision and passion, vision which is having a different perspective of the world (that no one else sees in this way), and having the desire to live in this world in a different way, and passion, “the genesis of genius” (Anthony Robbins) is the emotional gasoline that drives the vision, of doing the different things clashing with other ways of being different. In a Harvard University study (Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen, 2009) they discovered that the DNA of the largest innovative business managers included five skills: making associations, questioning, observing, experimenting and creating networks, and that in order to think different you have to act different: “In nearly every case the innovators described their behavior before achieving the idea: Something that they saw, someone who they spoke with, some experiment that they did, or questions that they asked. That behavior was what catalyzed the idea.” This vision and passion has a strong source of inspiration which, according to the designer Philippe Starck, comes from creating something that improves your life: “A good product is one that helps you to improve your life.” Innovation is also having aspirations: “The most dangerous thing is not setting our goal very high and failing, but setting our goal very low and achieving it.” (Michelangelo). Innovation is believing in onself, as Steve Jobs recommended: “ Each person represents the most important brand of all – yourself: How you talk, walk, act and think reflects this brand,” making your way, with courage, like the expression of Albert Einstein at the beginning of this article. Innovation is that an entire complexity becomes something simple.


There are different types of innovation. The painter and sculpter Picasso (1881-1973) tells how he created the “bull´s head” (see attached photo): “One day I found amidst of ton of scrap an old bicycle seat and alongside it an old set of rusted handlebars. Immediately I associated the two parts in my imagination. The idea of the bull´s head came to mind without reflecting on it. I just had to solder them (…) maybe I should have thrown out the bull´s head. Throw it in the street, in the ravine, anywhere, but throw it out. Then a worker would have passed by and would have picked it up. Maybe he would have realized that with that bull´s head he could make a seat and handlebars. And he would have done so. It would have been extraordinary.”


Ron Rivera, a Nica-North American, invented Filtron (ceramic filter for potable water), which is for treating water in the home at low cost, that makes contaminated water potable, inactivates the bacteria, stores water at the family level, gets rid of the cloudiness of the water and with collodial silver disinfects by deactivating the bacterias that can pass through its micropores, the water is then deposited in a receptable and the water is extracted through a spicket. Inside the Filtron is a filter that can be made by local potters with local materials, under conditions that do not require electricity; this invented product is the “most globalized and famous product of the Nica brand, more than the rum, the coffee or the hammocks” (Lopez, 2009), it is the “design for the other 90%”.


In addition to technologies, forms of resistance are also innovations. While different cultures fell before the invaders, the Apaches resisted for centuries, and yet in a few years their resistance was eroded (Brafman and Beckstrom, 2006). Concerning the resistance, the Spanish tried to dominate the Apache tribes, so did the Mexicans and the North Americans… All failed. The Apaches had the nant’an as their leaders, they were very decentralized, they functioned in circles. Their adversaries, like they did with the Aztecs and the Incas, believing that the key was to do away with their leaders in order to control their peoples, did away with the nant’an, who were the leaders of the Apaches, but in contrast to the Aztecs and the Incas, the Apaches did not fall, immediately another nant’an  would emerge, they moved in circles and in a very decentralized form. But in the end they fell. What took apart the Apache society? After centuries of resistance, the North Americans gave cattle to the nant’an; given that the cattle was scarce, the nant’an turned into chiefs with the power to distribute them, and thus their power ceased being symbolic and became material. So everyone wanted to be nant’an, the centralization had begun. The power structure, that had been egalitarian, become hierarchical, and power got concentrated at the top.


Also innovative are organizations that have lasted over time. Bill Wilson (1895-1971), an alcoholic, created Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935. He realized that every time that he would go (or was taken) to an expert, he would drink more. He recognized that on his own he could not fight his alcoholism, that it was very easy to rebel against the psychologist, but more difficult to rebel against those who were in the same situation as he was, so getting together with other alcoholics, they met and overcame their alcoholism. Their rules included complete voluntary attendance, you can enter and leave whenever you wanted, the commitment was not to drink for 24 hours, no one and everyone was in charge of the organization.. See: Brafman and Beckstrom (2006).


Likewise the revolution of the automobile. In the decade of the 80s the revolution of the automobile was at its height. The successful giant General Motors (GM) began to have problems, and produce poor quality cars; while Toyota was producing the best cars. Some were saying that it was because of the strong unions in GM, and others because of the Japanese culture at Toyota. Surprisingly, Toyota said that with their methodology GM could also reach the quality levels of Toyota. GM had closed the Fremont Plant in California for producing the worst cars due to their internal tensions, absenteeism and inefficiency, so GM told Toyota to test that out in this plant, but using the same personnel. Toyota accepted and introduced its mechanisms (team work, incentives for quality, and ongoing search for the break-even point between centralization and decentralization). Three years later that plant had become one of the most efficient plants of GM. In other words, with the same personnel, the processes can improve and the results flourish. See Drucker (1946) and Brafman and Beckstrom (2006).


Finally an innovation observed by Steve Wiggins in a family in Paysandú, Uruguay, as part of a group that was trying to get into the milk market in Sao Paolo. To do so they had to lower their costs based on innovation. One of those innovations is as follows.  A number of families were facing the problem of the theft of their barbed wire, so began to think about how to prevent the theft. If they hired a security guard or made the fencing electrified, their costs would go up instead of down. In the end they came to understand that the buyers of the wire would buy a roll of wire off the thieves, but they were not interested in only 2-3 meter long pieces of wire. So they cut the wire at the length between two posts, and then stapled it to each post. The thieves, when they realized the change made, quit stealing it, because there was no market for the cut wire. Is it just that? More than “cutting wire” it is competitiveness, it is improving the quality of life of the consumers and ranchers, it is a family innovating constantly to lower costs and improve the quality of the milk.


Completing this framework, let us remember that we are working in a country that, according to GII-2013 and Lederman et al (2013), is in last place in terms of innovation. The context that we have presented in the introduction tells us that we have had an economy based on natural resources and cheap labor, which is partly why, I think that investing in silver 2016 is going to be a decisive year, but not in the sectors of agriculture and commerce where 7 out of every 10 jobs come from, which has put the breaks on innovation[4]. Nevertheless, Mendoza (2013) shows that the country is entering into a context where there is no more agricultural frontier, which is why the extensive path is now reaching its end, where the advantages of the demographic dividend that began in the 90s will only last until 2035, where there is a pressing need that productivity be coherent with the reduction of the impact of greenhouse gases, and where external factors like international prices for raw materials are in the best of cases uncertain due to the low world economic growth rates predicted. This context could favor innovation. In the face of the historical reality of the country and the new context, what is most urgent in the country is generating innovation and doing so in the rural area. The following sections, based on the experiences of innovation promoted in the rural area between 2012 and 2013, present a summary of innovations that reveal a different way of thinking, then an analysis of the conditions that are blocking and facilitating the innovation processes, and finally policy suggestions.


  1. 2.     Innovation in the rural environment


In this section we talk about the innovations done, or being done, by “sandal-clad” innovators, in other words, done by the rural families themselves, producers and youth who are sons and daughters of producers. We talk about the innovations that we have been finding and of innovations that we are currently accompanying.


2.1  Innovations found


In addition to Ron Rivera´s filtron, there are many innovations in the country. Let us mention some of them. The coffee depulper in Matagalpa. According to Kühl (2004:158) in the Pacific zone “coffee was not washed, but they left the ripe cherries to dry in the sun and then they would hull them”, while in Matagalpa in 1880, because of the abundance of water, the process of depulping and washing of coffee was considered, like what was being done in Guatemala, and there were a number of attempts to do so. According to Vogl (1977), Luis Elster made the first try without success, and on that basis Otto Kühl in 1891 was able to make the depulper, including in it some round wooden cylinders with metal staples inserted in its surface which removed the pulp. And Vogl himself says that they accidentally discovered that leaving the gelatinous parchment coffee to ferment for one day made it much easier to remove the sticky honey by washing it with water.


Another innovation in 2003 is the grass mincer of Julio Rodríguez Madriz (El Cua), a small rancher. It is a mincer made out of local material, wood and other pieces of vehicles and tools like a machete; it is manually operated. The mincer has the capacity to cut 300 lbs of taiwan grass per hour. It is a very low cost innovation and appropriate for small scale ranchers.







A third innovation is the generation of electricity with the flow of water from creek in 2010 by

Concepción Blandón Ferrufino (“Conchito”). Concepción was affected by polio. His neighbors remember, “he would go to school in a little wooden truck that he invented.” Years later he worked on producing energy; he took a broken tape-recorder, adapted the motor and made it possible to receive energy. Then he got his grinder (for sharpening machetes) to function moved by water. Then for the generation of energy: using a hose and a discarded dynamo, which he fixed, he used an old pot that he put a hole in, and the floor to a latrine, completing his work with the “capacitor” (what makes the energy be released), and thus generated electric energy for his family and his brother´s family.


Diagram 1.organizational chart


Box 1: Vision, action and vision

  • In 1993 I saw that the peasants were making bad deals with the coyote to sell their coffee, and I saw that we could get around the coyote organizing as a cooperative; so we formed this cooperative.
  • Then I saw that the interest we were paying was getting away from us, so with our contributions and other loans we organized credit.
  • Then I saw that even though we were getting good money for the coffee, those earnings were going outside in clothing and food, so we organized a store.
  • Now we see that we need to learn how to invest …

Edmundo López, President

Now we have cooperatives with organizational and technological innovations. Mendoza (2013) tells about an organizational innovation in Guatemala. The Cooperative La Voz que Clama en el Desierto, located in the municipality of San Juan del Atitlán, Guatemala, with very high rates of illiteracy and poverty, achieved a complete success: the children of their members go to study in the universities; all the mayors of the municipality in the last 25 years were members of the cooperative, except once when they did not win. This was possible because the cooperative produced and sold organic coffee to the United States, had good yields and high quality coffee. And how was this possible? The novelty was in their rules (see Diagram 1): in order to be president of the cooperative you had to first have been a member of the Leadership Council; to be a member of the leadership council, you had to first have been a member of the administration commission; to be a member of the administrative commission you have to first have been a member of the health or education commission; you could only be president for two terms, and each period was only 1 year, and the posts in the commissions were for 2 years; each board member was responsible for 6 members. Studying the history of the organization, there was only one president who was re-elected for a second term, it was a cooperative where most of its members had already been president for one term.


The José Alfredo Zeledón Cooperative from the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco, Nicaragua, is a first tier organization, autonomous in practice, that has credit services, technical assistance and commercialization (products for its members) , thanks to a strict policy in favor of savings and contributions on the part of its members, and the visionary stubborness of its president, who, in contrast to the cooperative in Guatemala, has continued in that post since the founding of the cooperative. That vision (see Box 1), connected to a zone of peasant resistance, and the strong leadership for implementing the savings and contribution policies, has resulted in this innovation.


The Solidaridad Cooperative overcame the bi-annual nature of the coffee harvest and immunized itself against the attack of the coffee rust and anthracnose (Mendoza, 2013a). How was it able to do it? Since 2010 they had combined technical assistance and the on time purchase and application of inputs, credit and organizational policies. From an agreement of the assembly of the cooperatives, the members pruned and cut back a fifth of their total coffee plants each year, so they no longer suffered the myth of “one year coffee is good and the next year it is bad”, they have stable harvests year after year. As a grassroots cooperative they export quality coffee to market niches, get credit from international financial institutions, and have agreements with businesses that sell chemical inputs with two months grace period to pay. In the application of the inputs, the cooperative provides them in kind to its members as the $5 per quintal that fair trade assigns for productivity, and they do it in the precise moment when their coffee fields need it, an action that is supervised directly by the technician of the cooperative.


What is the common element in these five innovations? All of them respond  to real and urgent needs, the innovators are persistent, they do not give up, and are characterized by becoming indeependent of the ideas of others, seeking their own ideas. They are innovators in different positions in life, skills, places and use of local resources. In the case of the wire, depulper and water filter, there is a network demanding that innovation, the coffee growers, the ranchers and millions of people. In the case of the mincer and electric energy, they are innovations that respond to family needs and production needs. Behind the innovations are networks and organizations that also are overcoming what in the literature is known as “the dilemma of collective action.”


2.2  Innovations of youth and cooperative organizations with external facilitation


We present here the innovations that are in process within a framework of product chains and territories on the part of youth and cooperative organizations for the municipalities of El Cua and San Juan del Rio Coco[5]. In both places the accompaniment by way of modules on innovation was similar, but the innovations have taken on a differentiated dynamic, not just in terms of the type of innovations, but in their organization and their content. Territorial factors weight in and the promotion that the youth innovation facilitators themselves provide.


2.21 Innovations in Peñas Blancas, El Cuá


Most of the innovations are concentrated in the community of Peñas Blancas, and for that reason have a certain emphasis on “community tourism”, followed by coffee, vegetables, citrus, and services like credit. See. Table 1.


Table 1. Innovations in Peñas Blancas


Network of innovations


1.Community tourism
  • Lodging and food
  • Cattle, bananas… to provide food
  • Tourist guide, “La Niña” waterfall…
  • Julia and Francisca Cruz
  • Francisco Cruz
  • Francisco Cruz
  • Lodging
  • Naranjilla
  • Vegetables
  • Orlando Cruz
  • Orlando, Henry
  • Orlando, Henry, Arturo
  • Tourist guide “bird whisperer”, knowledge about birds, and lodging.
  • Abraham Cruz
  • Lodging, food
  • Marcial Gámez… others
  • Lodging, food, auditorium
  • Cooperativa GARBO
2. Eco-diner
  • Diner for tourists and bus passengers, and is market for products from Peñas Blancas
  • Diana Escorcia
  • Ornamental Plants
  • Marisela Cruz
  • Bread and nacatamals, hens and eggs
  • Noema Manzanares
  • Fruit
  • Isabel Manzanares
  • Cream
  • Javier Gadea –from outside of PB
  • Vegetables
  • Abraham, Arturo, Virgilio and Orlando Cruz
  • Coffee
  • Orlando Cruz
  • crafts
  • Martha
Credit for women
  • Seed capital provided by Fondeagro. Credit service to the community.
Pavona Arriba Women´s group

Peñas Blancas Women´s group

3. Credit
  • Pre-microfinance entity: Credit and savings.


  • Credit for women (basis: seed capital from Fondeagro, credit service for the community)
  • Diana Escorcia, Orlando Cruz y Francisco Rodríguez
  • Women´s group in  Pavona Arriba and Peñas Blancas
4. Intercultural communications center
  • Knowledge of Peñas Blancas in its different aspects. Communicating in Spanish and English. Musical guide: CREA, Fco-Mandolina, families that play at celebrations
  • Bird guide
  • Farm guide
  • Animal guide
  • Guide to Peñas Blancas cliffs, waterfalls…
  • Medicinal plant guide
  • Luis Carlos García



  • Abraham
  • Inés
  • Francisco Cruz
  • Marisela
5. Coffee roasting
  • Sale of roasted coffee in Peñas Blancas and Matagalpa
Orlando Cruz, Diana Escorcia and Francisco Rodríguez
6. Productivity
  • Increase yields
Bosawas Cooperative
  • Make use of discarded resource for coffee nurseries and other products
Maudilio Zeledon


Even though initially doing individual innovations was promoted, in the process networked innovations began emerging, not in a collective form, but individual innovations within a network framework – see for example the list in the second column of various innovations that as a whole form a network of innovators around the diner, community tourism, intercultural communication…This happened with innovative youth and families, while other innovations taken on  as cooperatives continued within this framework. What moves them to do so in networks? The context is pushing them in this direction, like the case of community tourism, which gets stronger by the increase in tourism and its demand for lodging and desires to climb to the top of Peñas Blancas, the farms, the cliff, the birds, the animals: it is also the tourism that is making the youth think about learning English to communicate the reality of their communities and their natural resources. In the case of the diner and its networt of providers, it is the tourism as well as the daily movement of the population by public transportation that has increased in recent years, as well as the coffee crisis since 2012 that is leading them to  value the importance of diversification. In the case of coffee, there is growing pressure to save costs and increase productivity, it is an imperative that can be assumed by the Bosawas Cooperative due to the fact that within it there are families with a coffee growing tradition and the spirit to improve their fields.


What are the visions behind these innovations? The virtue of the innovators is their different perspective of the world, of seeing beyond the common view. What have they seen? See Table 2.


Table 2. Visions behind the innovations



1. Community tourism Greater world concern for climate change will contribute to there being more tourism to places like Peñas Blancas because of the cliff. Simple forest tourism will be captured by CEN. A tourism that seeks to know animals, birds, farms and having personalized attention in a family environment, is also going to increase. CEN and CREA are investing for the first type of tourism.

Key: what is most important will not be compact and large forests, but corridors between patches of forest; community tourism will be needed that lives with nature and shares its experience of life, supplying itself from its own production and local resources; that is not there so much for the money as to expressing their lifestyle.


2. Center for intercultural communication Short term: Tourism, accompanied by concentration of land, is going to increase in Peñas Blancas, to the detriment of the local population of Peñas Blancas; homogenization of the culture to conservation, hiding the privatization.

Long term: Tourism is going to fall due to the exclusion of the local population, whose participation is key for the environmental sustainability of Peñas Blancas.

Key: Recreate the identity of Peñas Blancas through communicating cultures – the local, scientific, art and tourism. The interculturality will continue being the greatest wealth of humanity, and now also including nature


3. Diner and network of food providers Food will be scarce to the extent that Peñas Blancas gets privatized and tourism increases. That scarcity will mean that there will be less production and less diversity of production. Tourism will feed off the products that are brought in from outside of Peñas Blancas. Water is going to increase but in a privatized fashion.

This will happen because the producer families will react individually, without impacting the markets and the diners will depend on products from outside of PB.

The most scarce foods will be food that depends on local products, be it diversified (including organic products) and well prepared, done for different publics – tourists, bus passengers, local population. This food can only be produced in networks, people connected among themsevles and to different markets, with an awareness that we are part of something larger than ourselves.


4. Credit Short term: The privatization of Peñas Blancas and their control over the environmental issue makes the financial institutions distance themselves from Peñas Blancas, in particular credit for low income families.

Long term: what will be most valuable will be economic diversification compatible with the environment; and Peñas Blancas will have more and more relevance within the contecxt of climate change. External resources will come in through the “environmental” door.

Key: the financial institution that gets close to the people, finances the economic diversification, with climate change as its central focus, that it be sustainable based on local resources, that will win.


5. Roasted Coffee Roasted coffee is growing in the country, but roasted coffee of a coffee “that my grandmother used to make” and that comes from the Peñas Blancas cliff – Bosawas, is a coffee with its own brand for the population and for the tourists.


6. coffee productivity There is no other option than productivity, but one that at the same time as it increases, addresses climate change, will be the most appropriate. The families with a coffee growing tradition and more innovative spirit, will respond to this demand.



These 6 networks bringing together various dozens of innovators reveal a general vision for El Cua and specifically for the Peñas Blancas territory. What is that vision? In a context of the increase in tourism, of scarce resources from international aid and of the pressing need to preserve resources like water, the concentration of land and the privatization of the environment in order to capture income from tourism (and the population) is going to get worse, and given the primacy of the environmental discourse on the part of those sectors trying to control the Peñas Blancas cliff and control the tourism, the financial institutions will leave the Peñas Blancas zone, affecting the rural families in their perspectives of increasing their productivity and overall sustainability: consequently, helped also by the coffee crisis caused by the rust and the low prices since 2012, the families will be decapitalizing, migrating, becoming farm workers and selling their land, and with that the food produced in the area itself will get scarce. This perspective, in the long term, is not good for anyone, because with the social erosing the security of the zone itself will be affected.


In the face of this reality that is coming, the different innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives end up counteracting it. The rural families can be maintained and even progress through “intelligent” community tourism (that provide lodging and a family environment, knowledge about the ecology and advocacy – with experimentation with biological corridors for birds and animals- favorable to ecology), productive and economic diversification, and alternative financing; doing all these initiatives under the modality of networks – or informal coalitions – among rural families connnected to tourism and the population of the municipality that gets around in public transportation, that revitalizes the cooperatives themselves, and proposes an inclusive perspective of collaboration with even the large income families that present themselves in the area as tourist organizations and even as “non profits” and “protectors of the environment.”



2.22 Innovations in San Juan del Río Coco


Most of the innovations are concentrated in the communities of San Lucas and in Sanmarcanda.


Table  3. Innovations in  SJRC

Principal innovations Other innovations in the path of the principal innovation Innovators
Production of more and better honey and ecology in the municipality Overcoming the seasonal migration of bees Yeris Lanzas and family
Better hives so that the bees produce more
Combination of crops with flowers for rainy season (cítrus, granadilla) that at the same time benefits polinization
Honey with different flavors depending on times of the year
Social organization for responding to the demand for scale
Chile that adds more to life Chile sauce producing vinegar from farm products Everth A. Gonzales and family
Garden where the ingredients for the chile sauce are produced, also in the dry season: e.g. drip irrigation gathering coke bottles (with piece of cloth so that the water drips out
Versions of the ingredients for the chile sauce to get into the middle and upper classes, because currently chile sauce is a popular food of the “lower” classes. Make the chile attractive to the eyes: have special types, colorful and good flavor.
Possibility of producing it in ceramic containers.
Honey wine for the majorities Wine made from honey to bring the family together around a meal each weekend. A wine for no longer getting drunk. Darwin Lanzas and family
A honey subproduct, that you experiment with including other organic products to adapt it to healthy eating.
Chile: A new crop and pickled product (conserved) Introduction of new crop to the municipality Rubén Gonzáles and family
Pickled chile (conserved) in containers of up to 5 months to get better prices
Make the jump from parcel owner to farmer
Chocolate Cacao productivity (farm) With Mom and Dad
Collection, drying of cacao
Experimentation in chocolate and subproducts like cajetas for the local market (storefronts and schools)
Organic fertilizer for attacking infestations (bore ) in beans Carlos J. Dávila Matey
Hair cutting-barber shop In addition to copying famous haircuts, seek to propose haircuts depending on the face of your clients. Provide them with advice Olman Cruz
Create an environment (cool place with plants, and messages referring to hair) to have an impact on the mentality of your clients.
Economic autonomy as cooperative and as member families Coop. José Alfredo Zeledón
Organziational change in the cooperative Coop. Caja Rural
Inheritance and farm diversification, winning over markets Coop. Reynerio Tijerino
Commercialization of bananas and generation of technical-organizational consultancies Coop. Carlos Núñez
Generation of income through collecting coffee, administration of credit and intermediation of beans Coop. Che Guevara
Composition of songs Song 1:

Song 2:

Song 3:

Song 4: Innovators

Corn degrainer (in initial process). Innovators: Didier Alegría, Norman Elías Tercero, Dora Nelly Moreno  
  • Innovation: Handmade decorations based on tree waste. This innovation stopped due to the fact that the innovator Yuri found work as a domestic worker in SJRC
  • Innovation: Sewing embroidering. This innovation stopped because its innovator Arline got married and went to Chontales
  • Innovation: Cultivating on five levels. This innovation stopped because its innovator Iveth left for Managua


In contrast with El Cua-Peñas Blancas, the innovations did not turn into networks but to multiple innovations in the path of ONE innovation, a good part of them with a high technical component. Some have a territorial impact (bees, seasonal migration), others impacts on family networks (chile sauce, chile plants, wine), on neighborhood networks (honey, chocolate) and on organizational changes (cooperatives). Some, like the flower inventory, are contributing to science, something also part of the case of the birds in Peñas Blancas. There is a strong move into processing, be it with chocolate, chile sauce, chiles or wine, and from that phase they are expanding backward in the chain into innovations in the production phase: from chocolate to cacao production, to corn for posol and to the small bananas, from the chile sauce to the family garden, from wine to other products, from the honey-flowers to granadilla, corn…There is concern for health, for introducing nutritional elements be they in the wine, the chile sauce or in the chocolate. These innovations help to revalue what many times gets lost in the kitchen and in the farms, like tomatoes, to reassessing the yard space or the “garbage” like the bottles. Some innovations are a response to seasons of the year, like the flowers in the rainy season or the garden in the dry season when water gets scarce. And there are innovations like the composition of songs or the barber shop that, even though they may appear to be outside of what we are looking for, respond to the initiative of the youth, to the need to grow from their realities and skills, and to the urgency to contribute to the change in their communities.


The innovations in the cooperatives are characterized by being more collective actions and their novelty is that they are expanding their areas from coffee toward other crops, working on how to generate their own funds, decisively enter and win over markets, and innovate organizationally.


This type of innovations do not emerge by chance, but respond to the reality and challenges of their territory, of SJRC. See the following table.


Table 4. Vision behind the innovations

Innovation Vision
1. Production of more and better honey and ecology in the municipality Honey generates income in “dead times” in SJRC that depends on income from coffee between Nov and Feb, and contributes to the environment through their polinization. Many organizations promoted the production of honey; but due to the fact that the bees do not have food in the rainy season, they are transferred to another municipality, with all its costs, the low production and the discouragment that this implies. In the face of this situaiton, innovation will resolve the problem of food during this time contributing to the economy of the municipality- through the income, through contributing to coffee in its struggle against the rust, through raising the productivity of the honey (and other products through polinization), through improving the quality of the honey with different flavors (honey with a coffee flavor between Nov and Feb, citrus flavor in Oct, guagua in May… and through contribuing toward rethinking the farm, e.g. the fence will sustain flowers and fruit, not just wire. The flowers and the bees generate a lot of life
2. Chile that adds more  to life The high dependency on one crop is also expressed on the plate: the diet has been reduced to few ingredients, and chile sauce is disappearing in the country, in addition to the fact that its quality has gone down. Between Feb and July food is even less diverse because there is no garden due to the scarcity of water, there is even no chile production at this time. Getting diversification to become a concern in each home means resolving the diet, making it more diverse and nutritional. This innovation wants to make even a plate with only one ingredient on it respond to what the body needs, with the addition to the chile: “With this chile sauce the beans are even richer.” With the flavor provide a high nutrition substance (food security) and medicinal component, which would lead to revaluing “my Mom´s green thumb” (garden), to intensifying the farm, to test and experiment, and to generate a change in attitude. Any food, with this chile sauce, is more tasty and healthy.
3. Honey wine for the majorities Alcoholism is a serious problem, in addition to the erosion of the families without a space to communicate with one another. Running from this reality and expressing it with machism, getting drunk, has been a path mostly for the poor. Honey wine is organic, it is not like “cane” (rum) with chemicals: more than  “organic liquor” it is a pleasure of the population, health, an inducement for the families to communicate with one another and that they confront their realities and their futures jointly. Honey wine seeks to recover the original objective of drink, which is not to get drunk, but to communicate.
4. Chile: a new and pickled crop (conserved) Depending on just one crop is counterproductive, coming from a family who were fieldhands and now are peasants defines life. Chile is an attempt to introduce a new crop to a zone dominated by the “coffee king”, the novelty is in the attempt to pickle it (conserve, bottle it), above all the innovator seeks to take another step in the life of his family: from fieldhand to plot owners that his parents gave him, he want to take the leap from plot owners to a farmer who diversifies the production and enters into the processing phase.
5. Chocolate In other zones the families produce and sell dry cacao, while in other areas where cacao cooperatives predominate, the families produce cacao and the cooperatives process it (dry it). In SJRC cacao is moving in slowly (18mzs), the families sell dry cacao. There is a space for innovating in production, processing and commercialization. In the part of the processing the innovator is seeking to produce a chocolate with a health impact (diabetes) and aimed at children, as well as subproducts like cajeta and pinol recovering the use of corn for posol (a variety that is being lost in the country), at the same time thinking about how to innovate in the collection of cacao. From plot owner to farmer who goes from processing into production.
6. Hair cutting barbershop The young people want to look like Cristiano Ronaldo (player of real Madrid), Neymar (player of Barcelona). It is haircutting according to style and how famous people wear their hair. The novelty is in studying the forms of your clients faces and advising them on the haircut that will make them most handsome, and that in addition to a barbershop that is be a creative and welcoming space, with sayings that have to do with hair and barbershops. A barbershop that would inspire San Lucas. Sayings: “there is no bald man who is not important.” “he does have one hair of a fool on his head,” “shaved I am someone else” “rejuvenated”; riddles: “black like the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love” = cup of coffee. You get  a haircut and you leave thinking.
7. Innovations of the coops The dependency of the coops on coffee has made them the easy prey of domination. Part of their autonomy passes through the financial part, and above all, of responding to the diversity of products and markets. The cooperatives that respond to that diversity will achieve sustainability and will contribute to the transformation of the municipality.
8. Composition of music From a place like Sanmarcanda where you might least expect to find a songwriter, the innovator is fighting against heaven and earth to write songs. Sanmarcanda is not just a place for coffee, but something unthinkable can be born and grow: a songwriter. Sanmarcanda smells of coffee and is made itself heard through a musical beat.



What visions do these innovations reveal? The dependency of SJRC on coffee has caused counterproductive effects for them, even for the environment now with the rust and with the reaction of most of the producers, changing from the caturra variety to catimor, a variety that requires less trees (liberation of carbon dioxide). This dependency has to do with the history of the “coffee estate” in the municipality, and with the fact that most of the international organizations have prescribed diversification without generating innovation[6], so the honey combs are falling apart becaue they did not solve the problem of bee migration, the promotion of the family gardens without solving the water situation in the dry season, the push toward productive diversification without solving the market problems. This situation tends to make the concentration of land, the growing primacy of commercial intermediation combined with usury interest rates, and the impoverishment of the families all worse. This latter element is expressed in a high indebtedness of the families from a variety of sources[7]; in the reduction in the diet[8] implying that “my Mom´s green thumb” (garden) has almost been lost over time and the farm is less diversified, particularly between the months of Feb and July when the diet is almost just beans and bananas; and in the alcoholism with its consequences including the erosion of the institutional family.


Box 1. Myths that put a stop to innovation


  1. You cannot innovate without money
  2. We were born to plant coffee
  3. One person cannot make a difference
  4. Curiosity killed the cat.
  5. Innovation is for learned people
  6. We do not have the DNA of an innovator
  7. Producers do not know anything
  8. Peasants do not have any degrees and therefore do not create ideas
  9. The technicians know it all
  10. The illterate person cannot think
  11. The wise have everything they need
  12. He is right, because he is family
  13. Productivity is a problem of low schooling
  14. Peasant to your machete, never uses his head
  15. These are my oxen and that is what I am going to plow with
  16. What is old and known is worth more than what is new to learn
  17. In any event tomorrow I am going to die
  18. When I die I am taking nothing with me
  19. God made the clever and the stupid, so the clever can live off the stupid
  20. If you are born to be a corncob, it doesn´t matter whether the rainy season was good or bad
  21. If you were born a planter, you won´t leave the corridor
  22. Everything is made up
  23. Be content with little
  24. Only God can create (innovate)
  25. Peasant learns to read (miyth expressed in a song)
  26. Whoever studies and goes back to their community is a failure

The different innovations seek to find the root of the problem and experiment with ways of diversifying the production (farm and garden), processing (pickling-conserving, subproducts of honey, chocolate) and commercialization (bottling, packaging) and seek forms of organization in their families (e.g. the wine that provides spaces for family communication) and neighbors for questioning themselves about the scale of their actions in light of the possible markets. This search is connected to the discovery of the footprints in the history of the families themselves, that were diversified and self sufficient, and that different factors made them “forget” those footprints. The vision that is revealed is that the municipality can change with horizontal diversification (production) and vertical diversification, connected to their own footprints, turning the plot owners into farmers along with “my Mom´s green thumb” (gardens) with multiple effects in terms of productivity and the quality of the products, and of contributing to the environment along the lines of reducing climate change. Rethinking the farm and the municipality, precisely in order to innovate; drawing it differently to the extent that the footprints (and with it the awareness) re-appear; have the diversification enter in through the table and the plate, not as something imported but the result of endogenous innovation. The visions reveal a municipality without “dead times” (months without money and joy), that stagger their income with different products, an environmentally sustainable municipality, with technical innovations that express social changes, a municipality with farms that express production, processing and commercialization. A municipality with families that are not “loitering and falling down” (see footnote no. 7), that make a leap in economic, social and environmental terms, with innovations that free them from debt.


This vision could be possible if the innovations promoted by the cooperative and the youth are more and more combined, this has the potential of generating synergies that would transform the municipality.


  1. 3.     Institutionality that shapes and inspiration that awakens innovation


There is an institutionality that limits and facilitates innnovations. For example, the myths (see Box 1) are an incredible force that puts the breaks on innovation; if a person believes that he “was born stupid” and “is stupid” by nature, then how can he create ideas and innovation? If the so-called scholars believe that the peasant families are ignorant, what innovations can be expected on the part of the peasant families? A first and MONUMENTAL step is un-learning, and this implies dialogue with the myths, understanding the context in which they emerged and evaluating them in the light of the evidence; from there demonstrating the innovations like those presented in section 2.1 are a mental “shock” that makes one discover that the myths are only myths.


In this section we reflect on other factors, also institutional, and at the same time we ask ourselves about how to awaken this “worm” of an innovative spirit that each person carries within themselves and in the footprints of their families.


3.1  The harshness of the institutional reality


The first limiting factor is the economic environment in the territories that, in turn, is connected to the international environment. In SJRC as well as in Peñas Blancas the financial institutions have been pulling out, making credit more expensive, for different reasons; in the case of SJRC because of the economic crisis that is being experienced, because of the systematic corruption of some cooperatives, the over-indebtedness of the families, and because of the number of lawsuits over debt to now defunct Interbank (a bank that went broke at the end of the 90s, where 300 people from SJRC appear as debtors) and because of the weight of the No Payer movement in the municipality; and in the case of Peñas Blancas because of the environmental policies that make it difficult for productive activities to be financed. This situation is connected to international organizations; the environmental policies are global and national, backed by t state institutions and international organizations; and the break up of the cooperatives is due to internal factors of these organizations as well as the support of international organizations (financial and fair trade) for elites that everyone knows are acting behind the backs of the grassroots cooperatives and their members, violating their statutes and the cooperative law[9].


This economic crisis in the case of SJRC has to do with the dependency on the coffee crop; and in the case of Peñas Blancas with the primacy of a traditional environmentalism that priortizes large forest areas causing a rift with peasant agroforestry, but coherent with the interests of the tourism industry, and in part also to the relative importance of coffee as “the biggest generator of income.” In the face of this situaiton, when the families feel that coffee is falling into crisis because of the rust and the low prices, they perceive that their organizations are falling into corruption and they are losing their land in the face of the concentration of land in the name of “progress” (SJRC) and in the name of “environmentalism” (Peñas Blancas), the hopelessness increases, the weight of religions grows, conformism builds a nest and the innovators begin to wobble.


The dependency on coffee has even the potential of stagnating innovations for diversification. By the fact of receiving C$25,000 for 10 loads of coffee from one manzana in the month of December, it seems to them that it is a crop which really “provides a lot of money”, compared with bananas that each month could provide them C$640 (40 bunches in that same manzana at C$16), or C$7,680 a year, which seems so small to them that it paralizes their energy to sell those plaintains. And if the technicians do the addition for a year, without revealing that C$100 in the month of May is worth 10 times more because of the scarcity of money at that time, than C$100 in December which is the month of coffee, the paralizing effect is even greater. In some innovations like chile and the chile sauce, coffee stopped them: “The chile was there, but because the coffee harvest came, I had to leave the chile.” The belief that “having coffee is having money” is overwhelming. We could say that “it really is the limit for the small producer to bet on only one crop”, and believing that that crop is equal to money, forgetting his food security and his family labor during the entire year; the effect of this is that their social networks get reduced because they are only connected to those who are committed to that crop, they have a market reduced to that crop and their own cooperative organization is reduced to this crop and consequently only to the financial part[10]. It is like extractive activities in Latin America that bet on extracting natural resources and that blocks the innovation for the entire country (cf. The Dutch disease).


The mentality one has weighs more than a load of coffee. “Be happy with the little you have”, goes the myth. There are producers that dream about “not being like my father, the fieldhand” and then after jumping over a small mound, stay on that hill. “I learned commerce from my Mom, and then I remained a small farmer.” He did not continue combining commerce with the farming, the mentality of “farmer” separates production and commerce (See also footnote 10). The idea of accumulating under a large-estate-extensive-technology culture predominates, the new elite are constituted with the idea “the more land I have the more power I have”, where productivity does not appear; the peasant families, for their part, are prisoners of that very institutionality, they do not take on the challenge of productivity and prefer to wait for projects, credit, rent land or temporarily migrate to neighboring countries, they end up going into debt and come close to selling their lands. This dynamic is indirectly but effectively supported by the microfinance institutions and by the large export companies, when they provide credit to harvest collectors that give crop lien loans to the peasants and end up dispossessing them of their land.  The mentality of SJRC continues the same pattern since 1935 which was extensive agriculture with a company store on the estate and usury, and concentration of land; under this practice the institutionality has been “making the people go broke and hoarding the land.” The enormous challenge of the innovators is to break with this mentality.


Another aspect of the mentality is the combination of the patriarch and his children with formal education where the distance between the peasant who can even read and write and the so-called “scholars” gets even greater. It is common to hear the technicians say that there are no changes in the cooperatives “because the members of the cooperatives have low levels of schooling” and on the peasant´s side hear them repeating  “I don´t have much schooling”, and among the peasants themselves murmurring that “the scholar, the person who had studied is quicker than we are, with practice they can write very fast, add quickly, and we who do not practice, when are we going to be able to grasp and copy everything? They just do it, grab the whiteboard, put a bunch of numbers on it and get you all mixed up.” This distance is evident in the assemblies where people are afraid to question the scholar, and “everyone moves their heads like garrobos.” This situation is reinforced by the dominant model of technical assistance that ignores local knowledge and focuses on crops without contributing to changes that would allow the productivity to improve. Under this institutionality they self-exclude themselves from positions of leadership and to working on innovative processes.


The weight of tradition is decisive, which is the reason for the lack of search for new alternatives to deal with the crisis. For the coffee rust everyone says that cutting back in block provides the best results, but they do not do it; in basic grains everyone complains about the low yields, but they continue cultivating them in the same way. In general the producers do not believe in alternative ways of cultivating (organic agriculture, agroecology), because the attempts that existed did not work: e.g. the tomatoes planted by Orlando Cruz were affected by the lack of spraying. The heads of the families (fathers, elders) decide what it going to be planted on the farm, even though some allow their children to experiment and test new things (e.g. Don Chico let his sons grow vegetables even though he did not get involved); an experience of an agroecological crop which has been started is from someone (Matute the musisian) who is not from Peñas Blancas and was able to demonstrate that it was sustainable. He was able to introduce a change in the way of producing, showing that other practices are possible. In the case of Peñas Blancas, El Cua the development projects and studies of CEN and of master degree students, because of lack of rootedness, help to create an aura in the producers about the scholars; and the producers talk about how important the work in common in the cooperative is, but in practice they work individually or as a family, to the extreme that in GARBO they only participate if there is financing.


In terms of attitude, we pay attention to the institution of the family. Many young people have to fight with their own family, which can be a powerful obstacle, or a tremendous facilitator; if a member of the family is an alcoholic, is a jealous husband[11] or a father with a lot of lovers, the innovative person tends to lose perspective and be marked by the effects of this family situation; on the other hand, if the family is healthy and values the activity of the person innovating, the entire family fights so that that person might continue innovating, even when that person gets tired. In the case of most of the youth, the institutionality of the inheritance is a strong conditioning factor either in favor or against; in the families where the inheritance is getting set with clarity while their parents are still alive[12], they have conditions favorable for innovation; in families where that definition is delayed and confusing, that situation affects the entire family, it is a disincentive to make efforts on that which might not be yours, and above all, because in many cases the parents block certain innovations thinking that they are losing the power to control their family. In cases where the father is an alcoholic, unconsciously this marks the lifestyle of the family, it fashions in the person a short term, 24 hour mentality, of making the rest live with the uncertainty of “tomorrow he will quit drinking” or “maybe tomorrow he will start drinking again”. In cases where the father of the innovator has lovers, it accentuates the institutionalized myth that “a man who does not drink and does not have lovers does not exist.”


The networks have been an interesting response in the case of Peñas Blancas and in general in the cooperatives. Nevertheless, the internal tensions are difficult and shaped by history, at times tensions between families for many years, and other times because of the yearning of some of them to earn money quickly, or the tensions increase when the group is composed of people with too many differences –e.g. in the credit group in Peñas Blancas an external member was desperate to achieve earnings while the other two members were going step by step. In the cooperatives the same thing happens, for example in the GARBO cooperative in each election of the administrative council nearly their entire board has been changed, who then come in with their own accountant, which is why there is no continuity in the organization; in other cases, like for example the José Alfredo Zeledón Cooperative, the permanence of its president since its very founding can, in the long term, end up affecting the growth of the organization, not just because of the dependency on this leadership, but because a cooperative with various services developed and a certain volume of coffee needs a larger number of leaders and needs the rules and policies of cooperativism to be functioning.


The territories also have an impact, either in favor or against innovation. SJRC was a coffee estate area, this marked the entire life of the municipality: for being a coffee estate, the indigenous and peasant families who in their past would diversify, accepted and gave in to coffee and, in the beginning, to work as collective cooperatives at the service of the war in the decade of the 80s. Later on and up to now they have continued in the service of coffee and of the new patrons that appear with new discourses, and in addition blessed by national and international institutions. Another zone that was not an estate in the same municipality, like San José de Ojoche, Las Vegas, Matapalo and San Antonio, zones of small farmers and peasant families, have greater autonomy and a better cooperative. History plays an important role in the lives of people. They also have the potential of bringing about change, for example in Peñas Blancas the increase in tourism and the entry of groups like CREA (musical group), including their own studio, makes the place even more attractive for tourism, generating greater opportunities for the community, which can be provoke a response of greater innovation on the part of the local population.


Finally, we have run into the myth that “the small producer is not profitable” because of their scale of production. Some innovations that are making the transition into entrepreneurial initiatives require a certain scale (volume) to take larger leaps, so this myth stops and discourages them. Nevertheless, the problem is the slanted approach about volume (or scale) that this myth reveals, as if one family alone would have to produce large volumes, when this large volume can be brought together from various small producers and thus be profitable. A second problem is that the market sees each of them alone and the people respond to the market individually, and everyone believes that you have to produce ONLY for the market. The market can be responded to with volume from various producers – this is the case of the bananas in Sanmarcanda (SJRC), for example, the buyer requires 600 bunches for a truck, which can be reached by 10 producers that have 60 bunches each. So the challenge of innovating emerges in how to collaborate among various producers for a common benefit, under what rules to do so, how to coordinate in time and place. And not forgetting that it is not just something technical, it is looking for the footprints to give strength to this innovation. Francisco Cruz from Peñas Blancas attests to the fact that throughout his life he has worked in collaboration with neighbors to have lard in those times (from 1950-70) when his community was pretty isolated from the cities. Each family had to have 15 pigs a year to have lard throughout the year, so among various neighbors they had the rule of “what I give you, you give back to me in another time”, so everyone had lard during the entire year.  Others testified to the same, even now, for example with the boar (male pig), in order to always have two pigs all the time you do not need to have your own boar, so the one that has one, charges for the mounting: “for each mounting of the boar you receive one piglet.” So it is that we are finding hundred year institutions like the “mano vuelta” (you give me a hand when I need it and I give you a hand when you need it), or sharecropping…Another form of resolving the problem of scale has been organizing into cooperatives. The innovators are there at the moment of thinking about that problem of scale and organization: a chile sauce requires a lot of ingredients, which can be resolved through the extended family or through a network of neighbors. The strength of the innovation comes from the fact that we look for the footprints in our history, that we understand the new context, and that we make progress in the innovations of “together, but not scrambled” to respond to the market and to solve common problems.


3.2  What inspires these innovations?


Finally we ask ourselves about the origins of our inspiration, what inspires an innovator? Said in another way, what is the ideology of the innovators? For those who profess a religion, this gives them the passion or the “emotional gasoline” to dedicate themselves to the task of evangelization or work with the base communities, be that to “win souls” in favor of their religion or because they believe that helping people makes you more Christian. In politics, in the case of the guerrillas of Latin America, the perspective of the “new man” and the construction of socialism has motivated them; or in the case of capitalism, the possibility of earning profits.


The great innovators say that the power to contribute to humanity motivates them, and probably for many of them also the possibility of earning capital, particularly in the innovators since the XX Century. In the case of the youth with whom we have worked, there has been great initial enthusiasm and after a time only about 30% have remained working on it. What do some go and some stay? The culture of waiting and believing that projects are coming (donations) is so accentuated in the country that it has become an obstacle that feeds into the initial enthusiasm and then, given that the donations do not come, they quit. But deeper than this, it has a lot to do with the points of the previous section.


One general motivation is the desire to “quit being poor” and to not be like their father or mother[13], this desire results later in becoming aware about what is “being poor” and above all in understanding that that situation of “being poor” is not natural nor divine, but social, and that therefore it is possible to change; the youth, having as their source of inspiration the reality of their own communities, who are experiencing this process and above all the awareness that it can be changed, tend to persist. In some cases the fact of getting to know their own history gives them an even deeper dream, for example, in realizing that their parents were fieldhands and now are  owners of small plots of land, this fact makes them see that their obligation now is to move from being a small plot owner to being a farmer. But what type of farmer? Not the type of farmer who stays on their farm and progresses based on expanding area, but a farmer who progresses through agricultural intensification and connected to markets, and that includes various levels of processing. The trap is dreaming of being a large estate owner under the myth that “the estate provides while the small plot takes”, that progresses through extensive technology and stays only in production. The new model that inspires would be an intelligent, farming family that cultivates and processes, and does it within a framework of networking, where the “farm provides while the estate and the small plot takes.”


Another motivation is the self recognition and the recognition of their family, their friends and their community for the innovation that they are carrying out. When they see results to their experiments, even though they may be small successes, this animates them. “I have great news for you, I have seen two quetzals; I could have been mistaken in December when I saw one quetzal; but now, no, I need to find out what they eat, where they make their nests… … (A. Cruz, January 25, 2014); “The bee comes to me in my dreams”. If the fact that their families and communities recognize their work, this added to their own self recognition means then they are on a path that they will not likely abandon; it is the step where the initial criticisms received in their own community take a turn and become “social recognition.”


Finally, why do some innovators progress more than others? It will be important to reflect more with the innovators, but now some initial thoughts. The innovators are differentiated by their origins. Ever, Ruben, Freddy and others from Sanmarcanda are the children of fieldhands that became owners of small plots through the agrarian reform, and now are becoming small farmers. Yeris, Darwin, Abraham, Orlando and Maudilio are sons of established small farmers, three of them also have university training, and two continue working on the family farm (Yeris, Darwin), one (Maudilio) combines work in the cooperative with work on the farm. Diana is the daughter of a failed farmer. Probably these footprints mark differences in the growth of them as innovators.


Yeris and Abraham stand out, two youth that were born and raised in the same place, and in having the talks and innovator guide discovered things that others do not see. Abraham sees hummingbirds that he can live with on his plot, creating the necessary habitat, which he sees as generating resources for him; he is motivated, provides follow up, observes, systematizes and investigates. In San Lucas everyone see flowers, but Yeris see more than that, he sees food for his bees and deepens his knowledge, does an inventory of the flowers in his farm, then in his community, then in the municipality, and thus discovers that there are flowers with different shapes and notes down how he could domesticate them on his farm. What is most relevant in this case is that the exercise of doing the inventory moved from being an individual task to a family, neighborhood and even community one; the neighboring youth began to observe the flowers around them: “These are the flowers Yeris is looking for.” Orlando and Darwin are inspired by what they have seen (Orlando) or have learned in the University (Darwin), they have the idea that innovation is entrepreneurship of making money quickly, one producing alcohol from any fruit that can be fermented and the other from any activity that generates income, so it is difficult for them to be systematic in observing and investigating.


Another group (Ever, Ruben and others who have been inclined to do innovation in crops), because of their technical formation, tends to repeat things already tested (hens, insecticides, etc…). Diana, the daughter of a failed farmer, the result of the alcoholism of her father, seeks to generate income quickly, but clashes with the reality that is harsh,  where innovation needs patient constancy and the cultivation of a long term perspective. Fredy wants to be a great artist, he has the character to attempt it, his challenge is identifying what could really make him different and working on it in the long term.


By way of conclusion


Productivity in agriculture, commerce, and informal services is fundamental for raising national productivity and making the country grow with equity. Productivity is going to be raised on the basis of innovation. But the country is in last place in terms of innovation, at least among the countries of Latin America. This text talks about an innovation process that we have committed ourselves to.The young innovators and cooperative leaders have shown that, in addition to the 5 DNA elements of the innovator, making associations, questioning, observing, experimenting and creating networks, the DNA is needed of desperately trying to quit being poor and of overcoming the oral culture. These innovators, in contrast with the “creator business person” of Schumpeter, motivated by the monopoly of the initial income, are transformers of their communities, motivated by improving the lives of their families and neighbors.


Part of the conditions for these innovation processes are emphasizing the work in certain territories, cluster-like, so that they mutually infect one another; including research to understand the importance of the territories and of the different crops; that any innovation that is begun be experimented with and depend more on endogenous factors; that the innovators have this “innovative worm”; that these innovations be presented at the community, municipality and national levels, precisely to feed into the recognition of the innovators.


This year we are going to continue with the innovations, which will be more and more focused on agriculture, the integration of agriculture and ranching, including innovations in the vertical chain of each crop – at the same time maintaining our support for innovations that are outside of this sphere, like music, hair cutting or other innovations, that in the long term also find connections with the producer families[14]. We will continue committed to the grassroots cooperatives as the focus for re-inventing cooperativism; and to the innovative youth, because, in addition, they are the ones who will take on the leadership in the long term in their municipalities.






Brafman, O. y Beckstrom, R., 2006, La araña / la estrela de mar: La fuerza imparable de las organizaciones sin mandos.  Barcelona: Urano SA


Drucker, P., 2002, Managing in the Next Society


Dyer, J., Gregersen, H.B. y Christensen, C., 2009, The innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review


Külh, E., 2004, Nicaragua y su café. Managua: Hispamer.


López, M., 2009, “El Alfarero Fiel” en: Envío, 328. Managua: UCA.


Mendoza, R., 2003, Análisis de Capacidades Locales para nuevas iniciativas en comercio justo. Guatemala: Universidad Rafael Landívar


Mendoza, R., 2013a, “Nicaragua: El café en los tiempos de la roya,” en: Envío 372. Managua: UCA.


Mendoza, R., 2014, análisis de contexto y de oportunidades para el país. (En fase de escribirse).


OECD, 2005, Oslo Manual: Guidelines for collecting and interpreting innovation data. Europa: OECD & EUROSTAT.


Schumpeter, J., 1911, The Theory of Economic Development: An inquiry into profits, capital, credit, interest and the business cycle


Vogl, A., 1977, Nicaragua con Amor y Humor. Managua: GARCO



[1] We have been promoting innovation processes for two years in the north central part of the country. This text talks about this process and reflects on the scope and difficulties of the innovation.

[2] Collaborators and co-authors of this article are dozens of youth and cooperative leaders, particularly Abraham and Orlando Cruz, Diana Escorcia, Yeris and Darwin Lanzas, Evert Gonzales, Hulda and Eliseo Miranda.

[3] This graph is based on which in turn gathers information from 37 of the 56  university members of the CNU. Total registered students (new registrants and active students), 151,096; graduates without diplomas, 19,751; and graduates with diplomas 15,116. I am thankful to Jorge Alvarado for helping me get this information.

[4] In Latin America where extraction has been increasing in recent years, there are studies warning that this factor in contrast stops innovation. Iván Finot (“Is sustainable development possible in Bolivia?” in: La Razón, 29-12-2013) thinks that the Bolivians had the luck that a high economic cycle accompanied them when they faced racism and regionalism, writing it later into the new Constitution. Within this framework Finot states that what is typical of an extractive institutionality is privilege, and that puts a break on innovation, while what is characteristic of an inclusive society is situating everyone in equal opportunities in order to progress on the basis of their own efforts. Finot thinks that extractivism still reigns in Bolivia where some struggle to maintain old privileges and others to achieve new ones. How can one be freed from extractivism and achieve a sustainable economy so that all can live well without depending on the natural resources? 1) what is decisive for development is no longer industrialization but the capacity to innovate industries for the Third World, 2) the greatest advances in innovation and productivity happen in local environments and only later irradiate into the respective country and the world. For that reason, Finot concludes: what is fundamental is having inclusive institutions, knowledge and decentralization towards the local level.


[5] We have also begun to work in Waslala and La Dalia, which will be developed in the coming year.

[6] Unfortunately most of the organizations do not study the reality where they intervene. Currently Heifer is promoting the raising-fattening of pigs, in some communities it is going better than in others. Why? This experience falls into the mistakes of many other pig projects, that do not take into account the suggestion of the local populations; “We told them that instead of white pigs that we would buy native pigs from here, but they said that their pigs were better, and look, they died very quickly” (leader of Sanmarcanda). A lot of the success of these projects is not due to the supply of the type of pigs, but to the type of communities where they go; and much of the failure of these projects has to do with the mentality of the organizations that believe that “contributing” is bringing in something from “outside”, that what comes in from outside is always better, without concerning themselves with what different contexts have. This point about the pigs is applicable to other diversification projects that exist in the zone.

[7] The expression that summarizes the life of most of the rural families of SJRC is that they have a logic of “hanging out and falling down”, which means they have money, pay their loans and again go into debt; they are not able to breathe a life without debts. How to innovate so that each family is freed from debts?

[8] Baseline data done by Soynica, Heifer and Green Coffee Mountain at the end of 2013 showed that 55% of the children of SJRC are malnourished. This figure reflects the effects of the dependency of the municipality on coffee and its consequences, in years of low production and low prices for coffee, this gets expressed in the levels of malnourishment of the children:

[9] This effect of the organizations is when they only see their interests-objectives without prior research about the context in which they are operating, and when they do carry out studies and audits, only give those reports to the managers and presidents of the second tier organizations, so they have complete liberty to keep the first tier cooperatives from knowing about them. In micro, this is the case of any project, full of good intentions, that without research walks around blind, and in the worst of cases creates counterproductive effects of conformism and dependency. One of the innovators, for example, received support from a garden that fit with the innovation that he was carrying out. The garden would work during the rainy season, and when the dry season came it would quit, because our innovator was waiting on the project to resolve the water problem, unconsciously this project made him “stop”, to “wait”, it blocked his thinking, and made him forget that making the garden work in all seasons was in his hands, like his mother and his grandmother had done in the past.


[10] One of the innovators stopped in the first phase in seeing that he could earn money with this product, without finishing the innovation he was working on. There is no problem staying in a phase, but there is a problem when this phase has a counterproductive effect from the objective of the innovation, which is contributing to the improvement in the lives of the families. The power of money and the possibility of earning it quickly is blinding and keeps us only in the short term perspective.


[11] The institution of marriage is capable of erasing the innovative nature of people. Mostly the women innovators have left the innovative processes that they were committed to on getting married or living with someone. The pretexts (“my husband is jealous”, “I am pregnant, I need to take care of myself”, “I no longer have time”) only make the weight of that institutionality of marriage heavier, which is expressed in a very unequal way, in favor of the men and against the women.


[12] Clarity in that the parents set what the inheritance is going to be for the sons and daughters, as well as when they are not going to leave them anything. We have known of many experiences where the inheritance is defined and given to the sons and daughters, and the lives of everyone has improved; we have also known of some cases where the inheritance is not given, but there is clarity about that: “My parents live from the rental of their land, we as sons and daughters were clear that we had to make our own lives without the inheritance of our parents, so we are not protected, so each one has made their own lives” (Esperanza, President Carlos Núñez Cooperative).

[13] Expressions like the following are common: “At the age of 13 I was clear that I did not want to be like my father, I did not want to be a field hand;” “My father would say to me over and over, study son, so that you might be better than me;” “If the tears of my Mother stopped me I was going to end up being a fieldhand like my father.”


[14] In the case of the musician we have been supporting him with guitar courses and currently we have connected him to the CREA group, who will support him in a possible recording of a CD. For the case of the innovator of chocolate we are looking for an internship in a chocolate factory that would provide him with experience and motivation.

There’s A Lot I Don’t Know About Computers

My wife and I were working with our computers this morning, trying to synchronize some file sharing, exploring the best way to communicate with each other through the “magic boxes.”  (It’s an activity that still feels very strange when we are sitting together in the same room, talking face-to-face.)  She was describing to me a process which one of our daughters had used in her file-sharing process, a sequence of actions which was totally alien to me.  Actually, there’s a great deal of computer use and savvy that completely escapes me, and I am quick to admit it to my wife, my daughter and any technical help person I might encounter over the phone when I’m stuck.  Becoming smarter about computers requires that I don’t pretend that I know more than I do and that I admit what I don’t know.  It’s called learning.

None of us has a corner on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  We are all possessed of a unique combination of skills, knowledge, experiences and perspectives which make us singular resources on any subject.   (If you doubt the voracity of that idea, simply ask a group of people about, for example, the most important means to a long and happy life.)  But the answers to difficult questions are not vested in all of us;  some of us simply know more or less about certain things.  It’s why we need each other.

Too often, we believe that we know all that we must.  Self-reliance is a good thing, but self-deception is not.  It’s a dangerous place to be. For if we acknowledge the fact that no one has a perfect understanding of all things, then we necessarily embrace the reality that we could be wrong on any given issue, and that someone else might well see the matter with a clearer perspective.  As begrudging as it may feel, we might be wrong.  Acknowledging it, admitting it, is not a symptom of weakness, but rather a sign of self-confidence in learning.  And there is never anything impotent in that. Impotence lies in the false posturing that is fostered by ignorance, or an unwillingness to accept wisdom from someone else.

I’m occasionally asked whether our partners in Nicaragua are grateful for the partnering with Winds of Peace.  The answer is yes, they understand its importance and impact, of course.  But the more complete answer is that the learning experienced by those of us who interact with Nicaraguans, both rural and city, is at least as great as the value of what WPF brings to the partnership.  There’s a lot that I don’t know about Nicaragua.  My acquaintances there are just the ones to help me with that.  Who better?

The world is a big and diverse place.  Facing our own shortcomings about what we know versus what we think we know is both a curse and a blessing.  It’s tough to admit that we aren’t omniscient and in control.  But it’s a gift to recognize that fact as the starting point for seeking out the truth.  Likely, I’ll never know everything about my computer….



Immersion, Insertion, Writing and Dialogue A Path for Learning for Territorial Development

René Mendoza V.[1]


Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead


Why do institutions like NITLAPAN exist? What is the purpose of the people working in such institutions? Why do people go to institutions of higher education? Beyond the apparently obvious responses to these questions, I address these reasons and reflect on them in this essay.


In doing so I find that teaching has been reduced to the classroom and to status, and with it, the gap between people with professional education and the rest of society is growing. Formation is giving way to education, and learning to teaching, and knowledge to status. In contrast to the period between 1950 and 1985, where there were less people with higher education and more thinking in Latin America, e.g. the dependency theory, liberation theology and the pedagogy of the oppressed – the paradox of the last 25 years is that there are more people with higher education and less thinking – or only repetition of the neoliberal approach.


In this text I examine university education, and I reflect on the experience of the Research and Development  Institute (NITLAPAN)[2]. On this basis, I introduce immersion, insertion, writing and dialogue as fundamental elements for working on territorial development, which leads to personal change and change in thinking, that have the potential to imprint meaning on the synergy of research, learning and development actions, that in turn might contribute to the formation of human skills for transforming our societies.



  1. 1.     Logic of university education


In this section I lay out part of the university rationale on teaching in the last 30 years, I point out some structural causes that are reinforcing this logic, sketch out tendencies in some universities around “international accreditation”, and finally I attempt a critical reflection on this way of thinking and proceeding.


“Did you finish high school?”, I asked Ariel Cruz, an 18 year old young man from Peñas Blancas (in the municipality of El Cuá). I did not have to wait for his response, “The thing is we are not interested in studying, because the people who have studied are there without work, and with nothing; they are worse off than I am.” In terms of numbers, there is a multitud of professionals; there is almost no community in the country that does not have young graduates of Universities and technical schools. In spite of what young Ariel told me, on Saturdays the buses are full of young people leaving their communities, interested in studying. In terms of quality, multiple voices say that “that is where the problem is”; some signs in this direction are the fact that people talk about “garage universities”, that seek more to accumulate capital than to train people; the growing competition for students, which has led to multiple majors and degrees depending on the market demand (linked to business administration, law and agronomy), and not so much on the demand of society or on the type of society that we want to build; majors that graduate with a very expensive “additional course” instead of requiring research expressed in a thesis; majors that prioritize diplomas over education, and therefore Universities interested in organizing devalued doctorates; doing consultancies instead of research; having teaching staff practically without publications (and without doctorates). All these practices make it seem that the end (formation) has become the means, and the means (administration, status and a job)  an end in itself.


In the midst of this reality, in 2012 the CNU (National Council of Universities) decided that the universities of the country should have international accreditation. This means that the universities have to have teaching staff at the level of masters degrees and especially doctorates, quality teaching by being combined with research, which is shown through academic publications, and that the physical and technology investments have to be adequate, etc. How are the universities going to deal with this challenge? International accreditation is a great opportunity for the universities to take a leap in terms of their quality, and for education to really be its purpose.


Nevertheless, other signs are joining the ones already mentioned. P. Marchetti, advisor to the Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala, evaluated the state of the universities: “The Masters programs in the Universities of Central America are a good last year of the licentiate or engineering degrees[3].” His opinion is not unique, we found it in various studies that were carried out within the framework of CLACSO (Latin American Social Science Council). Now with international accreditation it seems that the universities want to pass without improving, thus they are multiplying masters programs without really being masters, they are getting involved in organizing doctoral programs in order to have teachers with doctorates however they can, and some universitites are embracing “University Social Responsibility” – following the style of the private enterprises that camoflauge their thirst for capital by embracing Business Social Responsibility – which is promoting “social service” so that the students might “put into practice what they have learned.”  On the other hand, the international accreditation industry, to a certain extent, is facilitating or legitimizing that attitude of passing without improving, because this industry is done by companies-institutions that are competing with one another to find markets (Universities with an interest in getting accredited), not so much to make the universities improve, a practice that would coincide with to the universities´ strategy of passing with formal and cosmetic changes.


Why is this opportunity not taken advantage of in order to really change? The members of the Society of Jesus with universities and high schools tend to say: “ we are forming the leaders of these countries,” meaning that the academic level is very high. But this perspective is countered by: “seeing the type of governments that we have, what kind of leaders have you formed!” A different perspective was provided in 1993 by the then President of the UCA in Managua, X. Gorostiaga and the then director of Nitlapan, P. Marchetti, both Jesuit priests, who asked themselves, “What are we teaching in the universities?” They themselves responded: we are teaching from imported manuals, distancing the students from their own reality; in business administration we are teaching about the realities of large businesses, when most of the businesses in this country are small enterprises[4]; Gorostiaga (1993) placed these facts within the global context where neoliberalism was coopting the Universities.[5] It was a self critique of the UCAs of Central America and of the Society of Jesus itself. That reflection underlies the separation between research, learning and development actions, a separation that has gotten even worse today. Other scholars go beyond this, stating that there is no research, that what exists are consultancies where the donors define the very questions. Aware of these explanations, in the following section I reflect on a part of the experience of Nitlapan.


  1. 2.     Nitlapan, a privileged space for questioning the focuses on learning, research and development


Nitlapan was founded due to the impossibility of combining ressearch, develop,ent and learning in the schools of the UCA, as P. Marchetti remembered in his speech on the 25th Anniversary of Nitlapan and the 20th Anniversary of the Local Development Fund (FDL):


On day in August of 1988, Fr. Cesar Jerez and Fr. Otilio Miranda called me into the office of the President. César, in his direct style, said: “Well, Peter, this your bus stop. Your team mixed in with the teachers is not going to work. They are like oil and water. Too much tension. I think that your people have a great future for the UCA, but with a lot of autonomy in terms of the UCA teachers. I am going to give you general power of attorney over a research and peasant action institute that you should start right now.” (…) Feeling like a failure in my attempts to change the UCA, I left without knowing what to do.


25 years later, “each time I come to Nitlapan, I find it reviewing its actions in a self critical manner,” said L. Baez, a member of the Advisory Council of Nitlapan, in a workshop in the beginning of 2013. With this spirit in the origins of Nitlapan and its openness to self-critique, we note down our tensions in this section.


The connection between research and development, and between the legal aspect and development actions, is strong in discourse, but diluted in practice, or strong in some periods and weak in others. When high quality teaching-learning is added to this, the results at the institutional level reveal the weaknesses: researchers and development promoters of Nitlapan that teach classes in different majors, do it as individuals, which in general is a praiseworthy contribution, but something that could be even better for Nitlapan, for the quality of the teaching, as well as for the students. Why is the UCA, its schools and institutions like Nitlapan, not able to create conditions that would facilitate the research-teaching (learning) combination in such a way that the students would benefit, the teachers would learn more, and the programs of institutions like Nitlapan might improve? This question seems to be simple when we think about the fact that Nitlapan, like the different schools, are part of the same university, but it happens that this has not been resolved for decades. Structures really do have a lot of weight: there are walls that separate research, development and learning, walls that extend beyond the good intentions of having a “research university”; market forces like a magnet are influencing the selection of majors and their content, attracting the soul of the staff who will not do research nor teach if it is not through a consultancy, and set the prices of the majors in such as way that if there is a financial deficit, they will apply the increase in tuition, a measure that excludes low income social sectors; and like the markets, the status of their titles makes the people in those positions repeat phrases that the ancient institutions of the Roman Catholic Church say: “we are the ones who move, the rest should respect us (obey).”


Nitlapan has a strategic plan that mandates doing territorial development, to combine research and development. What then prevents it from being a learning organization? There are some who believe that it is because of the power relationships, that the directors of the programs in the Institute are resistant to change, because they are managing resources, or have made the institution their “modus vivendi.” There are others who think it is the lack of a clear definition in the territorial development approaches. And there are others that say, “Nitlapan has no direction”, with that they mean that Nitlapan lacks vision (we would say insertion). Between 2012 and 2013 Nitlapan has made changes in internal organization, rotation of directors, including the strengthening of intermediate leaders as territorial coordinators in 7 territories, which responds to the argument of “power relationships”. Also work has also been done on a territorial development approach through various workshops and studies, which was the beginning of a response to the argument of knowledge. There is movement in Nitlapan and in the territories, but do these movements express changes in Nitlapan? We have doubts about that. What are those doubts based on?


“I am a technician, not a researcher,” said a member of Nitlapan when we asked him to tell us about the reality of the municipality where he was working; the research-action duality governs our minds. In pressuring to have the staff move forward with more thought, one of the coordinators responded; “we have a plan, everything is clear, we only have to do, do and do”. It reminded me of what a teacher had told me was her secret to teaching: “ each year I grab the same papers and repeat the same class, and if someone asks me a different question, I play with it, “an old rooster can kill with its wing”. It is not the reality that is teaching, according to what they are telling us, but the pre-defined plan (of technical assistance or teaching) that rules. In the midst of these tensions, one of the directors reflected: “we have never asked our technicians to think, even at one time it was said that you had to hire ‘ignorant technicians’ to be more efficient, who execute exactly as asked, that they would not waste time asking or reading “how do you want us to think now?” – he ended, questioning me . The mentality of the large estate owners where they are looking  for “ignorant” workers who only execute (“respect”) what the foreman tells them, without thinking, had also penetrated the institution. [6] The reality appears more obstinate, and the institution of “not thinking” more ingrained than imagined.


Crossing over from the Pacific to the Caribbean Coast, another type of institutionality hits us, “If you are not from the Coast, you do not understand the Coast, unless you are white.” In our institutions social differences count, and so do ethnic differences; when staff with certain resources are better educated, then the staff with less resources, instead of making an effort to learn from them, and the better educated, instead of reducing their arrogance, they end up creating tension. When the ethnic differences are added to the social differences, the situation is more complicated, the challenge of interculturality is really a big challenge in the communities of the Coast, and in any corner of the world, and it also exists among intellectuals, the discrimination is both ways – from the Pacific to the Coast, and viceversa, even though clearly it is a different degree of discrimination.[7] The population of the Coast has observed and experienced how those from “the Pacific country” believe that there is only one Nicaragua and only one country, “that when they are in the Coast they are in their country”, and that if things do not work out the way they think they should, they think it is because the people of the Coast are “backward”, and they are not recognizing the depth of the historical, cultural, productive, ecological, religious and ideological differences between the three countries – the Pacific, the Interior and the Atlantic, and between the two Nicaraguas. This arrogant attitude in line with the modernization theory[8] of the Pacific, contributes to the fact that the staff from the Coast and those from the Pacific are not able to create spaces for mutual learning, and end up covering over their own deficiencies.


These attitudes and perspectives can also be observed when research is done in any indigenous community in the Caribbean Coast. Because of a tradition imposed by German aid since the beginning of the 90s, the people interviewed or who participate in a workshop are paid, because “they are losing their time and that is why they have to be paid,” and because “the research and the trainings are not useful for the communities.”[9] Contextualizing this situation, D. Kaimowitz observed that this idea of payment is related to an economic model where what prevails are the projects/transfers, and not the productive economy, which is why one form of accumulating is accessing those transfers, and not improving production; E. Fernández, after studying the community of Mukuswas in 2004, observed: “they live so far from the municipal capital of Bonanza and since they produce only for their own consumption, the only way of getting cash is that some go out to sell wild boars, and the leaders charge the consultants and the organizations for “training them.” The challenge remains intact: the research and other project activities need to be useful for the communities, something that will happen if the relations between the indigenous population and the researchers improve.


More dramatic is listening to the peasant families with whom Nitlapan began its work at the end of the 80s: “Nitlapan has changed, before they used to walk in, sleep in our homes, ride on mules; now they come in big SUVs with their windows closed, they get out for the workshop and then they get back in their car, leaving us in the dust.” (leader from San Ignacio, Matiguás). M Naira, a territorial coordinator of Nitlapan, also heard a similar story in Somotillo where the people of Nitlapan are known as “the people of the Prado”, in reference to the brand of one of the SUVs. It surely is not a matter of changing from a vehicle to a mule necessarily, but these words reveal the distance and the wall that has grown between Nitlapan and the families with whom we work. And that wall or distance is repeated with a different nuance inside the Institute, in being concerned about the formation of young researchers, we were questioned by one of the directors: “ you are out of date, those times when the director sat down to review the work of the youth is over with, now we are decentralized and we are involved in 2 to 3 works at one time; there is no time to be forming people.” Each new element that we add makes us see the reality that structures count: it is not just a matter of “ignorant technicians” and of “Dons” (the way the technicians refer to the directors of Nitlapan), but also institutional conditions (distance, walls, absence of mentored formation) that are turning its back on the human potential of new professionals that are joining Nitalapan.


That distance is accentuated also on the side of those who are “educated.” In a workshop in El Salvador as part of the facilitating team, I committed the “sin” of recognizing that I had doubts about the approach and methodology that we were proposing; doubt is key in the social sciences, while in disciplines like economics and law there are no doubts, the categories and laws are clear. In the face of the “sin”, immediately an international consultant said that he had to rework that topic again, because the facilitator himself had “doubts”. Later on my colleague with whom I was facilitating, in a tone of scolding said to me, “if you are the facilitator, it’s because even if you don’t know, you do; if you ask a question, that shows that you do not know; the people hired you to tell them clearly how and where to go, and not to be questioning; if you express doubts, they’re not even going to pay you.” From that logic, getting in and out of an SUV is coherent with the status of “the one who knows”. Appearance matters, not what is under the iceberg. Another colleague told me about her experience with a microfinance institution; “we were giving technical assistance to their clients, later we would write out “in peasant language” (simple language) the receipt so that one copy would stay with the producer family, and another copy would go to the microfinance entity, but the latter rejected the receipt, saying that it showed that we didn’t know how to do it, that we should write in appropriate language, in other words using technical language.” In a workshop on the effects of the coffee rust with peasant families in San Juan del Río Coco in March 2013, an agronomist said that the producers do not pay attention to the technical recommendations, and immediately a producer reacted, “and how am I going to pay attention if you did not even come to see my farm.” The Universities teach to teach and not to learn, not to listen to and learn from the producers, not to take notes from them. “I left my community for the University, because in the University you learn, while in the community there is nothing to learn” – educated people tend to say.


If we enter into the life of a faculty and the majors they offer we are going to face also a large amount of tensions that touch on the institutionality  of the hard mdrive– paid-by-the-hour professors, use of manuals, teaching without research, professors without publications, banking pedagogy, ideology of teaching, the more responsibility one has the less immersion and more distance from the students[10], etc. And behind these practices we will find myths, hard institutions and the force of power relationships. So when we talk about connections between research, teaching – learning and development, we can stay on the level of appearances and say that we are changing, or we can pay attention to the fact that we are on territories where things are getting difficult, and where the challenges of changing and taking advantage of opportunities to improve are doubly complicated. How can we change? We are interested in real changes; so the following two sections sketch out four elements that, if put into practice, have the potential of challenging the status quo of our reality, and helping us to change gradually and progressively. See the attached diagram with the four elements moved by learning.


  1. 3.     Immersion and insertion,  political perspective and practice


P. Marchetti used to tell us that living with peasant families in Matiguas, sleeping in beds made of sticks, and bitten by flees during the night, he understood the harshness of being forgotten, which is worse than being excluded, that social apartheid in which peasant society found itself[11]; it was the decade of the 80s where thousands of young people went out to do literacy training, lived with the families where they were treated as sons and daughters – that experience that even today thousands of people remember as something that changed their lives[12]. The immersion – used a lot by anthropologists and as part of the method of participant observation – is a powerful way of experiencing the lives of other people, it is direct experience that, as P. Senge (1990)[13] says, provides the opportunity of “re-perceiving  the world and our relationship to that world,” and that helps organizations´ policies and strategies to make a difference, as R. Eyben (2004)[14] says, “it provides the type of learning that helps the agencies (organizations in general) respond intelligently in different and unpredictable circumstances.”


Immersion produces ideas because it has a personal transformative impact. S. Sheppard, the director of the Winds of Peace Foundation, told about what caught his attention in arriving at the Managua airport: “I saw a young woman hugging a Nicaraguan woman, both were crying, I understood that they were saying goodbye to one another; I’m sure that both of them will never forget that moment, in fact their lives changed with that experience of sharing life for a time. Formation is that, it’s as simple as that.” Yes, so simple, but we are not doing it in the universities of Central America, and I do not know of any organization whose staff does immersion, something that some of the personnel  did in the beginning of Nitlapan, and that stopped being done – something that the peasant of San Ignacio (Matiguas)  testified to in the previous section.


In the middle of the 80s, P. Marchetti, who later on would found Nitlapan, told us about his own experience in an informal conversation that we had in March 2013:


I was in Midinra and CIERA and I realized that Midinra  did not know what the peasantry was about. In August 1980 I published in a IFAD report that the Popular Sandinista Revolution was letting the possibility of the peasant worker alliance slip away. There was no direct contact with the Nicaraguan peasantry. I told myself: I cannot continue working in MIDINRA and CIERA, because they do not know the peasantry. On the weekends I would go to live in El Arenal, one of the first places of rural organization of the FSLN, where the nomeclatura would go to celebrate Pikin Guerrero without any idea about what was happening in the lives of the peasants of El Arenal after 1979. I did not do it because I was a Jesuit, nor for the ideals of insertion of the Society of Jesus. I did it for professional and political reasons. I brought that practice from Chile, there we took over land, breaking the law; I would spend the night with the peasants, talked all night, there we formed an alliance, and we took the land. It is a political action. If you don’t sleep and get up with the peasantry at 4 in the morning, and you begin to talk with the women who are making the food, you cannot understand what is really happening in the countryside.


When I went to Matiguas, a territory liberated from the contras in 1984, from the immersion I came upon the discourse of the Contras, the macro, meso  and micro factors behind the insurrection of the peasantry against the FSLN, as well as the fissures between the discourse and the action of the Contras. At times I would stay one week with some family to understand in depth what was happening to the family production systems in the war. Without passing the night in the homes of the leaders, I never would have been able to talk with them about the faults of the Contras. When these leaders forced the Contras to move the war 40 kms east or lose two thousand of their combatants, I was surprised because I never would have thought such a thing could happen.


Immersion is a key element in all the alliances between the peasantry and the urban intellectuals that I know of in Latin America. You cannot insert yourself into the peasant political mobilization without having gone through immersion. Political insertion is the normal extension of immersion, and the fundamental reason to opt for an immersed style in the first place. The human quality of the insertion is only tested in the insertion in the struggles of the peasantry.


A. Grigsby, also a founder of Nitlapan along with P. Marchetti, while he was introducing me to the zone of Carazo in 1990 told me about his immersion at the end of the 70s:


In those communities of Francia and San Ignacio I was immersed with the peasantry for years, combining it with my studies in the Central America Colegio. I lived with them, and helped them in their work. One day, before 1979, Edgardo García showed up, a leader of the ATC, and he found me carrying bags of coffee with the peasants to a truck. He told me that he recognized my commitment, but that it was urgent that we join the insurrection. We had similar ideals about change, but also strong differences: for me the most strategic thing was the alliance with the peasantry, for him it was joining the armed struggle.


From both of them it is important to locate the context that these experiences refer to, a context of insurrection and revolution that both leaders are contributing to by “swimming against the current.”[15] Later we make a distinction between what is immersion and insertion. Immersion is living, taking our own shoes off completely to be with the excluded who are in struggle (e.g. for land and for territory, for their dignity, for being peasants and farm owners, for their identity, for managing markets and value chains). Here insertion happens in so far as we build alliances with the excluded families – and without alliances territorial development is not possible, for example. Insertion is political struggle  and long term perspective, and immersion makes it concrete, gives it meaning, and opens up understanding.[16]. Insertion is inducing a process (political struggle), while immersion is allowing oneself “to be taken” by the reality of “the other”. Insertion is perspective (theory) and immersion is path (method).Immersion makes the insertion concrete and gives it content, and it in turn provides meaning and perspective to the immersion.


Because of a mixture of the influence of the leadership of Nitlapan, sympathies with the revolution and pesonal commitment, a part of a group of young professionals in the first phase of Nitlapan did immersion and insertion. As a result Nitlapan contributed to the country with a peasant-farmer perspective that challenged the policies at the end of the 80s and the first half of the 90s[17], and worked on a concrete alternative like the micro finance institution known as the Local Development Fund (LDF), and provided proposals for change within the very being of the Universities – like the inaugural lecture of 1993 prepared by the President Gorostiaga and the leadership of the Nitlapan. It sought what their adjective at that time indicated: “alternative.” In that first phase a good part of its staff did this practice of immersion. There were two expressions that summarized this practice: “putting ourselves in the shoes of the poor families” and “throwing ourselves into the water without knowing how to swim.” The first expression indicated the need of locating ourselves in the situation of the families in order to try to understand them; in the second, the need of not waiting “to learn how to swim” outside of the “water”, that you have to just dare to do it. And how do you dare to do it? This is where a third expression fit well: “let the wind blow and take you where it wills.” This is a biblical phrase that repeated in our context, told us to allow the people to matter to us, let the reality of the people to take us. And combined with “allowing ourselves to be taken by the wind”, encouraged us to learn to the extent that we were working with the families, that led to the parable of “kicking the dog”, which we present in the attached box.


Over the years this situation changed, to such an extent that up until 2012 there was no immersion – and maybe no insertion either- in Nitlapan nor in the universities of Central America. When there is no immersion, the second, third and fourth expressions just mentioned do not make sense, they can be used in discourse but they are void of content. Not only is there no immersion, but nor is the insertion obvious: the sense of commitment of seeking something alternative, that it is “time to sow” has disappeared – in fact the very adjective “alternative” was left out and Nitlapan appeared as just the “Research and Development Institute”. In becoming aware of this situation, one of the directors, A. Ruíz, reflected: “Before we had a commitment and awareness of changing, we would go to the countryside and we would stay with the families, now the youth do not have that passion. Nitlapan has become a job. What has happened?”


A first response is that we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the other people, without first taking off the shoes we had on, so our understanding of the families was left truncated[18]. A second response is that this begins to happen from before the professional joins Nitlapan, the universities are educating by making us take off our “shoes of the people”, and making us put on the shoes of “the know-it-all”. A third response an engineer provided: “what did I study for? Don´t tell me to learn from the people. I came from there  and went to the university to learn!” A fourth response E. Fernández provided, co-founder of Nitlapan: “the youth that were part of the founding group have aged physically and mentally; this leadership is not doing immersion, which is why they are not inspiring anyone; in contrast, the first group of youth were inspired by the leadership of that time who did immersion.” A fifth response is that the logic of projects penetrated so deeply into Nitlapan that it made it abandon the thinking about the political, it de-politicized it, the immersion was devalued and insertion was replaced by international dependency, a logic that induces you to respond to donors instead of responding to the population who are seen as “beneficiaries”;[19]if the logic is that you learn to swim outside the “water”, then why do immersion in the water? A sixth response A. Ruíz explained, “Nitlapan became an enterprise, it provided services, as a business we see clients, we look for clients where-ever they may be, without caring whether we are generating development or not, it is business, that is why the sense of forming, of generating ideas and of inspiring no longer fit.”[20]A seventh response P. Marchetti expressed: “Credit made us get out of this; there was a moment when we said that we cannot work with the leaders, that was an option against immersion; and look now, we are trying to go back to those roots, because we see that the communal bank method with women is growing.” From these responses I deduce how an institution turns its purpose (changes in society, development) into means, and the means (bureaucracy that administers resources, culture of implementation, of doing planning) into the end, how we define the leaders and subjects as beneficiaries, and then as clients, and how we intellectuals are turning ourselves into technocrats, depoliticizing ourselves and making ourselves comfortable on the basis of distancing ourselves ever more from the population with whom we are working, and building walls between the families of the countryside and those of the city, and the intelligensia garrisoned in organizations.


These facts have become institutionalized, they are now givens (taken for granted), so natural that not even the international allies that do immersion are able to awaken us: Antwerp University has been an ally of Nitlapan – UCA for 25 years, and every two years Belgian students come from that university to do immersion in the country, a fact that Nitlapan as well as other institutions of the UCA help them with, but they do not get infected. What type of alliance is this that is not able to be contagious with the most prized part of education that immersion is? Maybe this is due to the fact that Antwerp University and other Universities do immersion, but without political insertion – even though immersion in itself has great formative value – and maybe because the leaders and teachers from both institutions (Antwerp, Nitlapan-UCA) do not do the immersion under the idea that “immersion is for the students, not for the professors, directors, presidents.”


Yes, immersion is learning. To learn from people we provide ourselves with instruments that facilitate understanding the people, observing, listening and asking – without questions there are no answers, the wisdom is in knowing how to ask[21]. This is the dimension of understanding. There will be no change of anything if we are not able to confront the dimension of understanding, and one of the most stimulating ways to do so is immersion. The more we cross over to the other sidewalk, the better we will understand the social apartheid and their paths to development. In doing it we will be able to learn, like one who observes, moves closer, and dares to ask, like in the next parable about the “milk producers limit.” (see Box).


This immersion, even though it is a monumental challenge and something that we should be a part of, needs to be two-way: that youth and community leaders have the possibility of immersion in the homes of presidents, directors, technicians, facilitators, administrators, researchers and development promoters. Why not for a week? This two way street will allow us to understand one another, will lead us to not just understand the paths to development, but to be part of it, to close the distance between intellectuals and rural-urban actors, but above all to lead us to work for development alternatives[22]– and with that we are already into insertion.


  1. 4.     The writing, what makes us think


W. Armstrong, manager of Aldea Global (coffee and tuber export organization, that works with cooperatives and producers organized into groups), explained that one of the great problems is the “oral culture” of the peasant families, and therefore the importance  of the “written culture”. He is refering to coffee: “the producers complain about the weight, but because they don´t write down each step, they forget; we have a format for noting down each step, at the moment of receiving the parchment coffee, at the moment of transporting that coffee, at the moment of turning it in to the dry mill, each day that the coffee goes out to the patio for drying…” If the processes are written, and there are complaints, you can see where the problems are, while there is no way of following up on what is just oral. What happens with coffee and the tensions that emerge because of the absence of the “written culture” happens in other contexts, processes and organizations. The technicians, facilitators, researchers, professors, directors, deans, Presidents, development promoters…when they talk with the rural and urban families, with the students or with their staff, they are not accustomed to take notes, and with that they are communicating that there is nothing to learn from their counterparts, and if they gather data as an obligation of their work (e.g. technicians who record data on the organic coffee for the coffee certifiers, facilitators who fill out forms with farm assessments) they do not process it, they do not analyze it at the end of their day, and they do not reflect on it with the families where they gathered that data. And if we pressure them to write, some respond, “only secretaries write!”


Where does such an institutionalized oral culture come from, capable of being a wall to thought and learning? This oral culture has been maintained for centuries! History tells us that one of the elements of the domination of the Spaniards over the indigenous peoples was writing. The indigenous could not explain how the pieces of paper were able to “talk” over long distances, about how a message could be sent through the little pieces of paper. From there comes the expression in Spanish in our times that “papers talk.” In spite of the fact that they “talk”, the sons and daughters of that indigenous culture and of mestizo families for centuries have not developed this written culture. Even today, though more people have studied less is written down. Why don’t we write? Because we are not reflecting on our notes, because we are not taking notes, because we think that there’s nothing to learn from the families that we are talking with. That is why notes aren’t taken. Let’s remember: “if you aska question, you are going to show that you don’t know,” so the more you study, the more you have to appear that you know, so you can´t take notes. Here is the tragedy that leads us to ignorance in the midst of the 21st century!


Again, why are we not able to write? I am not so interested in the technical reasons like “learning to write”, but beyond that. Without insertion we lack a sense of commitment, and without immersion we are left with discourse, and not having either we do not have the passion for writing (organizing new ideas) to be able to then go back to speak with our counterparts and to talk with ourselves – be self-reflective and to “think by talking.”[23] Observing our colleagues I realize that we do not get up early desperately seeking to write (think), we get out of bed with the peace of mind that we have goals, formats to fill out, courses to teach and that we repeat that for years, and our desperation is that the days go by slowly and we want to get back home and sit down in front of the television god. We criticize the producers for being “harvesters” instead of being producers, of not getting up early to study their coffee field and their cattle, while we who call ourselves intellectuals are worse – we don´t even take a book to read in our backpacks.


How can we write? E. Yojcom, co-author of the book “The dream of the North in Yalambojoch,” written along with R. Fallas SJ, guides us. She tells how Fallas, her teacher,  pushed her to write: “The insistance of the teacher with his student etched in me his beautiful words, ´but not just with the tape recorder, but with your memory, and write, write like crazy.´ This is what the young man did who left us the Popol Wuj, like crazy he wrote down all the poems, and there was no electric then, much less computers…” Writing like crazy! She did it because she was immersed and inserted in the returned indigenous families. And in our case it could be following the chain of asking, listening, taking notes, at the end of the day analyzing the notes (“ruminating”), and writing – writing like crazy, but remembering Tolstoy, who at the end of a long letter wrote: “forgive me for writing you such a long letter, but it’s because I didn’t have time.” It is that chain of thinking that rejects the mentality of the large estate owners that see humanity as patrons (thinkers) and workers (“ignorant”, without thought).


In writing the tacit becomes explicit. I have seen this with the territorial coordinators of Nitlapan, who when they explain their own process followed in their family, in the university, and in each task that they have had in Nitlapan, discover their own learning, what they know, but was silenced, they discover their own gold mine in identifying their own steps. Literally they are surprised to see on paper (or a power point slide) how much they know about their reality, fleeing from it toward imported ideas in order to avoid looking at the mine of ideas that they have within them- and at times they are so surprised that they say “I feel lost!” They are surprised because “the ignorant” evaporates, and with it the comfortableness of the appearance that “I only know that I know”, and they realize that thinking is uncomfortable and uncertain, because “I only know that I don´t know anything.” When they begin to write they discover that they can do it. A.J. García, a Nitlapan technician, said, “I feel happy…before it never occured to me and I had no idea about how to express it, while writing, I thought about the young man who wrote the Popol Wuj, and so I wrote like crazy!”


Writing allows us to discover ourselves, it is thinking, and thinking is reflecting closely connected to social practice, or as Marx would say, thinking is praxis – it is political action to make the existing practice explicit and conscious. Writing is close to insertion because in writing one is persuaded. Writing requires, obviously, reading. As J. Bastiaensen would suggest: first you have to read, secondly you have to read, and thirdly… you have to read!


5. Dialogue


“After the change in government in 1990, came reconciliation; demobilized fighters from both sides showed up in Río Blanco full of their pain and resentment, they had so many differences that in order for them to talk face to face we even had a round table made” remembered E. Fernández, who as part of the PRODERBO project was part of the team that helped the demobilized fighters with their reinsertion. This is dialogue, from the Greek dia-logos (dia=through, and logos= the word), free flow of ideas in groups, part of recognizing the existence of the other person, it revolves around the word and creates collective thinking in the face of challenges. Dialogue can happen between two or more people  with the only agreement to be in disagreement, no one imposes their thinking, all contribute to building a context of thought, more than finding solutions it is delving into the genesis (or problematic) of each thought, learning to think collectively: “when the roots of the thought are observed, that same thought is improved” (Bohm, 1995) ;[24]in this context it is not important to get to either a decision nor a plan, each participant understands what he/she has to do (Senge, 2011)[25].


De Bono (1999) )[26] distinguishes between western argumentative thinking, Plato´s dialectic of opposing two rational discourses to arrive at the truth, where the idea that prevails is the decision that gets adopted, and eastern thinking of seeking data and data until the decision emerges with clarity – like a puzzle of a thousand pieces, where it is enough to find some key pieces to be able to imagine the image it depicts.


Understanding different forms of dialogue, it is important to develop spaces for conversation within organizations, between organizations, inside the communities and between communities and the organizations. Generating spaces for dialogue through the exchange of thought can help us to find people who inspire us and make the collective space itself a source of inspiration. Recall the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” So insertion without immersion is empty, immersion without insertion is blind, the two without writing turn into “prison talk”, and the three without group dialogue lack collective social transformation. These four elements constitute  metanoia: learning that emancipates and transforms, and that builds visionary organizations.




By way of conclusion


The great Cuban geographer, A. Nuñez, recommended that you should always take 3 things with you: a notebook, a pen and a camera. Each conversation and observation is an event in our lives, and an event can be full of meaning. For that reason we need to develop the culture of writing (and of reading), as a way of thinking. This thinking is nourished by the “two way” immersion. And both respond to the insertion which is the meaning of the political aspect of territorial development, of the social and technological changes that we are seeking to promote, of the forms of alliances that we want to work on.[27] Insertion provides us the perspective, immersion the content, writing the thinking, and dialogue the word in movement. Can there be territorial development without these four elements? The resounding answer is NO. The territories are global/local spaces in movement, political arenas where diverse interests and perspectives, as local as they are transnational, are in contention, routes and trajectories prevail and emerge depending on the correlation of forces that are achieved in each moment and specific context.


These powerful tectonic plates are capable of moving our realities, of shaking the wall that separates the producer families and the strata of professionals, of making uncomfortable the “culture of teaching” that turns its back on its source of learning, of challenging ourselves about our own “extensive” culture (fleeing from our own learning) as intellectuals, of re-defining our counterparts from being beneficiaries and clients to being an actor that is a collective subject and that makes decisions, and of transforming ourselves as society as well as institutions. All this could lead us to confront the paradox of “more educated people but less thinking”, given that our competitive advantages are precisely in the reading we get by incorporating the angles of the actors, and in this way make the Universities recover their purpose of forming people capable of transforming their realities.


This process, nevertheless, requires certain conditions which organizations can provide: showing a leadership that preaches with its practice – immersion, insertion, writing and dialogue. That is, presidents and directors should ask themselves what is their insertion, their immersion and their publications, to then respond to the question about why they are in university institutions, what type of institutions they are leading, and for what type of societies. On this basis we could rethink our alliances between universities of Central America and those of the US and Europe,  precisely through strengthening insertion, the culture of writing and immersion.





[1] M. Lester, director of the Winds of Peace Foundation in Nicaragua, asked me to reflect on a concept paper of WPF that is seeking an alliance with US universities for formation. This awoke in me a topic that I had been thinking about for some time during my visits to territories with the territorial coordinators of Nitlapan-UCA, with youth innovators in El Cua, San Juan del Río Coco and La Dalia, and from reflecting with leaders of coffee cooperatives in the central northern area of the country.

[2] The name of the Institute in the beginning included the word “alternative”. Probably in the mid 90s that word disappeared. It is worth mentioning it, because Nitlapan started with the idea of seeking a type of development that was not conventional, nor the “imported” models, but an “alternative” one.

[3] The distinction made between Licentiate or Engineering (learning tools and applying them), masters degree (level of expertise in an area, which is being a master in a certain area) and Phd-doctorate (contributing with new knowledge) probably tends to get diluted, so that the masters is like a licentiate and a doctorate like a masters degree. This discussion is also present in Europe where they are working to homogenize the quality of the different degrees, a process in which, for example, the doctorates in Spain are considered low level, and in spite of so many years of progress, apparently still have not been able to reach the same level.

[4] Gorostiaga, X., 1993, La Nueva Generación Centroamericana, la UCA hacia el 2000. Lección Inaugural 1993. Managua: UCA

[5] Gorostiaga (1993:30) “Today in Latin America the dominant Neoliberal model brings with it a project for society and the University. In this project, the University should serve “the demands of the market” without state interference, “academic nor ethical.” The “demands of the market” result in a merchantilization of the university product at the service of the large enterprises, and a privatization of the university in favor of the more privileged classes. In such a project, the university character disappears and the University becomes a branch of the wealthy companies that require professionals for their operations. What would we say now in these times?

[6] Remember fordism and taylorism, where the managers “think” and the rest “operate”; businesses where there is a small group of experts that use their heads and plan, while the great masses, separated from the experts, use their hands to execute the plan; in a certain context of mass production and consumption this model was successful. But in a society of greater competition like that experienced starting in the decade of the 80s it was no longer appropriate: Toyota with the post fordist “flexible specialization” tore fordism to pieces. See Best (1990), The New Competition. Institutions of industrial restructuring. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[7] I am grateful to D. Kaimowitz in helping me to understand the differences in perspective between the Coast and the Pacific and the historical roots that it has.

[8] Notice that this is similar to the theory of modernization – an academically dead theory but underlying many donor policies – where the European countries and the US see themselves as developed and see the rest of the countries as under-developed; in other words, many from the North see us as their past, and they, our future, that they have already seen and there is nothing more to learn;  or missions (consultants) who arrive and their approach is looking for problems without a minimal effort in having a historical perspective and identifying the changes. And now in terms of the Coast, the country of the Pacific tends to see itself as “the developed ones”.

[9] S. García, anthropologist and scholar of the Caribbean Coast, observing this fact, said: “One day Coke was doing a survey, and they told me they would pay me  for 10 minutes of my time to respond to their survey; what they are doing on the Coast is something similar; Coca Cola pays because it is in their interest, while one would assume that research seeks to contribute to the communities, or no?” One would assume so!

[10] The criticism of Nitlapan being “the people of the Prado” happens in the territories where we go, but in those territories they do not even see the deans, directors and presidents of the University. The paradox is that the more “responsibility” one has, the more distance there is with the student body (“the fish”) and their territories (“the water”), it is like in religion that confuses Church with the building, and believing that they are going to church to seek God and end up praying in the temples and chapels.

[11] Marchetti, P., 1985. Dos pasos atrás y dos y medio adelante: Reflexiones sobre la política agraria, comercial y militar de la EPS. Managua: Comisión de Defensa y Producción, FSLN

[12] In asking in a workshop about what events in their lives had really changed them, A. Delgado, a development promoter of Nitlapan, told his experience: “I went out to teach to read and write in 1981, and I lived with a family in the countryside; I could not understand how those people could live, they were so poor, so poor…” That experience changed his life forever. See also references to these experiences in: S. Ramírez, 1999, Adios muchachos, una memoria de la Revolución Sandinista, Mexico: Aguilar.

[13] Senge, P., 1990, The fifth discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization. EEUU: Doubleday

[14] Eyben, R. (2004), Immersions for Policy and Personal Change, in IDS Policy Briefing 22.

[15] Different reflections from the 80s in terms of immersion converged around the fact that the Sandinista Revolution did not accept the concept of the immersion of the technicians, that prevailed in the Cuban and Soviet visions of “teaching” from the top down, and the classism of the Sandinistas that came from the oligarchy. J. Bonilla, a Sandinista from the decade of the 80s who collaborated with the Supreme Electoral Council in 1989, remembered the night that the Sandinistas lost the elections: “there were youth from rich families who were Sandinistas, and in seeing that we lost the elections, angrily exclaimed, “Those ignorant peasants, we taught them to read, we brought them vacinnations, we harvested their coffee, and they pay us back by voting against us, ingrates! On hearing that I realized that we had gone out together to do literacy work and vacinnate, but we had such different mentalities. That is where I woke up.”

[16] We understand the reality of the other person by sharing their life, talking, and at the same time interpreting their words in the place where they are. So, first you have to “let yourself be taken” by the world of that family, then interpret the words and what we are observing, and then reflect jointly about those interpretations. This is how content is given to the perspective that is now insertion, which gives meaning to the alliance that is being constructed. For example, what did the peasant family from San Ignacio-Matiguas mean to say, which was quoted on page 4 (last paragraph), in observing the change in Nitlapan? Responding to this question is interpreting those words in the context of the one saying it: Why did he say what he said?

[17] Marchetti, P. y Maldidier, C., 1996, El Campesino-Finquero y el potencial económico del campesinado nicaragüense. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA.

[18] This is similar to the parable of the “mental cup”. Our mind is like a cup full of tea, that when you continue to pour more tea into it, nothing more goes into the cup, because it is full. In other words, to add more tea you first have to empty something out of the cup. The same thing happens with our minds, to learn first you have to un-learn old “demons” (approaches and ideologies) that have made their nests in our minds.

[19] D. Kaimowitz expands on this point: “with the electoral defeat and the collapse of the [Berlin] wall and the growing neoliberal hegemony, the vision that you studied in order to earn more and have more status was even more widely accepted. If knowledge was not compatible with maintaining the status, then what must be sacrificed was the former, not the latter. Social mystique and commitment was…a dead letter – what really had legitimacy was where you had your house, what car you drove and what restaurants you ate in.”

[20] Within the Institute this logic is expressed in this way: one area gets external resources, then if there is a demand to train staff from another area, there is resistance: “my salary I got with such and such an agency, why am I going to subsidize (train) other people in the Institute?” Others say, “I already got my salary negotiating a project with such and such an agency, the only thing that the directors of Nitlapan have to do is formalize it.”

[21]We visited the community of Matumbak in Rosita, arriving in the community we talked with a Mayangna family, and in a few minutes they asked us, “this is an interview, how much are you going to pay us?” C. Maldidier responded, “if you are going to charge me for responding, then I am going to charge you for asking, asking questions is harder than responding.” We laughed, talked, learned and no one charged anyone anything. While studying English in Saint Louis, Missouri, I heard an interview on television, and in order to get me to pay more attention to it,  a US priest told me that the journalist that was doing the interview was one of the best in the US. The journalist asked the expert in the mythology of different cultures if he believed in God. The person interviewed turned the question back on him, “and do you believe in God?” The journalist responded, “I believe in the question, the question that leads me to learn, and that opens the path for me to things about life  that I do not know.”


[22] Providing the way to do immersion is beyond this text. But we make our own the route that Eyben (2004) proposes of moving from having the reflective experience  to the exchange, from there in dialogue to the evaluation  of the experience, and from there to conclude in changes, which in turn feed into the experience.

[23] Or as M. Lester, WPF Director in Nicaragua says, “I think by talking, and then, yes, I think by writing.” (March 2013).

[24] Bohm, D. (1995) Unfolding memory. EEUU: Foundation House.

[25] Senge, P. (2011), La quinta disciplina en la práctica. Estrategias y herramientas para construir la organización abierta al aprendizaje. Argentina: Granica SA

[26] De Bono, E. (1999) Seis Sombreros para Pensar. Argentina: Granica SA

[27] It is not an alliance with NGOs, because then, as Faune said in a workshop in February 2013, “if a network of NGOs is created, what actors can enter there? What network is that? That isn´t anything!”

Dalai Lama and the Synergy Center

It turns out that the Tibetan New Year was celebrated yesterday, and none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama was present in the TwinThe Dalai Lama Cities to celebrate the occasion.  He is the spiritual leader of Tibet,  and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for advocating “peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect….”  He also spoke in the opening plenary session of this year’s Peace Prize Forum (an event that is supported once again by Winds of Peace Foundation).  His message on Saturday morning included a reflection on the complex conditions of our world and the potential impacts we each have through our own personal influences.  The message may have seemed too simplistic for many in the audience, who perhaps expected solutions far more detailed and involved than personal commitment.  But in his offering of that view, I was struck by its direct endorsement of what WPF has come to refer to as its “synergy center.” (See the January 31, 2014 WPF blog, “The Difficult Work of Bridges.)

Really?  The Dalai Lama weighing in on a synergy center in NIcaragua?  Indirectly, yes.  Read on.

At one point in the question and answer session following his remarks, the Dalai Lama was asked for three things that young people might do to bring about a more just and peaceful mindset to the world’s problems.  His Holiness chuckled a bit at the question, perhaps because it sounded a bit like a request for a “top ten” list.  But he gave his response with gentle gravity.  “Change begins first in your own heart, and in the values you carry,” he offered.  “Become aware.  Amend what you find there first, and it will impact those around you, in your family.  And soon, other families will feel the change, as well.  And then the transformation can carry into the communities and the world.”  In other words, international movements always begin with the seed of feeling in someone’s heart; nothing more is needed, and nothing less is required.

The formula offered by the Dalai Lama is as plain and painful as any admonition could be, filled with promise, power and enough personal, internal confrontation to make us shiver.  Instead of suggesting a “do” list, he invited us to look inside ourselves, where no one else can be blamed or credited, where the obstacles to peace are of our own making.  Simple advice, grueling work.

Awareness, reflection, and transforming ourselves first: His Holiness might have been reading from one of the brochures offered by The Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College or from the mission of WPF.   For thirty years,  CGE (and WPF) has been facilitating the transformational, personal journeys of thousands of students and adult learners, as participants first gained new awareness of other people’s realities, then came to terms with the reasons for those realities and finally reflected on their own feelings about those realities.  The  doors to self-examination and transformation have been open wide for decades.

At the same time, WPF established a wide network of development partnerships, creating a wealth of information and contacts which have been complementary to the experiential process described above.  The two entities have served each other well in cultivating the  very introspection the Dalai Lama encourages.

Thus, the synergy center idea actually takes the Dalai Lama’s notion of self-examination and expands it. The concept brings together rising personal awareness and potential outlets for actions to impact communities and even an entire country through further learning.  Access to the synergy center could bring directly into classrooms and our hearts a wide variety of people and input whose voices are not usually heard. The practical experience of people working in every discipline in Nicaragua, including the challenges they are confronting from their location in the global reality, can enrich research and teaching, and also people’s active engagement with these same issues.  This type of international grassroots access can make for a more global experience in the personal development of students, travelers and everyday pilgrims who simply seek to know and understand our world a bit better.  In a sense, it can enhance both the invitation to awareness as well as access to action.

Well, the Dalai Lama never actually mentioned the synergy center in his comments on Saturday; maybe I did use some poetic license to read into his wisdom.  But the resonance between his invitation to personal change and the history of transformational experiences in Nicaragua is unmistakable.  And I think the Dalai Lama might agree that this initiative is just the sort of seed planted in the heart to make a world of difference….






Going to Extremes

It’s been a year of extremes thus far.

In January, I spent a week in the high heat of Managua, Nicaragua, where the daytime temperatures are routinely at 90+ degrees Fahrenheit; simply, there is no escape from the humid heat, even in air conditioning.  Last week, I returned from a time on Madeline Island on Lake Superior.  There, the evening temperatures reached -40 degrees Fahrenheit, with windchill factors of -60; simply, there is no escape from the cold at such depths, even when sitting in front of a wood stove.  I suspect I must have been approaching the full range of ambient temperature extremes at which the human creature can survive.

Here in the north, people can be cold to the point where they don’t even recognize each other!  It’s hard to see or acknowledge someone when peering out from the relative warmth and comfort of an insulated cocoon.  We’d actually rather not stop to discourse anyway:  we all sound as though we are actually speaking a different language when muttering from behind frigid faces.  It’s different in the south.  The discomforts that are felt there have nothing to do with cold,  but rather stem from perpetual hot air which suffocates even the heartiest Nicaraguans eventually.

Temperatures aren’t the only extremes I’ve experienced.  My January visit to Nicaragua included a conversation with Vanessa Castro Cardenal, vocal and energetic advocate for educating the youth of Nicaragua.  (See my blog at this site, “Reading Between the Lines,” dated February 17.)   Her fervent hope is to place a book in the hand of every Nicaraguan child in the hope of cultivating a love for reading, and a capacity beyond a third grade level.  Literally days later, meeting with several representatives from the Jesuit University community  was like being on a different planet.  Hearing the aspirations strategized from within that community made me wistful for my youth!  How I would cherish a second chance to embrace the holistic health of such an education as they envision, as would so many in Nicaragua.

In January I “moonlighted” by working on some private employment contracts that contained language providing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual compensation and incentives.  And then within days, I found myself updating my own often-cited statistics concerning average Nicaraguan pay: $2.50 per day, up from previous years at $2.00 daily.  The disparity of those two realities was reinforced last week while watching the Sochi Olympics.  I learned that staging the games in Russia incurred a $51 billion price tag, in a country where the average pay might be $20 a day.  Inequity is apparently universal, without national boundaries.

While musing out loud about such wide disparities, an acquaintance suggested that the world has always been this way, both in terms of the divergent natural habitats found on earth as well as in the differences we encounter as its inhabitants.  It was offered up as an explanation of sorts, but I took it as a condemnation.  For while there may be little we can do to moderate the hot and cold temperatures of the air, we certainly control both the warmth and the coolness radiated out from ourselves.  While students will never reach perfect parity with one another in their capacities to learn, we surely owe each the opportunity to achieve that which they can.   And while each of us are owed the full fruits of our labor, it can never be at the expense of other lives.

We seem to have allowed ourselves the latitude to remain cold in the heat of the human struggle, a posture that feels a bit extreme….





Reading Between the Lines

The uphill struggles of many in Nicaragua have been well-chronicled both here and in countless other reflections written by visitors to that country.  The reality of need is evident not only in statistics (such as percentage of people earning less than $2.50 a day, second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, etc.), but also in the endless stream of mission, outreach and development agency people visible on flights in and out of the country every single day.  Nicaragua is a worthy and close-by neighborhood for the exercise of our largesse.  But the needs evidenced in Nicaragua are not likely to be eased by short-term and sometimes short-sighted North American efforts.  There exists a more systemic and underlying difficulty.

Education.  Or rather, the insufficiency of it, both in terms of quantity and quality.  Now, we’re all fond of stating the obvious when it comes to education, that as a society the more of it we have the better our long-term prospects for the future become.  We compare our educational outcomes with those in other countries, we gnash our teeth when math and science scores seem to fall further behind other nations, and we wonder aloud whether the cost of a college education is worth the investment vocationally.  These are all reasonable concerns to have, and we acknowledge them continuously.  But in Nicaragua, the level of urgency and need for education improvement is on another plane altogether.  And without substantive interventions, the outlook is not good. This is a country where most kids don’t last beyond the third grade.  Where teachers all too often have no training for the classroom.  Where the compensation for teachers is less than half the average monthly need for cost of living.  Where even the first lady of the land has described the education performance as, “mediocre.”  Clearly, the scope of both the need and the impact is well-known across society.  Despite all the sources of assistance and other forms of aid coming into Nicaragua, its developmental outlook can never be hopeful without address of its education shortfall.

IMG_3977The plight seems pretty dire on the face of it, and that’s why our visit a couple of weeks ago with Vanessa Castro was so uplifting.  She’s a well-educated educator:  a PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked with the World BankIADBUNESCO, and CIASES .  And her passion is education of Nicaragua’s kids, especially through reading development.

On a national level, Vanessa and others are trying to motivate children with a campaign to encourage reading with greater speed and comprehension.  Underwritten by several sponsoring organizations, the campaign consists of a contest accepting first-grade classes from all around the country that wish to participate.  Any class with a teacher who is full-time and present in class can compete at the school, municipal, and departmental level to reach the finals.  80% of each class must pass the requirements, which include reading an average of at least 25 words per minute and answering 80% of the comprehension questions correctly.  The success rates are improving as the number of schools and participants increases, and the excitement is evident in Vanessa’s  face as she tells stories of small successes.  “Offering awards is just the means to the end of raising these children’s reading fluency to acceptable international standards. We need community motivation, parent participation, and teacher training to spur the children towards these goals.”

Those goals constitute a big part of why WPF has added education as one of its main focal points for assistance.  The Foundation’s activities undertaken over the past three years are varied and widespread across public and private organizations, but all with the aim to lift Nicaragua’s children through enhanced education.  For example, with WPF involvement the reading literacy program  purchased more than 12,000 books last year for placement in primary schools, often constituting the only books available to students in those schools.  Some 8,000 children were served by the effort, a mere fraction of the need but nonetheless an important number of kids exposed to new, engaging stories, and a love for reading.

There are lots of ways that organizations like WPF might seek to make a difference in the lives and futures of Nicaraguans, to be sure.  But even a cursory assessment of their greatest needs underscores the reality that, reading between the lines, education is the basis of future hope….