The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out (Jesús, Lc 29.40)
“I already saw that movie”, said the drunk, on seeing the animation of the lion that roars at the beginning of many movies. In the beginning of the 1990s, dozens of women from Marcala (Honduras) began to be trained to defend their rights and cultivate an awareness of equality, to “marry to live together and not to be the property of anyone”, “leave the house to participate in workshops on learning”, and “overcome conformism”. Over the years they understood that that awareness and that fight against violence would require generating their own resources, “on earning some money you can decide what to buy for the house”, so they envisioned an organization that would help them to have land, produce on it, and sell their products. So in 1988 they founded the Coordinator of Women Peasants of La Paz (COMUCAP), and learned that “organization is for bettering oneself and not for being envious”, and that “it is beautiful that both the man and the woman work, you have what you need to eat and you can rest.”
As COMUCAP grew in number of members and economically they acquired investments for processing coffee, aloe and juices; they exported coffee and sold soap, shampoo and juice; they bought land and planted it;M and many projects came in. Nevertheless in 2012 they learned that their organization of 283 women members was about to fall off a cliff. What had happened? What had pushed them to the edge? How could they move away from that cliff? In this article we try to respond to these questions, precisely to “not trip over the same stone twice.” Behind the animation of the roaring lion there is a movie that has not yet been seen. Let´s look at it.
Crisis Situation in COMUCAP
An independent audit revealed that the debt of COMUCAP was close to one million dollars, that the assets of the organization had a lien on them due to the debt, that a piece of property bought for $150,000 had not been turned over to the organization, and that it was not clear where resources from international aid had gone. This information raised the eyebrows of the members in the 2012 assembly. Other data followed: 100% of the coffee exported was organic and fair trade, in the last 3 cycles prior to 2012 they had exported close to 10,000 qq of export coffee; a good part of that coffee was bought off of individuals who were not members, close to 1,000 qq of coffee was from the coordinator of COMUCAP herself, whose quality surprisingly scored at 85, while the coffee of the members was equal to or less than 81; the yields (from 1 qq of cherry coffee to export coffee) were dropping; the premiums for organic and fair trade were confused with project financed by international aid, making it impossible for the members to see that they had not received neither premiums. The crisis was even more harsh because it coincided with the arrival of the coffee rust on the plants, that not only lowered their production yields, but in many cases anthracnose came behind the rust leaving the coffee fields with dead trees.
What had happened? From the beginning the board of directors had granted the coordinator a General Power of Attorney, with which she was able to take loans out of the bank, buy and sell the assets of the organization and sign international aid projects. They had technical and administrative staff subordinated to the coordinator, whose daughter was the commercialization manager for all the COMUCAP products, her sister was the manager of the aloe plant, and her son in law was the coffee manager. The board of directors was used only to sign checks. The reports to the annual assembly appeared to be “sharp” bathed in a sea of numbers, reports that were legitimated by the representatives of international aid as “transparent”. The audit and fair trade and organic certification inspections would confirm every year that “everything was in order.”
The coffee rust and the “human rust” had bashed the organization of the 256 members. Obviously all those losses and debts had to be assumed by the members. All this is like the animation of the roaring lion, because this type of movie is repeated in many parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, as the philosopher Heraclitus said, though we bathe in the same river, we never do it in the same water; the next section responds to the question about what things pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the precipice. Let´s sit down to watch this film.
Process that pushed COMUCAP to the edge of the cliff
Problem: COMUCAP in 2012 was on the edge of the cliff. What pushed it therer? To help, let´s use the “5 whys” of the methodology of Lean: find the cause of the problem, then the cause of that cause, until we reach the root cause. This methodology was developed in the 1950s by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota pioneer (http://www.toyota-global.com/company/toyota_traditions/quality/mar_apr_2006.html). It is the methodology that is behind Aristotle´s idea in seeking the origin of movement: “everything that moves is moved by something” and there is a “motor” that moves everything. That is why we ask ourselves 5 times “why”. See the Table with the 5 “whys” for identifying the “tripping stone.”
Why was COMUCAP on the “brink of a cliff” –debts, poor administrative management and a hold on their assets? The members and aid organizations listened to information in the annual assemblies, but it was information that was not telling them what was really happening. The staff was subordinated to the family that coordinated COMUCAP and the board of directors relegated to being “only for show”, to sign checks; even a leader turned into an employee for two years signed checks as if she were the president. In other words, they would produce information in a disloyal way for the organization and in a way subordinated to the coordinating family.
Why did they not have access to the real information. A good part of the 256 women had been trained for 10, 15 and 20 years in negotiating their rights, managing funds for groups, political advocacy and values like transparency and equality. Why then did they not demand the real information? “Because we fell asleep”, said one of the historic leaders: they stood by. Ther trust in the coordinator was blind and total, because since 1993 she had trained them in women´s rights, and used to tell them that “she worked for the women”, she was from a family with resources and they nearly worshipped her: “having what she needs to live and she works for us” they would say with gratitude, feeling themselves blessed. One member could not be mistrustful when the reports would be presented before the international aid organizations, who would repeat “everything is in order”. One member could not prove that she did not receive the organic nor fair trade premiums for her coffee when the fair trade and organic certification audits would conclude “that everything was in order.” If everything was in order, it was logical to conclude that the information that they were being presented was correct, and it was obvious that if a member dissented, she was running the risk of not being a beneficiary of the next project. It was like feeling like an ant under a transnational elephant that grew and grew.
Why did they stand by? Because they left the decisions in the hands of the coordinator who had an administrative role, and was part of the staff of the organization, not elected by the assembly, as were the women on the board. The decisions that should have been made in the cooperative bodies (board of directors, committees and assembly) and supervised (oversight board or auditing body), were taken on by the coordinator. For the members the coordinator was “the gate” to the market and to international aid projects, and for the fair trade buyers and the aid agencies, the coordinator was the gate to the women leaders and the members. If a aid representative would visit a member, she would say marvelous things about the coordinator, and if a member visited Germany, the buyers would say wonderful things about the coordinator. So COMUCAP functioned as if it were a private enterprise where the 256 members were the poor beneficiaries, defined as such by the coordinator herself: “the women of the board are not capable of administering even 100 lempiras ($5).” This woman who did training on rights saw them as ignorant and those who financed projects and bought coffee saw her as the “Honduran Che Guevara.”
Why did they leave the decisions in the hands of the administration? Because the millennium institution of “we always need a patron” absorbed them. The women had been trained to defend their rights in their homes and to seek equality with their husbands. And this they were doing, supported by an office of COMUCAP itself. Nevertheless, they did not expect that “the patron” would appear in the “new guise”: who would subordinate the staff with loans and salaries, control the members on the basis of projects, and the leaders through travel allowances, and ran COMUCAP as something independent from the members. Like a large estate owner who believes that the land and everything on it is his, or like the holder of an encomienda in the colonial period that would receive land “including the indians that lived on it”, she would repeat to them: “without me COMUCAP would not exist, everything that is here is because of me” – meaning that everything was hers.
Why did the old “patron-client” institution absorb them? Because even though the women woke up about their rights and the importance of generating their income to sustain that awareness, COMUCAP was an external product with members dispersed in several municipalities, started on the basis of external resources and not on the basis of the contributions of the members; and because they did not learn to lead the organization through its organs (assembly, board, oversight board), and in accordance with its rules (statutes), because “we felt it was far away, someone else´s”. That is why they would hold an assembly once a year, as if an organization would have so few decisions that merited meeting only once a year; the board members were content to sign checks and travel every now and then; the groups never met with their boards; a member who needed something from COMUCAP would not propose it in the group meeting, nor to her group board, she thought it was not her right but a favor, which is why she would go directly to the “big honcho.” This lack of ownership and effectiviness in leading the organization left COMUCAP in conditions where the proverb “in an open treasure even the just sin” became a reality. COMUCAP had become a “factory” where a member would become a beneficiary, a leader subordinated, and a coordinator with a social vocation would become the big honcho (patron). Here is the root of the problem – “the motor” as Aristotle would say.
The energy to get out of the crisis
The member assembly in 2012 heard the results of the audit. There was a mixture of everything: silence, murmurs, rage, impotence, feeling of having been betrayed…Some returned to their homes, and recalling the sacrifices that they had made for so many years, cried wanting to hear an echo in the universe. Others moved to defend the offices and the coffee and aloe business of COMUCAP, because the coordinator, her family and allies did not even want to turn over the assets with liens on them. They spent 3 years in hard legal battles, negotiating with the banks, getting the aid agencies and the buyers to see the obvious facts of what was happening, getting the members to trust again, looking for money to buy coffee, looking for markets for their coffee, their aloe, their shampo and juices.
On this path they continued to wear themselves down and had financial losses. The interest and arrears for the debt grew year by year, even though negotiating they were able to get considerable relief. They lost the best coffee areas to the labor lawsuit from the ex-employees, and had expenses on lost trials. They had international coffee buyers who decided NOT to buy their coffee under the logic that “COMUCAP without the “big honcho” did not exist, and because, as one leader said, “a dozen stars will fall from the sky before they ¡recognize that they were mistaken.” And a star did fall! The representative of an aid agency recognized: “I believed in her (the coordinator); forgive me because I did not believe in what you were telling me.”
What really caused the beginning of the change in COMUCAP? Each year an audit would be done, fair trade and the organic certifiers also did audits. There were more than 17 bank accounts because the aid agencies wanted their money to be administered separately. The results indicated that none of that ensured good administration. It is very possible that without the support of two people who worked in 2 aid agencies, who detected the problem, recommended an independent audit, and accompanied the board for some time, and without the awakening of the new board, COMUCAP would now have fallen off the cliff or been completely privatized by the coordinator and her family.
Crisis happens when what should die, does not, and what should be born, does not. After 5 years COMUCAP has been able to grab ahold of some “rock” and not fall off the cliff, in contrast to the prophesy of those who opposed it. Nor has it moved away from that “cliff”, the risk that it might trip over the same “stone”, described in section 2, and fall even harder off the cliff is real. In other words, that which should die still has not died. How can it move away from the cliff, or build a bridge to cross it? For what needs to be born to happen, we suggest three steps (see attached Figure) under the sequential order that follows: awareness and vision of the members as a reference point, looking inward where their roots are, and looking outward to be accompanied.
First step, start from the awareness and vision of the women members. Awareness: “everything that exist is there because we sweated with our fellow members with the sacks of fertilizer planting coffee, aloe, cooking, leaving the family on their own.”; as Jesus would say, if they keep quiet, the stones from the aloe and coffee business and the orange and coffee farms, WOULD CRY OUT. The original vision of dozens of women: COMUCAP started to sell the products of its members and accordingly built equity in their homes and communities. To sell whose products? The products of ITS members!
Second step, finding a solution to the root of the problem, ownership and operating within the democratic mechanisms of COMUCAP. There is their new “motor”. Their “break even point” is not buying coffee from whoever and however, it is not adding new members as best as possible. It is going back and building trust in each family, each group, the board of each group, the asembly, the board of directors, the oversight board and the staff that they have. COMUCAP now has 505 members. Let us recall popular wisdom, the stronger the daughters and sons are, the stronger their parents will be – in other words, the stronger the families are, the stronger the groups will be, the stronger the groups are, the stronger their board and their staff will be, and COMUCAP will be stronger.
Third step, weave alliances with people (and organizations) like those who helped them to begin the change in 2012 and who left them the secret for getting ahead: study the reality itself, wake up to what the study finds, and be accompanied in the process of change.
For these three steps the notion of stewardship helps us: our lives are a breath in the life of the universe, our participation in an organization like COMUCAP is at the most a tenth of a human life: a leader who lives for 90 years will hold posts for less than 9 years, a salaried worker will not be there for much more than that. In other words, while we hold positions of responsibility we must give the most of ourselves serving the 505 women, many of whom are single mothers taking care of their grandchildren, assuming the roles of mother and father. Stewardship, according to Block (2013, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest), is “the willingness to be responsible for the wellbeing of the organization, working in service of those who surrond us, instead of controlling them. It is responsibility without control nor compliance”.
Can the 505 women and the organizations that consider themselves to be their allies let die what needs to die, and give birth to what need to be born? The lionesses of Marcala are roaring: this movie has barely begun.
You cannot direct the wind, but you can change the direction of the sails. Chinese Proverb
Let the wind blow and carry you where it will. Bible saying.
“Our problem, says A. Argueta, from the COMAL network (Honduras), is that our offspring do not want to know about agriculture; many times in a family of 7 only two are working, Mom and Dad.” R. Villegas, also from the COMAL network, says, “when they are little our children help us in the work, but once grown up, returning from their studies they do the numbers on our crops, and they tell us that planting corn and beans no longer works, and they tell us it is better to sell the land.” What Argueta and Villegas tell us we hear in every country in Latin America.
If this situation intensifies, it will affect world food production. Because it depends in good measure on family agriculture, which, according to ECLAC, FAO and IICA (2014, Prospects for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Americas) represent more than 75% of total production units in nearly every country of Latin America. The organization of that peasant economy, according to A. Chayanov (1925, The Organization of the Peasant Economic Unit) is based on family labor to meet their needs. From that situation, to now where youth are increasingly disenchanted with farm work, means that the peasant economy is growing old and the depopulation the rural sector is increasing.
We are facing a world problem that we deal with in this article from a rural perspective. We break down the dynamics that led to this situation, we look into the specific nature of family agriculture and we provide some ideas for the youth to fall in love again with the countryside. For these points and others, taking up again the Chinese Proverb and the bible passage quoted above, we argue that it is important to change the direction of “our sails” (perspectives) as we understand the direction of the “wind.”
The conditions for the disenchantment
There are structural conditions that are conducive to this disenchantment. The first refers to the current generation of parents and children. In Europe they talk about the “neither-nor” youth; they neither study nor work. Bauman (2014, Does the Wealth of the Few Benefit Everyone?), studying the inequality, observes that the generations after the second world war, supported by redistribution policies, looked forward in order to improve; while today the “neither-nors” are the first generation that are not managing the achievements of their parents as the beginning of their career, that instead are asking what their parents did to improve, and that in this way these youth are not looking forward, but back. Some years ago in rural Latin America, parents would receive their inheritance and would go into the forest to expand their area in order to, later on, leave it to their children, and they to theirs. The inheritance was the starting point for each generation. But now the agricultural frontier has reached its limits, and there is almost no more forest to go into. So, on the one hand, the parents are not expanding their areas to leave behind, nor did they have time to inculcate their farming culture on their children, because they passed their childhood, adolescence and part of their youth studying; and on the other hand, this growing group of youth did not find work in their majors, nor did they like their parents farming, and in the case that they did, it is common to hear their laments; “Dad says that as long as he is alive I cannot raise different crops on his land”, “they do not want to leave me my inheritance because they say that ‘the pig sheds its lard only after it dies’”.
Table. Corn profitability (Honduras, 2016/17)
Fungicide (lt herbicide)
2 fertilizations (wd)
2 fertilizations (sacks fertilizer)
Bend and harvest (wd)
wd =work days
Source: based on cases of several producers in Honduras
The second condition refers to the knowledge perspective acquired by the youth. There is a boom of youth studying; in 2015, according to the UNESCO report, 98% of the youth of Latin America were studying. Going back to where their parents are, many of them do economic calculations and conclude that what their parents are growing it not profitable (see Table for corn; calculations for beans are more generous, $400/mz costs and $1200/mz income). This acquired knowledge, nevertheless, underlies a perspective contrary to the peasant economy: they take crops as a comodity isolated from the production system where it grows, and outside the logic of the family that produces it. These assumptions are in line with the perspective of big enterprise: monocropping, betting on volume based on intensive and mechanized technology, and the maximization of financial earnings.
The third condition refers to the growing gap between parents and their children. The children are caught between the love for their parents and their belief that “I did not study to go back to the fields” – by “fields” they assume backwardness. The parents feel impotent in not being able to explain their “agricultural profitability” showing their production systems and their social and economic life, surprised they recall when they encouraged their children to study, telling them that “a shovel weighs more than a pen”, and get frustrated in not being able to direct their children to the future, even worse not knowing the digital technology in which the youth move. These facts make the gap that separates them even greater, the parents grow old and the youth are at risk of falling into that old expression of “the idle mind is the devil´s workshop” in a Central America that finds it difficult to free itself from violence.
The fourth condition refers to rural organizations. It is common to run into peasant associations, stores, banks and cooperatives whose members´average age is 50. If life expectancy in the Central American countries is around 73 years of age, the paradox is that the organizations are aging while they close themselves to the youth. A mother who returned to dedicate herself to her family, after 8 years in an organization, said, “if I would have continued as a leader, I would have lost my son, because he was already on a bad path.” The logical thing would be that the family life of those who are organized would improve, but that mother says that it did not. Others look for people to blame: “the governments hassle the organizations with taxes and repressive measures, businesses hassle them through their harvest collectors or intermediaries, and aid organizations keep them busy with projects.” It could be. But the chasm between the organizations and the youth is deep.
The Specific Nature of Peasant Production
Why do they take such great pains with corn and beans? What is it that we do not understand about them? Full of millennial patience, the peasant families husk the ear of corn for us. “We plant corn, beans, chicory…because we learned it from our parents to feed our families, not to make a lot of money.” Looking at me skeptically, they continue on: ”by planting corn we eat tamales, atol, corn on the cob, baby corn, new corn tortillas, would we be able to eat all this if we quit planting corn?”, “the protein from a recently harvested corn cob is not comparable to that anemic imported corn”, “with beans we eat green beans, bean soup, cooked beans…” We understand that corn is more than tortillas, and beans are more than bean paste. “When we have corn and beans it makes us feel relieved, so we look for plantains, eggs…we go from serving to serving.” And then, “the beans that we are not going to eat we sell, likewise with the other products, in order to buy other needs and pay for the studies of our children.” And the profitability?
With weatherbeaten skin and a cold stare, they explained to us. “If we don´t plant corn, we would have to buy tortillas; we are 6 in the family and we would need 30 tortillas for each meal, that is L15; if I plant we eat 20 tortillas because the tortillas we make are thick.” Time to do the numbers: 1) 20 tortillas come from 1 lb, 3 lbs per day, 90 lbs per month, in other words 10.8qq per year, the remaining 13.2qq are for seed, chickens and pigs, from which we get between 6-10 eggs each day and 2 piglets every 6 months; 2) not planting corn, a family of six people needs L16,425 ($714) to buy tortillas in the year, another amount for atol, eggs and pork. In other words, the Table does not show that the corn is linked to small livestock, does not count the corncobs, little corn, new corn tortillas…If the peasant families subjected themselves to the “profitability calculations” of the large enterprises, they would have to go into debt, sell their land, and become farm workers to buy corn in times of scarcity at double the price or buy 90 tortillas/day at $1.90. “They say that it does not work, but it does”- the roar of the wind is heard.
The peasant cornfield includes basic grains, root plants, bananas, trees, chicory, poultry, pigs, water… Is it time to change the direction of our “sails”?
Thinking about the youth
Observing, listening and dialoguing can happen in the family, particularly if their organizations help. The Colega of Colombia cooperative shows us the way. Their members are milk ranchers and the cooperative collects and sells the milk. “We are second in world productivity, behind New Zealand,” they state. This cooperative organizes the children of the members into two groups; the little Colleagues are those under 14, and the pre-Colleagues are between 14-18 years of age. Each little Colleague is given one calf to take care of, the cooperative gives milk to the child as a provision for the calf, and the family of the child provides the inputs for raising the calf; in school they include courses on cooperation and the cooperative invites the little Colleagues to their events; so, from an early age they are cultivating the “member-rancher of the future.” The pre-Colleagues, who were able to take care of and multiply their calves, are provided scholarships for their studies, and member benefits, because they already participate in the production processes like their parents.
Youth are joining the Fe y Esperanza Rural Bank of Palmichal in the COMAL network, encouraged by their families. “My stepfather insisted that I attend the meetings, I thought that this was about old guys who do not change, then I realized that here you learn to improve.” “My grandfather is trustworthy, he told me to join the Bank because one day it would work for me, I paid attention to him, and it is true, now it is working for me.” In a few years this organization is growing in savings and loans, has efficient administration and its organs (board of directors, oversight board and assembly) meet each second Saturday of each month to discuss their numbers and opportunities. Another organization, the 15th of July (a community in Corozo, Yoro) also from the COMAL network, recognized the capacity of a young woman (D. López) who has finished her Certificate Program, and named her as President, and that organization got itself up to date with its internal and external paperwork, and finished its factory for processing granulated sugar.
These three experiences express three ways of including youth. They also tell us that, in contrast with the large businesses where you learn to do a task, in small organizations youth learn to follow their dreams with deep passion. So if an organization would dedicate 1% of its profits to provide a calf, a piglet or a contribution of 5 dollars to each son or daughter of each member, and if that organization accompanied that initiative, it would be planting its own future and that of humanity. If that is accompanied by the universities teaching the perspective of the large business sector, and also that of that 75% of producers who make up family agriculture, we would be turning the direction of our “sails”, and the youth would once again fall in love with the countryside. In this way, organizations could continuously reinvent themselves under the following expression, that D. Zuniga from the COMAL network saw in a home for the elderly in Copan: “you will be as young as your faith and as old as your doubts.”
We had an update from the Indigenous youth of the north on my most recent trip to Nicaragua. Meeting with this group is always an excitement. They can be as shy as their parents’ generation can be, especially during first-time encounters, but there is an underlying energy and freshness about the youth. Maybe it just goes with being somewhere between 16 and 30 years of age. (I really hate to even write that suggestion down, because if it’s true, where does it leave someone like me?)
There are lots of things to like about the members of NUMAJI: in addition to the aforementioned energies, they are organized, they take their organizational responsibilities seriously, they are constantly seeking ways in which to grow- both organizationally and personally- and they are undaunted by the societal forces which seem to conspire against their quest for independence and preservation of Indigenous tradition. It’s easy to root for underdogs.
Like their young brethren in most other countries, the members of NUMAJI carry a bias toward “rebellion.” Not physical confrontation, but a desire to go their own ways as compared to their elders. The irony for this Indigenous group of youth is that their rebellion is aimed not at abandonment of past ways but at preservation of their heritage, “the Indigenous patrimony.” It’s in danger of extinction due to passage of time, loss of youth to technology and migration, local and national governments which prefer not having to deal with the reality of Indigenous traditions and rights, and other Indigenous voices which speak about the artifacts of their heritage as being for sale.
This group of young people has been through a lot. They first came together under the recognition that they needed and deserved a structure in which their voices might be heard by their elders; sometimes elders have a difficult time ascribing value to their eventual successors. Next, they waded into the swamp of forming themselves into an association, a process which is as long as it is daunting, and especially for the uninitiated. They face the scorn of many elders who view the association as too inexperienced and too young to be of importance. They battle the entrenched and politics-driven agendas of some Indigenous and municipal community “leaders,” for whom an association of independent thinkers and actors constitutes a threat to established order. In short, there are few resources on which to rely as they defend their heritage and birthright.
Except in the case of their work. As we listened to the issues faced by the youth- many of whom are still in their teens- I was struck by the content of the proposal they made for association work in the coming year. I wonder where else I might hear youth discussing issues like: internal and foreign migration; the need for development of greater emotional intelligence as a personal development strength; the impacts of “adultism;” confronting child abuse; writing the statutes and administration of a legal association; or preserving and protecting archaeological sites when municipal and national authorities demonstrate little interest in doing so. These are not matters of pop culture or social media, but rather, the very real issues of an entire Indigenous people being met head-on by their youth.
It’s an uphill battle, at best. Maybe NUMAJI will be able to sustain itself through sheer force of wills; young people often have that capacity. Alternatively, the obstacles may prove to be more than even an energized group of committed youth can withstand. But either way, this group has educated and experienced itself in ways that will serve its individual members well in the future, whatever that may hold. Good character and personal courage are qualities that are always in demand and short in supply.
When we left the meeting, I noticed that I actually stood a little straighter, taller than when I walked in….
Winds of Peace Foundation has been busy preparing for its role in the upcoming “Certificate Program II” in Nicaragua. The seminar and workshop is the second in what is a series of week-long gatherings of small producers, market representatives, technicians, lenders and related others. The first of these, held last year in April, was judged by participants to have been useful and hope-producing to their circumstances and outlooks for the future; there is high anticipation for this next iteration, by both participants and presenters. And among the topics to be addressed, in several ways, is that of power.
If you look at the workshop brochure, you won’t see “power” listed as a subject. There will be no power expert in attendance, nor will there be any exercises to help participants in body building or intimidation strategies. Instead, the subject matter will focus on a seemingly unlikely concept, that of sharing.
The irony and paradox of great power is that it is most magnified when it is shared, because no one of us can ever be as powerful as all of us. So our sessions will focus on concepts such as open book management, where all of the members of an organization are educated about the metrics of organizational success, and how each individual contributes to that success. We will examine the workings of a “Lean” organization, where all members are provided with the tools and motivations for continuous improvement, where the ideas and innovations of the leaders are seen to carry no greater weight than any other member. We will have the rare opportunity to jointly visit some member farms, to both witness good practices and offer insights for improvements- an activity that is too infrequent for rural producers who need every advantage and insight possible. The sessions will also be designed for the maximum degree of shared storytelling, participants teaching and learning from one another. In short, sharing will be the core of the entire program.
Power. It’s a useful thing when shared for the symmetrical strengthening of all members of a group. It’s a divisive thing when it is accompanied by a lust for absolute and private control. It’s a seductive thing, capable of clouding even the clearest intentions for equity and fairness. But it’s also a freeing thing, capable of lifting capacity and talent to their fullest heights.
One of the great ironies of humanity is that we tend to believe that amassing and holding power to ourselves is the surest means of success, when in truth our collective and personal well-being- whether intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, occupational or physical- hinges upon the extent to which we share our gifts, knowledge and power. To share power is to gain it, a paradox much like that of love itself: to receive it, we must be willing to give it.
Individuals and organizations alike have been slow to understand and embrace the reality of holding onto power. It’s so counterintuitive that it tends to make doubters of most of us. And then there are the nations of the world, who steadfastly model the wielding of power to the exclusion of other lands. Organizations like companies and cooperatives, who often look to military and government models of structure and administration, end up chasing a tail that can never successfully be caught. It turns out that we would often rather be wrong like everyone else rather than right by ourselves.
In September’s Nica gathering, we’ll spend a lot of time sharing wisdom about organizational power and leadership with one another. And that’s appropriate, because they’re meant to be shared….
We received a project proposal a few days ago, this one from one of our longer-standing partners. It’s a cooperative that we have admired for its vision, its holistic approach to the well-being of its members and the progressive leadership of its president. They plan and act in ways that strengthen their cooperative as well as the communities in which their members are located. In addition to being a reliable loan partner, the have served as a model, of sorts, to less developed coops who wonder what a strong cooperative really looks like. We hold a great deal of respect for what they have accomplished, against long odds, and for what they aspire to do in the future: yes, they plan strategically.
When I read the project proposal, I once again noted all of the strengths which drew us to them initially. But I also noted the frequency with which the charismatic president of the coop was mentioned: in addition to the entire introductory section of the proposal being essentially about him, he was also referenced five other times as an initiator of something good in the cooperative. Clearly, his humility notwithstanding, he is an important guy within the context of the coop.
His prominence in the proposal gives me pause, however. As essential and visionary as he has been to the success of this group, I wonder about the longer-term effectiveness of his contributions. Without question, he is one of the broadest-thinking leaders I’ve had the pleasure to come across in my travels within Nicaragua. Without doubt, he has carried the progress of the coop on his diminutive shoulders. But without succession, whenever he ceases to lead, all of his organizational ingenuity is likely to become little more than an aftermath, as opposed to a true legacy.
Despite all of the good things going on here, I’m particularly concerned for the future of this coop. Ironically, the very strength of the coop- its leader- also may be its biggest liability. The members’ reliance on their president creates a dependency that will be difficult to manage once their leader is gone. It’s one of the most noticeable challenges encountered in organizational development: balancing the high impacts of a great leader with the need to institutionalize the good things he/she has brought about. As the adage goes, not all of one’s eggs should be in but one basket.
As it’s difficult to argue with success, a leader’s recognition of the need to develop the next generation of capable and caring leadership is often subjugated in importance. The successful leader becomes so engrossed in creating new and successful ideas that there is little time for cultivating the same skills in others. Sometimes the lack of development stems from a “messiah complex,” an ego in the leader which is convinced that there is no one else capable of governing as well. Sometimes it’s purely a perception of too little time. It might be a fear of creating capabilities in others which may eclipse those of the current leader. Or it may be a lack of certainty about how to develop those characteristics in another, a view that prospective successors either “have got it” or they don’t. Whatever the reason, effective succession is the most frequent cause of once-strong entities becoming weak. It’s as true in Nicaragua as it is in the United States. All the greatness of a transformational leader becomes but an historical footnote if he/she has not prioritized succession as the most important piece of his/her legacy. It’s the difference between giving a fish versus teaching to fish.
The good news here is that this leader, among his other strengths, indicates that he sees the critical need for this development in his organization. He has asked for help in addressing how to create future, holistic visionaries from a population limited in education and leadership experience. (This is not hard for him to imagine, as he is limited in his own ability to read or write.) He has begun to avail himself of tools that can develop such succession thinking, in the form of Open Book Management techniques and Lean Process Improvement methodologies. He acknowledges both the organizational importance and potential detriment of his role as a high-impact leader of the organization. These are crucial first steps in a very difficult balance in protecting both the current and future states of the coop, which already exists in a context of significant and sudden changes, whether natural or man-made.
For Winds of Peace, making a loan to an organization which presents reasonable capacity for repayment is relatively simple. A group that is blessed with strong and visionary leadership is more difficult to find. But an organization that recognizes the essential need for excellent next-generation leadership is the difference between a cooperative of the moment and a transformational legacy for the future….
With the emphasis on education during my recent visit to Nicaragua, we had the pleasure of re-visiting the Association of Women Builders of Condega (AMCC). AMCC is a non – profit organization whose main purpose is to promote economic, political and ideological empowerment processes to young and adult women from Northern Nicaragua, to enhance the basic conditions for the exercise of their full citizenship. It’s quite an undertaking when one considers the context of the education, the circumstances of most of the students, the nature of a very patriarchal Nicaraguan society and cryptic attitudes about women, their roles and their capacities.
“Young women are better off staying at home.”
And, oh yes, at the same time the school is providing a very hands-on technical education for their students, teaching practical construction and building skills and demonstrating the latest technologies in use of earth materials. And their results are stunning in both attractiveness and quality. A visit to their site and walk through the grounds where the students work hands-on provides a clear picture of what these very young students can achieve.
“Women don’t do well in trades work like carpentry or electricity.”
In addition to receiving practical vocational training, these students are also immersed in the science of environmentalism. They are taught concepts in the making and use of earth building materials, installation and use of solar energy, efficient land use and building projects that are adapted into the AMCC campus after their completion. My own preconceptions about the use of adobe as a construction material have changed rather dramatically since my visits here!
“Earth materials like adobe aren’t durable enough or attractive enough for serious construction.”
But as is nearly always the case in Nicaragua, the greatest values are to be found in the people engaged in the process. In some cases, it’s the presence of students in a curriculum that they likely never dreamed about for themselves. Sometimes it’s the story of a student who excels in a field of study to the extent that she remains at AMCC as an instructor to other young participants who can identify with her easily, and from whom young women are at ease in following her lead. And there is always the guiding presence of the founding generation, those whose vision and persistence and passion have blended together in a force of determination on behalf of young people’s lives throughout the area of Esteli and city of Condega.
“Young Nicaraguans today have little ambition or drive to succeed.”
AMCC is helping their young students to recognize who they are, what they can become, that they are a part of their environment, and that they are stewards of those surroundings. Regardless of what may be said by “others.”
Working within the education arena of Nicaragua, we find that there is much to worry about with regard to student development in the country. Student access, student retention, availability of materials and adequate teacher training are just some of the challenges facing the country, which has slipped during recent years in comparison with the other Central American nations. But there are also islands of hopefulness in this great sea of needs, and walking the grounds at the AMCC campus offers a rare glimpse of what could be….
I will be leaving a corporate Board of Director’s seat in a few weeks, ending about 28 years of service with that group. “That group” is Foldcraft Co., the firm for which I worked as an employee for more than 30 years, as well. To have remained on the board for so long has been a privilege as well as a point of pride; that any organization would tolerate my presence and outlooks for so long defies realistic expectations. But I have chosen to leave under my own terms and timing, which seems a fitting conclusion for so long a tenure. The change that it will create is an essential one. And therein lies a lesson for most organizations, I think, including ones in Nicaragua.
The lesson has everything to do with succession, that final piece in a sometimes long term of service wherein the responsibilities and obligations, the voice and the stewardship for the organization is passed along to whoever follows. It’s likely the most overlooked responsibility leaders deal with. That’s not to suggest that leaders don’t think about and plan for succession at all, but that they simply don’t prepare for the eventuality nearly well enough. That reality is why leadership succession represents one of the most vulnerable times in an organization’s entire life, and why organizational failures often occur within a short time after a succession has taken place.
I have often stated that perhaps the most important accomplishment I ever achieved during my employment at Foldcraft was turning over the leadership of the Company to the “right” successor. I still believe that to be true. But it also must be recognized that the effectiveness of that transition was years in the making, wherein senior authority and leadership became increasingly discussed, shared and strategized. In fact, one could argue that preparation for that particular succession evolved over nearly fifteen years. Successful succession in that instance was not an event, but rather a process of orientation, teaching, seasoning, making and learning from mistakes. Organizations rarely have fifteen years to prepare for a shift in leadership, but they owe it to themselves to be constantly preparing for the inevitable change.
And when the planning and preparation have been well provided for, the change in boardroom or management or committee setting can be- in fact, should be- a blast of fresh air. I hope and believe that my participation in recent Board meetings has not been stale or redundant. (You’d have to ask the others about whether that’s true or not.) But I also hope and believe that my successor will bring new chemistry to the process, challenging the way that conversations have evolved over the past 28 years, lending insights that I might never have had, and seeing the future of the organization through a new lens.
If, over the past years, I have brought any positive elements to the organization, I will trust that those characteristics will have impressed themselves on my colleagues and they will blend those singularities with the freshness of the newcomer. It’s the best of evolution, and our organizations deserve that step up in their continuity. No one is good forever, and even if they could be, there will come a time when the organization needs something else, something new.
One of the great disservices which befalls an organization is the perpetuation of same leadership. Leaders are comprised of the sum total of their life experiences and lessons. It’s the stuff from which they draw conclusions, make judgments and see the world. But no one possesses perfect vision or all-encompassing experiences, and by definition that means any leader is bound to misinterpret or misread from time to time. The capture of an alternative outlook sometimes can only be discovered through new insight born of different intelligence. Hence, the necessity for superb succession.
Some have argued that the risk of succession is primarily because the new leader might not possess the same values and perspectives that allowed the organization to function well in the first place. And that’s true, if the successor is relatively unknown to those who would make the appointment; any governing body’s primary obligation is to have a pretty intimate knowledge of its incoming leaders. Where that knowledge exists, the value of new energies will far outweigh the risk of detrimental decisions. (In any case, no leader should lead without checks and balances and the continuing governance structure should always provide a safety valve against an ill-advised direction.)
I’ll be spending time visiting cooperatives during the coming weeks and one of the essential qualities I hope to see is the provision for what happens when the leadership shift occurs. First of all, will one occur? And if so, under what process and preparedness? It may not feel like a priority to anyone today, but I can guarantee that it will be, and sooner than most are prepared for.
Yesterday, I remember wondering about the future and what it might hold for my organization. Today, as I prepare to leave it, I recognize all the promise and challenge once imagined in the past. Tomorrow, I hope neither I nor the rest of the organization will regret any lack of preparedness for what is to come….