Article dedicated to Fr. Jack Moynihan and Sr. Maria Alicia McCabe
-Why are you coming to visit us? María Jesús asked, the grandmother of the community. Not even the priests visit us now–she took charge of the conversation.
-The world is getting more difficult. Without us, it will be difficult for you to improve; and without you, we don´t even know where we are going- I responded.
-Is that right? Whispered the grandmother, inviting me to coffee.
Thirty years ago in most of Central America corn and beans were planted without using glyphosate nor gramoxone; now gramoxone is used even for harvesting beans, in part to keep the rain from making the beans “sprout”. Not to mention vegetables, coffee and cacao. Much less sugar cane, peanuts or sesame. Probably beef and pork meat is more organic than carrots or beans. Where did this come from? The costs of production of a peasant family have increased drastically, but not the prices they are paid for their products; this makes desperation spread, tension and violence intensify, biodiversity erode, and climate variability proliferate.
There are many explanations for these realities. In this article I focus on intellectuals, who dedicate an important part of their time to studying the realities, preparing projects and/or policies, teaching or preaching; they are writers, scientists, artists, scholars; they are “people of culture” who move in different circles from most people, a separation which at times is concealed but abysmal. We use the word “apartheid” to denote this intolerable separation. By way of hypothesis we say that the separation between intellectuals and the communities where most of people live has impaired humanity for at least five centuries, when friars (intellectuals), soldiers, tax collectors and traders burst upon these lands. How can they work together and write a new history? I reflect on this question from the heterogeneity of the rural world.
That wall of intellectual apartheid
We read articles in newspapers and magazines about political issues where generally the rural reality does not appear, and if it does, it is reduced to topics of violence where its structural causes are ignored. There are NGOs with rural agendas whose intellectuals respond to donors, sporadically they show up in rural communities to do surveys or interviews, they show up once and never return. In fact, in the last 20-30 years, there are practically no intellectuals who write about the rural realities of Central America in a systematic way.
At the same time there are young rural women and men who have studied different majors. Finishing their studies, their dream is not to work with rural populations. They work for companies, the government, or they migrate to other countries to work in what they can. If they stay, they go back to agriculture or to be housewives, leaving aside their intellectual role that could give them the possibility of writing peasant and indigenous history from their perspectives, and writing about new futures.
What happened to us? The Fordist and Taylorist colonial mentality that separates experts from workers has nested in our minds, regardless of the political ideology that we might exude. This mental model makes one believe that there is nothing to be learned from rural communities, like some two thousand years ago: “Nazareth! –exclaimed Nathanael. Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). This mental model makes intellectuals believe that they are superior: “I am an accountant”, “I am an engineer”, “I am a professor”, “I am a pastor, anointed by God”, “I am a doctor” or “I am an economist”. This intellectual arrogance means that we do not mix with peasant or indigenous people, that that hidden or submerged population live in the “middle ages” – a Eurocentric reading, as if Latin America had an “ancient age”, “middle age” and “modern age”.
This mentality adds cement to the millennial wall of intellectual apartheid of a “Latin America” where indigenous and peasant people are absent. Peasant and indigenous people walk on their own and intellectuals do so as well, each one on different rails.
I have learned a lesson working for decades with rural populations. Alone, peasants and indigenous, it will be difficult for them to innovate with their economies and societies; alone, we intellectuals will continue exuding Eurocentrism and allowing the spirit of Nathanael to control us.
Experiences that seem to knock this wall down
Fortunately, there are experiences in which that wall is knocked down, even though just a part of it, and just for some period of time. The most well-known came in the 1960s and 1970s when several lines of thinking coincided. The opening of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), a church open to the poor; the momentum of the Cuban revolution (1959); popular education under the influence of Pablo Freire; and the dependency theory of Singer and Prebisch. It was a period in which public universities were spaces of debate, where majors in sociology, philosophy and political science prevailed.
Under this framework, university students and professors, priests, sisters and politicians, went into communities and neighborhoods accompanying indigenous, peasant and impoverished people from urban neighborhoods. Churches, classrooms, auditoriums and offices let their intellectuals leave. In Central America the experience of the community of Solentiname (Nicaragua) stands out with Ernesto Cardenal, where they produced the Gospel of Solentiname; the experience of the community of Aguilares (El Salvador), the experience of hundreds of Base Christian Communities. One outstanding regional experience is that of the Radiophonic Schools, where intellectuals (religious and lay) promoted literacy, health care and agriculture, a framework in which many people organized into cooperatives and peasant stores, which still exist today, though very much in a diminished way.
It is a period in which part of that wall was felled; the mentality was that God and freedom were in the impoverished people who seek justice, that people can organize with their own resources, that honesty and solidarity are values that are found in humble people. To a large extent, with this process all the military dictatorships were brought down and democracy was installed throughout Latin America.
But this harmful wall resurged after the years of the 1980s. The institutional church closed itself back up in church buildings and persecuted those religious who refused to leave the communities which were building the Reign of God on earth. Banking style education returned to the classrooms. Political revolutions and democracies took over the military bases and offices, feeling at home under hierarchical and authoritarian structures. Studies in business administration, accounting and law led public and private universities with the dream of making money. The teachings and trainings put learning aside. The spirit of Nathanael returned to the minds of intellectuals, separating them from people with calloused hands who paid for the studies of these intellectuals. This is the reality that made María Jesús ask, “Why are you coming to visit us?”
Breaking the wall and combining ideas and efforts
Visiting people like María Jesús, we jump over that wall of apartheid – we just “jump”. Here we list four ways of knocking the wall down, which, like a constellation of stars could show us one of the paths: get involved in the real lives of the majorities, experience the changes, co-invest in initiatives and recognize several languages.
Intellectuals need to get involved in the real lives of the majorities, combine being in our churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices and conference rooms, with living in rural communities, organized however they may be, experiencing what it means to generate collective actions beyond one´s own family, and outside of the “synagogue” itself (church, office…. ). If it is a matter of the fact that agriculture and the lives of human and natural communities might improve, food not be poisoned, it is unacceptable that the rural population walk along the rail that the market pulls them on, and that intellectuals walk along another rail, also pulled by the market.
The issue of beans is technology, soils, climate, property, institutions like sharecropping, sharing labor, and land rental, it is intermediation and crop lien lending, it is weighing and quality, it is official data and real data, it is new bean soup and refried beans; all of this varies from year to year. The same with coffee, cacao, corn, squash or lemongrass, gardens, cornfields and farms. It is ethically and scientifically questionable to make proposals without being involved in that world, without studying them and studying oneself. We need to re-understand commercial relationships, not as commodities subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, but as the means for “good living”, as they say in the Andean countries, or the “I am because you are”, as one of the profound perspectives from Africa expresses it.
The topic of violence, specifically violence against women, is an issue of millennial social and religious rules, laws, power relationships, family and structures embedded in religious, political and economic institutions, it is the law of the jungle and human dispositions. It is not possible to reduce and terminate that violence if we do not identify its causes and do not accompany women in their non-violent paths in their own communities.
On the topic of rural organizations, it is cooperation in the midst of conflict, democracy in authoritarian societies, distribution of profits within a context of “trickle-down economics”, it is transparency in the midst of secretive mafias, it is accounting for peasant stores and cooperatives when universities are teaching accounting for companies and corporations…One can advise organizations only if we learn from them how to advise them.
Intellectuals need to experience the changes along with rural people. An idea that is tested, adapted, adjusted, redone, finds legitimacy, motivates, is corrected and polished, is an idea that takes on life, that changes even the details or precisely because of the details. Experimenting in the organization of cooperatives, associations, associative enterprises, community stores or rural banks, helps to establish different processes. Experimenting is digging into decolonializing ourselves, and getting ourselves out of the orbit of Eurocentrism, which is presented as the measure of all things. The same thing happens on the side of rural populations, there are peasant and indigenous people who become pastors, delegates of the word, healers and agricultural and community advisors, many of them also dig into and realize that what is happening and what has happened to them is not natural nor determined by some supernatural being, in this way putting a crack in the wall of apartheid.
As we dig further, we run into more powerful beliefs that support e wall, but we also find people who find their source of motivation in those depths in unimaginable ways. After administering a community store for one year, Yesenia Hernández expressed in an assembly: “I used to sell and I did not understand the numbers, because they say “women are for the kitchen and men for documents”; I prepared myself to understand the numbers, now they don´t make my head hurt, I am also a “woman of documents”. It is not just accounting, it is beliefs and ways of getting into the numbers, it is working together to adjust those audits of cash and inventory each month. When these improvements happen, other colonial “demons” emerge from political, economic and religious intermediations, and from within ourselves, intellectuals and peasant and indigenous people. It is not just focusing on the community store, it is also studying those surroundings and adjusting and polishing the changes.
In many cases it is co-investing in initiatives like community stores. If intellectuals and people from the communities invest in these initiatives, they will be concerned about their resources and will study the stores, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In this way, in the midst of tensions and disagreements that collective actions imply, they will produce new ideas, far from just kneeling down before the market of products and knowledge. This interaction or alliance are part of the basic conditions for freedom of thought, in order to be decolonialized.
Finally, breaking down the wall is recognizing several “languages”. The language of accounting talks about “liabilities”, “assets”, “equity”, “expenses”, “cash out” and “inventory”; likewise economics or law have their own language…Peasant language talks about “payment adjustment”, “piglet” (savings), “scraping by” (look for earnings and savings, like a chicken that scrapes the ground looking for food), “tight” (balance without debt), “cornsilk” (small earnings)…These words underly different rationalities, they are communication vehicles for walking together over long distances and times, be it co-investing, experiencing changes or getting ourselves involved in the real lives of peasant and indigenous people.
Good changes walk with two feet, intellectuals and peasants/indigenous who organize. With two feet one can re-perceive commercial relationships governed by societies, and rethink ideas from a perspective of decolonialization from the south. No foot can believe itself to be superior and take leaps without the other foot. As the Italian writer, Luciano de Crescenzo says, “we are all angels with only one wing, and we can only fly if we embrace someone else”; in our case, peasant individuals can fly through associative organizations, but only in an embrace with intellectuals, and intellectuals can only fly in an embrace with peasants who organize.
In this we need to have a long-term perspective of the histories, the changes that might last and deepen over centuries. Seen in this way, the innovative experience of the 1960s and 1970s that I mentioned lasted barely 20-30 years, after which neoliberalism and religious and political conservatism absorbed them, or as Franz Hinkelammert would say, the totalitarianism of the market controlled the state and societies; even though some flashes of that time persist. In contrast, European enlightenment broke down that wall and lasted 74 years (1715-1789), and its impact lasted for centuries in Europe. The same with the Protestant Reformation that broke the Catholic wall into pieces, which had abducted the Bible, lasted 144 years (1454-1598) and its which is remade and has lasted for thousands of years.
How can this wall of intellectual colonialist apartheid, subjected to the totalitarianism of the market, be breached? Our response is that intellectuals and indigenous and peasant peoples organize, and together rewrite the histories of our peoples, on paper, in our minds and in our futures. Rewriting implies conceptualizing, synthesizing processes, self-studying, analyzing actions in the light of different approaches, creating parables like Jesus to communicate and provoke reflection; doing it in an ongoing way, together, not once a year or as project systematizations/intermediate evaluations. These different futures can be written or designed to the extent that “the other” is rescued; rescuing indigenous and peasant people who emerge from the way down below where they were condemned for centuries; they emerge fighting with so many demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have been imposed on them; that the peasantry also rescue intellectuals, who also fight against so many other demons (beliefs and rules of the elites) which have led them to walk only on their side of the street; mutually rescuing one another, reflecting with images and parables, synthesizing their paths for sharing and keeping their organizations from falling into neoliberalism, reduced to maximizing their earnings, or the colonialism of “we always need a patron”. Doing it year by year, decade by decade, and century after century, decolonializing rural organizations, churches, classrooms, auditoriums, offices, conferences and farms.
Taking this step will make María de Jesús, the grandmother with the long view, whisper to us, “is that right?” And we will share coffee with rosquillas, even though at that time, like the stardust that we are, we will then be within the energies of the universe.
 Jack learned how to accompany grassroots communities from an African American evangelical pastor in a neighborhood in New York– according to what our friend Mark Lester tells us. With this knowledge, Jack accompanied rural communities in Bolivia and Central America, and now accompanies marginalized people in the United States. Maria Alicia accompanied communities in Brazil and communities in Nicaragua, now accompanies migrants from Latin America who struggle to enter the United States. Both are living examples of how to break this wall of apartheid.
Rosita spent days thinking, until one day she said to her Mother: I want to be a doctor, will you let me go study?
Ah, my daughter, your Dad is going to get upset, María responded. That night María told her husband José that Rosita wanted to study medicine. He got upset. What? Women are for the kitchen! Who stuck those ideas in her head?
María cried the entire night.
In the morning José left to talk to his patron. He asked permission for his daughter to study. The patron reacting angrily, What? Women don´t have the head for those things. They are here to give birth to peons. Send her to me to work, the devil got into her for being lazy!
At midnight José told María what his patron has said. If you send her, she is going to be his, for a time, pronounced María between sobs.
Rosita heard that whispering. She remembered her days in school, her grandmother and her “stolen” friends. Am I myself? Am I crazy? she asked herself. There has to be another way to live, she responded and prepared her bag. She left a note and took off. The note said, “I am leaving alone with my thoughts.”
In this story appears the colonial structure where it is thought that a peasant woman cannot think (“does not have the head for that”), the patriarchal structure where is it believed that women cannot make decisions, and the capitalistic structure where women are valued if they reproduce the labor force. People move about in this triad structure, like trains on their rails. Rosita, nevertheless, detects that structure, has aspirations, achieves the support of her mother and her father, leaves, not “stolen”, secretly “alone with her thoughts”. A social enterprise is like Rosita, it thinks, acts, ponders and begins a different path. What characteristics do these types of organizations have who go “off the rails?” How are they able to continue along this different path over time?
Rosita can begin a different path, but with the passage of time abandon her thoughts and end up acting like her parents and the patron, or she can mature her “thoughts” of being different. Something similar happens with social enterprises (cooperatives, community stores and roasters). Here we begin identifying these structures that make them de-volve, and then we delve into the rural social enterprises that are going deeper along a different path.
The domination triad of colonial and patriarchal capitalism rests on the assumption that the values of a society are considered universal, and assume progress as a lineal evolution where race, capital and the rod (authoritarianism) are “the rails.” We base this theoretical introduction on Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee.
Following Quijano (1992), separate from the defeat of political colonialism, a “colonization of the imagination of the dominated” persists. How did this occur?
This was the product, in the beginning, of systematic repression, not just the repression of specific beliefs, ideas, images, symbols or knowledge that did not serve global colonial domination. The repression fell, above all, on the forms of knowing, producing knowledge, perspectives, images and systems of images, symbols, forms of meaning; on resources, patterns and instruments of formalized and objectified intellectual or visual expression. It was followed by the imposition of the use of patterns of expression appropriate to those who were dominant, as well as their beliefs and images referring to the supernatural, which served not just to block the cultural production of the dominated, but also as a means of social and cultural control, when the immediate repression ceased to be constant and systematic (1992:12)
The “colonialization of the imagination” happens when a culture is repressed and replaced by another through systematic violence. In Figure 1 we lay out the detail of what Quijano proposes.
In time that “universal cultural model” became an aspiration of other cultures, particularly the “illiterate peasant subculture, condemned to oral expression” (13), who were left without a form of intellectual expression.
In this process, European culture appears as rational, belonging to “actors”, while all other cultures it is assumed are not rational, are inferior, “objects” of study. Correspondingly, in harmony with Saint-Simon, the idea emerged of an organic society, where one part of the body is in charge of the others without dispensing with them, the brain in charge of the arms. So, in society the owners are the brains and the workers are the arms. It is an image of society as a closed and hierarchical structure, where each part is subject to the totality. There history is conceived as an ongoing revolution from the primitive to the civilized, from savagery to the rational, from pre-capitalism to capitalism.
This Eurocentrism, according to Quijano (2014), is the specific logic of colonialism. The notion of race assumes that biologically some are inferior, and from capitalism the notion of the division of labor is reinforced reciprocally with race, for example that the workers by their inferiority are not worthy of wages, and the peasants should not aspire to be managers. That is where the Eurocentric myth originates of the “evolutionist perspective, of movement and unilateral and unidirectional change of human history.” (Quijano, 2014: 800).
Polanyi (2001, published for the first time in 1944) described this transformation of pre-industrial to industrial Europe in the XIX and XX centuries, the passage from a system of dispossession which led Europe from a “society with markets” to a “society of markets”, which led Germany, Portugal, Spain, Japan and Italy to fascist authoritarianism, and to the Second World War. Polanyi detected in addition forms of capitalization that were globalizing, which has been called neoliberalism, with the dominion of the force (laws and justice) of the globalizing market. Fifty years later, Stiglitz (2001:vii), rereading Polanyi, said in the prologue: “Due to the fact that the transformation of European civilization is analogous to the transformation that developing countries face throughout the world today, at times it seems as if Polanyi is speaking directly to the current situation.”
Stiglitz is correct in his observation but does not go far enough. This capitalism is colonial in the countries of the South, made worse than in the situation of Europe itself, expressed – without distinction as to political, religious or market leanings – in authoritarian structures mediated by the notion of race.
This colonial capitalism is also patriarchal. Federici (2010), studying capitalism from a feminist perspective, coincides with Marx in that primitive accumulation is salaried work separated from the means of production, she also understands it as separation from production by the market, while the reproduction of life is feminized and women are subjected to men for family sustenance. She found in the XVI and XVII centuries that capitalism caused hunger by the labor force, and that the belief was that the wealth of a nation consisted in having abundant salaried people, which is why the State and the Church, using violence, imposed witch hunting criminalizing birth control and controlling the female body, the uterus, to increase that labor force. “If in the Middle ages women had been able to use different contraceptive methods and had exercised an indisputable control over the birthing process, starting now their uteruses were transformed into political territory, controlled by men and the State: procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation” (Federici, 2010: 138-139).
In the story at the beginning of the chapter, the patron repeats this rule of primitive accumulation, “those women are for producing peons”, and the father confirms that “women are for the kitchen.” If only 20% of land owners are women in Latin America, they are easily considered to be “arms” or a “rib”. In this way, race, capital and uterus are the rails of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, which we try to synthesize in Figure 2.
Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), from a framework of “economic colonialism” in line with Quijano (1992), observe how social enterprises are run and measured under the parameters of that framework. So, some are seen as advanced and others as backward. The authors detect five deficiencies in the functioning of social enterprises, see Table 1.
Table 1. Conception of social enterprises
What these deficiencies ignore
1. Concern about the technical aspect and their performance
Economic democracy goes with different community rationalities, not just performance with predefined results
Collective innovation is replaced by quick technical responses; collective solutions take time.
2. Under-representation of subordinate people in decision making processes
A broad perspective should include subordinated groups, whose voices should not be interpreted nor edited
Subordinate groups have different conditions and meanings to negotiate
3. Vision of pacifist civil society focused on organization
Voices, whispers, and silences express participation; principles of distribution, reciprocity and family maintenance.
Minorities do not have voice in social enterprises; markets shape the economy in the social and political order.
4. No attention to gender issues
Role of women in reciprocity, distribution and family maintenance should appear in debates.
More women participate in social enterprises, but theoretical debates with a feminist perspective are scarce.
5. Non problematization of the political and economic dimension
Economic autonomy, publc voice and visibility, unique solutions and protection networks in alternative arenas.
Alternative economies are defined by economic colonialism. Challenge of decolonializing social enterprises.
Source: based on Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019)
Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) assume that promoting economic democracy in order to overcome “economic colonialism” requires addressing these five deficiencies. Cutting across these deficiencies is the idea of the market shaping social enterprises, without the perspectives of society having any importance. The authors insist that the voices of subordinate groups with their different rationalities should be made visible, even though these processes take time, and they question whether diverse and alternatives economies can be decolonialized.
2. Cooptation of social enterprises
Cooperatives were born from the womb of colonial countries and during the expansion of industrial capitalism, but in opposition to that system. That strength of “swimming against the current”, nevertheless, devolved through almost two centuries of history; today it is difficult to distinguish a cooperative from a private enterprise, to such an extent that in France they call it “cooperative capitalism” (Georges and Pascal, 2009). The word “enterprise” in its identifying definition entered for the first time in 1995 in the Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance, in the crest of the world rise of neoliberalism.
This colonial and patriarchal capitalism is reproduced by the social enterprises themselves. The deficiencies that Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019) observe are taken on, for example, in the rural social enterprises in Central America, which does not lack any of them. The economic successes are emphasized without distributing surpluses, decisions are centralized without being transparent with information, are controlled by the market and technocracy, their actions and decisions are depoliticized, they exclude youth, women and workers without land. Figure 3 shows this structure that moves like one cogwheel crushing any option that goes off “the rails.”
Social enterprises are considered “the third sector”, alongside the State and the market, which is why it is expected that they might be a real counterweight, being democratic and equitable. This tends not to happen; social enterprises reproduce the hierarchical structures of the State and the market. The organizational chart of organizations has the assembly as their highest decision-making authority, but usually the assembly is only a formality. Technocratic elites in the organizations (social enterprises, business or sports associations, churches) became hierarchical, and the only gateway for the members to markets, states and gods. Markets see the social enterprise as a means to increase volume or to carry out imported projects. These elites see themselves as the “brain” embedded in the “strong man”, moving about in “black masses” (collusion among elites), from where they see the peasantry as “the arm,” “illiterate people who do not think”, that “the more brutish they are the more they produce.” For their part, aid organizations that tend to accompany them, even though bathed in discourses about democracy, are also hierarchical, reluctant to study the social enterprises, and inebriated with the technocratic belief that “they already know” the problems and solutions for the social enterprises, tacitly taking on the colonial logic that sees the social enterprises as the reflection of their past.
Most social enterprises are constituted by the State. It is assumed that forming a cooperative is a “matter of legalizing them”, promising them credit, land or some project; it is like getting married first before falling in love. This was true for the boom of cooperatives in Nicaragua in the 1980s, those of Venezuela in the first decade of the current millennium, or the rural banks in Honduras in the second decade of the current millennium. They are organized around mono-cropping systems or credit services. They are structures that see themselves only as rational businesses and individuals, neglect in practice their associative side and collective actions. They are formed under the idea that “a cooperative is for those who have” (land, coffee, sugar cane or cacao), and exclude those who “do not have anything” (women, youth and workers without land). They are organizations that are desperate to grow economically, which is why they do not distribute profits and intensify the hundred-year rule of “peasants are only for providing raw materials”.
These social enterprises have geographically dispersed membership and offices in the cities. They do not try to build trust among their membership as the basis for any action. The more they depend on markets and international aid agencies, the more they stick to formal aspects: contracts, audits, meeting minutes, and bids, disconnected from the processes of their membership. 20% of their members are women, most of them included as a formality. This low percentage is coherent with organizations dedicated to raw materials, where men are kings, while women are restricted to the kitchen and the reproduction of the labor force. The families themselves of the members are an expression of these hierarchical structures: husband/father centralizes decision making, and the family embraces the mono-cropping system. This social order is maintained even by violence, because social enterprises think that it is their duty to generate profits. The rule that governs them is “those who have, save yourselves”, at the cost of human lives and nature; it is the same rule of capitalism.
These three elements reveal the strength of colonial and patriarchal capitalism, coopting social enterprises, and using them as a means of dispossession. Table 2, reading it in a vertical way, shows what colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy are in the social enterprises, an expression of control and dependency, the superiority/inferiority duality that in the long term justifies violence. Meanwhile, reading it horizontally, it shows how embedded these three systems are: being guided by the patron, the market and men; the elite, the market and intelligent men; letting themselves be carried away by the oligarchy, the market and formality; mono-cropping, physical work and not processing products; predominance of discarding instead of change. They are intellectual sounding boards against the members, but in their name and through their own organizations. In the face of this, the elites of the market, the State and international aid organizations do not want to know whether the social enterprises are democratic, whether they distribute their profits, whether they are transparent, whether they have environmental sustainability, whether the voice of the members counts, whether subordinated groups are included…They are interested in the fact that the market rules in order to have profitable partners. The social enterprises with larger transaction volume and more working capital are praised and considered “advanced”.
Table 2. The triad reproduced by social enterprises
Peasants dream about being a patron: ordering, exploiting people and having money.
Cooperative wants to be a business and an actor in the market
A couple wants a son who “wields a machete” and not a daughter who “tends the hearth”.
Elites who see themselves as “the brain”: priest, sacristan and bell ringer all in one. Member: “waits for directions from above”
The market knows more, dictates justice and gives value to products and organizations
Head of the family (law, judge and jury); women in the kitchen, women for re-producing; cooperative is for men
Formal democracy in the assembly conceals control of the oligarchy
There are no decisions to make, just working and being an enterprise.
Membership of women is a formality, just to meet a requirement.
Cooperative is for mono-cropping, anchor for elites, divorced from the land
Peasants have comparative advantages with a crop that requires physical labor.
If peasants are only for raw materials, then there is no space for women who process and sell processed goods.
Strategy of change: I remove you to take your place.
Take land away from peasant to give them a job.
Exchange your wife for someone younger.
Source: author, based on accompaniment of organizations in Central America
Can social enterprises be decolonialized? We argue that they can, if the structures in which they operate change. This we will see in the following sections.
3. Social enterprises that go “off the rails”
“Put ourselves in the shoes of others” is advised to see the world from the perspective of other people. To do so, before that, we need to “take off the shoes we are wearing.”
3.1 Case studies
In each case we include the specific context, history of the organization and its community, distinctive rules and organization.
3.1.1 Nicaragua and organizations in synergy
From several cases with similar processes, we highlight one community with 2 cooperatives, 2 community stores and 2 community roasters.
The context is a rural community 260 kms from the capital in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco, which in the last 30 years has become dependent on coffee and on one cooperative and conventional mediation for selling that coffee.The elite of that cooperative, like the intermediaries, used to hide information from the members, took the surplus, and the president has held the post for more than 30 years. This cooperative was worse than the intermediaries in that he manipulated the contributions of the members and collected coffee in the municipal capital (not in the community, like intermediaries do). The peasants reproduced the imposed rules: only producing raw materials, staying within their “piñuela fence”, money moves everything, and being concerned only about themselves –“those who have, save yourselves”.
As a result, the members where unaware of what happened to their coffee once it left their farms, more than 85% of the added value of coffee was captured outside of the community, they left the worst coffee for their own consumption, and lost control over their cooperatives. In a parallel fashion, groups of alcoholics and the abuse of women increased, while children without fathers continued to increase. Desperation spread: the producers more and more wanted to earn quick money, work less and went more into debt. The idea of “thinking big” controlled them, but understood as having greater volume, size (i.e. more members), capital (having a loan portfolio without concern about debt), and physical investment, at the cost of nature and people´s lives.
In the face of this situation, different groups reflected on their realities based on the question what would be opposed to the dominant cooperative model? They responded: depending on our own resources, members coming from just one community, and rotating leadership, more women and youth as members, working on different products and processing them, leaving the best for their own consumption, operating the entire year and not just during the coffee season, being guided by rules collectively agreed upon, distributing profits and being transparent. Correspondingly, one group organized a new cooperative, and another group, two community stores and coffee roasters.
The cooperative collected the coffee harvest in the community, got involved in credit and trade in beans, and in alliance with another enterprise, grew cardamom as a medicinal and agro-forestry plant with demand outside and inside the country. Their financial basis came from the contributions of their membership, and from a loan through a triangulated agreement between a cooperative with a dry mill and export services, an international financial foundation, and the cooperative itself; the first processes and looks for buyers, the second provides credit and the third ensured quality coffee. Visits of board members to the members of the cooperative increased, as did their informational transparency and the distribution of profits, thus recovering the best rules of cooperativism (see Box 1). Slowly they are improving endogenous institutions of aid, like sharecropping with beans; they are recreating rules of commercial mediation, instead of “I finance you and you sell me the harvest”, “we finance you, we sell your harvest, and then we distribute the profits.”
The community stores and roasters provide fair prices and fair weighing for products and services that they offer. The stores, in addition to conventional products, buy and sell products from the community, and promote group initiatives: e.g. they finance ingredients for bread-making for one group, they buy their bread to resell it. The basis of these social enterprises is also a form of triangulation: shareholders from the community, shareholders from outside the community and owners of the building who administer those services. Even though shareholders are mentioned, and the word “share” comes from Corporations (Inc), the stores and roasters seek to be democratic and equitable: see Box 2 with the principal rules.
The weight of women and youth is growing in these social enterprises and in initiatives linked to them, like the processing and trade of products. These social enterprises are becoming a source of credit and jobs for the shareholders themselves (e.g. rotation in the role of supervision and distributing), and spaces where they learn accounting, social business administration, written culture (recording data, taking notes and analyzing them), organization of initiatives and correcting rules that help people in their communities. Concerning the latter point, for example, selling products on credit that does not imply getting the family of the customer into debt, distinguishing between a collective asset (the store or roaster) and an individual asset (resource that belongs to a person), which allows administering another´s asset without squandering it, promoting collective innovations like raising chickens, bread-making, sewing. People want to contribute resources if they know where their resource is going, if they receive profits, and if these enterprises benefit the community.
Seen in its entirety, that authoritarian cooperative, even though at the beginning more so because its members did not desert it, joined together to contribute to the community in road improvement and visiting some of their members. The new cooperative stands out from the old model of cooperative, and feels pressure from the community stores and roasters who are scaling up based on their own resources. This indirect interaction (see Figure 4) is pressuring them to improve their democracy, transparency and equity. Said figuratively, instead of directly correcting the twisted tree, planting other trees, which combining sun and wind, slowly correct the twisted tree (authoritarian cooperative). “Thinking big”, in this sense, is multiplying organizations in the community around actions that break the curse of “only raw materials” and “we always need a patron”. The objective is not money but energizing the community.
When a social enterprise opens up a new path to be collective action, people take that path, learn it, and have the opportunity to catalyze their own changes.
3.1.2 Honduras and community organizations
Table 3. Events in the community
Los Encinos Peasant Store
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Juan Bautista Community Store
Introduction of vegetables (FIA: Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research)
APRHOFI: Intibucá Association of Vegetable and Fruit Producers
Inclusion of Los Encinos Store in the COMAL Network
Introduction of irrigation systems (USAID)
EMATE: Los Encinos Weaving Craft Enterprise
Recovery of APRHOFI
Introduction of ecological agriculture
ESMACOL: Lenca Community Alternative Multiple Service Enterprise. (7 Stores are the owners of Esmacol)
Introduction of greenhouses
In contrast to Nicaragua, the experience of Honduras is a community that organizes, expands outward based on a community store that emerged in the 1970s, and aims for the local and provincial market. It is the indigenous community of Encimos in the province of Intibucá, 115 kms from the capital.
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by changes in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council (1962), through which radio schools came into the rural area that taught people how to read and write and encouraged people to organize, and by the Alliance for Progress from the United States, to prevent infection from the Cuban revolution, pushing governments to carry out certain reforms to maintain control over the peasantry; in this way the National Association of Peasants of Honduras (ANACH) emerged, and the National Union of Peasants (UNC).
It was in those years that the people, harassed by large landowners and the Police, grabbed on to religion and liquor, one group visioned “bringing the store from the city to their community,” they formed the first store in 1975 and the second in 1999. Afterwards, international aid introduced technology into vegetables, created APROHOFI (business that marketed vegetables), and included the two stores in the COMAL Network, with rules and control from outside the community. It is in the decade of 2010 that the community groups scale up: they established their stores, formed EMATE in weaving, assimilated ecological agriculture and irrigation systems, took control over and corrected the rules of APROHOFI, and along with stores from other communities, co-governed ESMACOL. See Table 3.
Figure 5 shows the network in its entirety. The 3 organizations become a reference point in the community. They rescue APROHOFI from poor management; they consolidate it with governance from the community. ESMACOL, after 7 years, continues to be weak, like 5 of the 7 stores; co-governance with weak stores makes it difficult for ESMACOL to improve. A lesson that is emerging is that social enterprises tend to improve if the governance and rules come from the community itself.
What is described is the expression of a virtuous circle between technological change, markets, organization and finances: see Figure 6, supported by the image of a 4 layered onion. The organizations (stores, distributor, seller, weavings), the introduction of potatoes and vegetables, and investments in irrigation systems and greenhouses, reveals that there is an interaction between the technological, social, economic, cultural and spiritual. In other words, new crops and greater technological productivity implies more social cooperation between families, which generates economic costs and income, requires changes in the cultural sphere to the extent that agriculture intensifies and grapples with markets, which has repercussions on the spiritual-religious life of families, and this in turn on the technology…
What explains this circular process that began 45 years ago? First, the idea of “getting closer to the market” was a powerful vision within a context of political tensions and religious opening in the rural areas, a vision that assumed that the peasantry was valuable and could organize a store. A vision that later is made a reality on the basis of their own resources, learning each month to add and subtract what is bought and sold in the store, in spite of the fact that most of them did not know how to read. That vision and passion for the store to continue has accompanied them since that time.
Second, there was success with the rules for starting the store. Each member contributes 1500 Lempiras to their peasant store in January of each year, and with that they receive the equivalent of 100% of that contribution as earnings in December of each year. If a member contributes more than 1500 Lempiras, they receive 20% of that amount as earnings; that 20% continues being a greater benefit than saving it in a bank. The members get in credit the equivalent of up to twice their minimum contribution, in other words, up to 3,000 Lempiras; if the person is not able to pay in the annual term, the store is paid with the 3,000 of the distribution of profits-contribution. The stores offer products at prices slightly below market prices, while the salary of the administrator of the store is 30% of gross profits, which is why the administrator is incentivized to sell more, as the population is incentivized to make their purchases in the store. Box 3 lists the principal rules of the store and the other social enterprises.
Third, like many communities, in Encinos a good number of youth fell into alcoholism, putting the store itself at risk. The school teacher, Jenny Maraslago, saw this fact and helped to create the conditions for change. This is how Bernardo Gonzales remembers it: “In 1996 the teacher said, `such intelligent youth, it makes me sad to find them in the gutters.’ So she brought in the rules of AA; and introduced to us a friend from AA. Encouraged by my older brother, we immediately began to meet, and look, we quit getting drunk, everything changed that day.” 25 years later we found those youth, no longer in the gutters, but leading organizations. In 1975 they woke up to the possibility of bringing a store to the community, and in 1996 the rules of AA of not drinking liquor for 24 renewable hours showed them the path to take care of their community.
These three changes – vision, rules and awakening – contributed to creating the conditions so that in the years following Encinos would multiply their organizations and change their own way of farm production. After several decades of traditional agriculture, that hundred-year-old institution of “this is how I have always planted and how I always will”, gave way to “planting in furrows”, and later to ecological agriculture, and then to including greenhouse systems. They are mechanisms of identifying and applying the rules of each organization and nature itself, along with their organs taking up their respective roles, which led them to keeping just one person from playing the roles of “priest, sacristan and bell ringer”, and creating communities beyond the geographic space of Encinos. And in the opposite direction, every time that external actors consider and have an agenda foreign to that of the communities, initiatives like ESMACOL take more time to be sustainable and useful for the communities.
3.1.3 Guatemala and ecological agriculture which transcends
In Guatemala, a mostly indigenous country, a cooperative cultivates a transnational relationship and social cohesion with its members and organic agriculture. It is the cooperative of La Voz in the municipality of San Juan La Laguna, in the Province of Sololá, founded in 1979.
For decades they have experienced a context of discrimination from the people of San Pedro (non-indigenous from the neighboring town), of dispossession of their best land. Also, on the part of the Chalet owners, foreigners and non indigenous who took over the shores of Atitlan, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and built their chalets. In this context, and when organizing themselves under military dictatorships sounded like communism, a group of people understood that if they did not organize, they would die along with their relatives. They formed a cooperative and after suffering several attacks, one of them by the Police themselves, they turned themselves into an organic coffee cooperative, with a collective wet mill, even though with productive yields in weight equivalent to 60% of the conventional coffee of the San Pedro coffee growers. The first key to their persistence was their social cohesion as a group with a high rotation of members in leadership posts; the second key was their relationship with a market in the United States that were paying them well for their organic coffee. Up until 2004 that was the story of this cooperative, something unusual.
Between 2005 and 2010 the cooperative experienced a social, economic and environmental crisis. Hurricane Stan in 2005 and Agatha in 2010 made the waters of Atitlan rise, and with that a lot of land in dispute disappeared. In a parallel fashion, the cooperative fell into acts of corruption that put them at risk of going broke. In 2005 the cooperative got nearly half a million dollars in credit from a social bank and two loan sharks. In that same period the cooperative exported double the volume of their organic coffee, buying the other 50% from third parties, and passing it off as if it were fair trade, organic coffee from the cooperative. The members did not receive that loan, much less the profits for the resale of the other 50%. That was possible thanks to the complicity of the board and administrative staff of the cooperative, and the complacency of the certifiers (organic and fair trade), social banks and coffee buyers.
The members in that period of the board (2005-2006) were not aware of what was happening in the cooperative. In the next period (2007-2008) with a new board the situation was noticed because debt collectors came in, so they unraveled the origins of the debt. In the assembly they studied the causes, they met with the social banks, certifiers, buyers and aid agencies. What had led them to this crisis?
“If a member spoke well, we would say that that member was good, that he should be president. We trusted what the manager or the president would tell us, “This project is coming…sign here.” That is fine and we would sign. We did not verify the document to see what it ended up saying. They only would come in to tell us. There was no control over the travel allowance of the manager nor about the salaries they earned. We let them sign checks for the employees. Even in one season the manager was the legal representative of the cooperative. We would change everyone in each period, there were meetings, but we did not know how the administration was doing. The Credit Committee let the board authorize the loans, and we would say that it was good. As the legal representative, the manager would negotiate and talk with the buyers and the banks; we were afraid of talking to a business person and were happy with the manager doing it. Going to the capital was something we did not like to do…” (Board members of the cooperative).
The rotation of members in the posts out of formality led them to this crisis. Board members who did not take notes of the meetings that they held, did not read the minutes nor contracts, did not study the numbers of their organization, and did not ensure that the agreements from the assembly were applied, turned into decorative board members, it did not matter how good the practice of leadership rotation might be. Custom turned into law: signing oficial minutes and checks without verifying, putting in posts people that spoke well, letting the administration represent the cooperative and sign their checks, leaving the president or the manager to authorize loans instead of the credit committee, and avoiding talking with buyers and the banks. It was a “law” legitimized by the fair trade and organic certifiers´ audits.
That situation became a crisis when the bills came in and they had a new board. Realizing that the instigators of taking over the collective resources had been backed also by the organic certifier struck a blow to hundred year old beliefs that had nested in their minds: “foreign auditors have the final word”; “a person with a degree is trained to lead organizations”; “indigenous are not capable of talking nor traveling.” They were absorbed by the formality of the cooperative: the rotation of leaders was insufficient, and the audits of the international organizations were just papers. They awoke even from their cultural self enclosure: “a ladino cannot teach an indigenous person about coffee”; this idea had blocked them from benefitting from technical consultancies in order to improve their coffee. They also understood that the force of the market (maximizing individual earnings) was guiding the fair-trade organizations connected to the administration of the cooperative and the formality of its bodies.
It was a collective awakening in ongoing assemblies. There they decided to defend themselves against judicial claims of usurers; they understood that leadership rotation was insufficient if the administration was on the other side of the street, which is why the board studied the finances that the administrative area worked on. At the same time, they rebuilt their relationships with external actors: aid organizations and the State, administering resources efficiently; social banks honoring the debt, in spite of the fact that only part of those resources had gotten to the cooperatives and that the social bank had failed in their vetting mechanisms; they changed their organic certifier for another one that “visits the countryside”; and they worked with their coffee buyers so that quality requirements be connected to differentiated prices. They recognized that they could improve in their production areas, and that technical assistance from the state was useful, they hired a permanent technical promoter who accompanied the members and decided to produce organic inputs (compost worm fertilizer) that the members would buy. They got involved in roasting coffee aimed at the local market. They established a clinic for women based on their social fund, as an expression of commitment to their municipality.
Since 2010 they began to feel the changes and their results: see Figure 7. Organic agriculture bore fruit: if previously the organic coffee had a smaller yield than conventional coffee, within years the soil became so fertile that their coffee yield was better than the yield for conventional coffee. Without affecting those high yields, the families also grew corn, beans, bananas and other trees in between the rows of coffee – the rule of the certifiers that prohibited other crops is overcome if the soil is completely fertilized with organic fertilizers, feeding the soil and not the crop is “the rail.”
In addition to processing and exporting good quality organic coffee (cup score of 84), roasting coffee gave them several advantages. 5% of their total coffee was roasted, ground and sold through their coffee shops. This allowed them to know more about the yield from cherry to export coffee, to ground, roasted coffee and to the number of cups of coffee. They use this information to make their negotiations with coffee buyers transparent, because the cooperative and the buyers understand how unfair the New York stock price is, when they say that 1 lb of coffee is worth $1.50, that same pound in the United States or Europe, now roasted, ground and packaged, is worth ten times more, and even much more if it is sold as cups of coffee. The coffee shop in the cooperative is also a door to agro-ecological tourism for people connected to the coffee trade, and for the public in general. This creates environmental awareness and allows understanding what the coffee economy and part of the culture of the communities of San Juan are like. Also, coffee shops in the United States that buy coffee from the cooperative transmit live on their monitors farms in Guatemala.
In terms of results, some people from San Juan are repurchasing land from the people of San Pedro. The cooperative is creating jobs for the member families themselves on the farms, in the wet and dry mills, in the roasting and grinding of coffee, in the coffee shop and in the clinic.
Awakening to this crisis opened their minds. They learned that the relationship between the associative part and the business part, elucidated in assemblies, is what moves the cooperative, that the rotation of leaders implies getting involved in the administration of the actions of the cooperative; and that a transparent transnational alliance where each one does their part, supports social, economic and environmental equity processes for the communities. See box 4.
In spite of this progress, the cooperative and its network are not out of danger. In fact, it is said that human beings are the only animal that trips over the same stone twice. How can we make the risk less likely? From the history of social movements we learn that, after being mobilized “from below”, even the best leaders tend to believe that the people can only be mobilized “from above” – by a political vanguard, manager or the market. The more a cooperative creates mechanisms to mobilize itself “from below”, and does so within a framework of alliances with global actors, the more it distances itself from the risks of going broke. This is what this experience shows us.
3.2 Commonalities in these cases
What common waters run beneath these innovative experiences? See Table 4.
Table 4. Common elements
Community is smothered by commercial mediation and traditional cooperatives, mono-cropping and the search for money at the cost of human and natural life.
-They reflect on their situation, awaken and swim against the hierarchical “rails”
-They crawl forward with their own resources, diversify, process and sell their products.
-Alliance in international triangulation around coffee
-Alliance in local triangulation that catalyzes economic initiatives and densifies social connections.
-Contributing and distributing equitably
-Decisions in assemblies; rotation of leadership and tasks; information transparency; visiting one another.
Under the Alliance for Progress and the opening of the Catholic Church, a community far from markets, moves in a context of harassment of large land owners, alcoholism and learning to read and write.
-Vision: Bringing stores to the community
-Religious opening: they value themselves
-Keeping honesty with monthly cash out, assemblies and through oversight board.
-diversify crops, weaving and commerce.
-Community store – distributor– seller of vegetables in the city
-Community store and weaving group in the community
-Self governance: Member families in posts of organizations
Contributing/distribution /credit which does not surpass amount to be distributed.
-Rotation of leaders that also looks at the administration
-managers that implement decisions of the organs.
Discrimination and dispossession of their lands in 1970-80s; now when organized they suffer theft from common crime and the Police, and later the complicity of external actors with local elites threaten to make the cooperative go broke.
-Vision: organizing is resisting as indigenous
-They find a niche: organic soil for several crops, processing and coffee shop
-They awaken to the corruption and leadership rotation without getting involved in administration.
-transnational alliance between coffee buyer, certifier who “visits the countryside” and cooperative around organic coffee
-Cooperative produces fertilizer, works wet/dry mills, roasts and coffee shop for the local market.
-Rotation of leaders directing actions of the cooperative
-Transnational alliance whose members have roles that they carry out
-Assembly is the decisive entity and follows up on actions.
Regardless of the historical period and country, markets and States intensify hierarchical structures of inequality and discrimination that belittle people. They do it with commercial mediation, mono-cropping and tacit rules like “save yourselves those who have” (land, money), separated from human and natural life, which is why people tend to isolate themselves, drown themselves in alcohol and religious fundamentalism. When these people, organized in cooperatives, are dragged along by these waters along with their external allies, then they end up forming alliances over raw materials and the peasantry stay within their “piñuela fences” and women stay secluded “in their kitchens”.
Those who reflect on their realities, awaken, see and crawl forward with their own resources, form organizations that on a small scale become what humanity would aspire to be- that is their story. On reflecting they discover those adversities that they are presented with as something natural and/or determined by some supernatural being. Reflection leads them to awaken to the extent that they encounter their own roots, with which they can free themselves from those adversities which are reproduced in their minds and hearts. Then they envision something different, connected to their roots, the opposite of those structures. And they hold on to that vision using their own resources. These organizations are like a family that rotates their crops to maintain soil fertility, while they protect a patch of forest where their water source is; the fact of having food and water gives them a strength for negotiating with the large land owner or rancher who wants to buy their labor force and/or their land. These exceptional organizations stick to their vision. Let us illustrate what this “stick to” means with the peasants in the store in Encinos in the 1970s, they, without knowing how to read and write, sat down every month to do the cash-inventory audit of their store, they knew that they were charting a new path and that they had to persist even if fire rained down; month after month, year after year, they turned their store into one of the exceptional organizations of Central America – but not seen nor recognized as such by NGOs, aid agencies nor the State.
Innovative forms of organization stand out in these stories. The triangulation or agreement between three actors, one transnational, and another more local. The first is between the buyer, the financier, and the seller (cooperative) around coffee, a triangulation “conditioned” on the equitable distribution of surpluses, informational transparency and on being democratic organizations. The second is between local actors with a strong interest in the processing and commercialization of a diversity of products, a triangulation “conditioned” on including women and youth as protagonists in the social enterprises. In any of these expressions, the social enterprises are self governing and rotate leadership and jobs. These social enterprises, in addition, catalyze new organizations in the same community around other initiatives, this includes more marginalized people and keeps one person from becoming a “big chief” when there is only one organization.
It highlights the fact that in order to be democratic, transparent and equitable organizations, one does not need so much money, training, nor many pages of laws and norms. Few rules are needed, implementing them, and recreating them following their spirit in accordance with the changes that the communities experience as global spaces. When their members contribute and the social enterprise distributes the surplus with equity, and it is directed by its organs, the services (credit, processing, commercialization, health care or education) are sustainable. To do so, three interdependent rules are key. The “contribute-distribute” rule generates – and is generated by – trust; if under this rule a person requests a loan for an amount equal to or less than the amount of their contribution and their possible share of the distribution of surplus, and if once the term is past that person does not pay, the social enterprise deducts that amount from that person´s resources; any person who is the object of distribution asks for information and identifies with their organization – let us recall the biblical saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be”. The rules “only the assembly is the decisive body” and “rotation of leadership and posts” are favored because the social enterprise belongs to the community, they make the voice of all the groups be heard, allows women to participate with or without babies; information flows through the community.
Under what conditions do these rules make a difference? When they are connected to endogenous institutions of the communities, which emerge through study and self-study: the rule “contribute-distribute” is connected to relationships of indigenous-peasant exchanges, e.g. sharecropping; the rule “assembly is decisive” is connected to collective actions-decisions of indigenous peoples. These are signs of “societies with markets”.
These interconnected rules, under alliances or triangulations, around modes of production that go beyond the curse of “raw materials” and cultivate relationships of life with nature, make us walk outside the rails of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism.
4. Conceptualization of alternative processes
Let us go back to Quijano (1992), who proposes elements of decolonialization: freeing the production of knowledge, reflection and communication from the potholes of European rationality; recognizing the heterogeneity of all reality, the contradictory nature and legitimacy of what is diverse in all societies; requiring the idea of the other, what is diverse, different. For their part, Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee (2019), in order to decolonialize social enterprises, think about seeing oneself as a specific and contextualized reality within a broad framework, recognizing western discourse on development, wealth and poverty, measuring and explaining the diversity of production logics that exist in the world, revising the meaning of what “the economic” is, recognizing community knowledge in order to find solutions, promoting symbolic autonomy…
From the described cases, we are rethinking the idea of community as a heterogeneous space, conflictual, and different from capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, where social enterprises rediscover their institutional roots, they are the means for people to recreate their identities and generate spaces for building, in the midst of conflicts, trust in ones own culture – that which they are rediscovering and not that capitalist and patriarchal colonialism reproduced by those same people. These social enterprises and the processes that they generate, correct, expand and catalyze become mechanisms which, like social laboratories, produce ideas, images, symbols and knowledge that guide people to improve their lives and their communities in a holistic way – not being dragged along by the commercialization of race, capital and the uterus. See Table 5.
Table 5. Community that organizes, revives rules that are connected to social enterprises
Principles of decolonialized societies
Reinvented social enterprises
Peasant rules and values
Peasant rules and values that benefit women
Rootedness (place, origins for recreating identities, relationship with the land)
-Members come from the same community; meetings, transaction and exchanges happen in the community itself
-Not divide land into pieces nor sell it; the land is the mother, has life
-Women on water committee, school boards …;
-They feed sons and daughters
-garden: my Mom´s green thumb
Growth with equity
-Distribution of profits
-Diversified and agro-industrial farms; systems for saving
-Improve roads, clínic-health
-Share voluntary labor support, seed for grains
-processing and commercializing
-sharing oregano, lard, lemon … (food)
Ownership of your organization
-Monthly cash-inventory audit;
-Oversight from within and without- with or without posts
Honesty for choosing treasurers, without regard to whether one is “learned” or not
If the social enterprise belongs to the community, women will assume leadership posts
-Decisions made in assemblies
-Connected to one another, creating more organizations, membership from different ages and genders
Let the feet (footprints) guide and ruminate (reflect) at night
-Visiting one another; visiting the sick
-Equity in inheritances
-Diversification of services
-Space for reading, taking notes, analyzing and making decisions based on analysis.
-Farm-cornfield and forest: the landscape reveals the life of the family
-sharecropping and sharing voluntary labor
-Weaving, processing, commerce, garden
Abstracting from specific cases, we find ideas, images and symbols in the peasantry and indigenous peoples. The connection of the social enterprises with the endogenous institutions of communities show other realities under construction. The farm or the cornfield is a symbol of crop diversity to ensure food for the family and cooperation with neighbors, the garden (“my Mom´s green thumb”) expresses indigenous plants (pumpkin, chayote, chile, annatto, chicory, mint…), weavings, religiosities and phrases reveal beliefs, images and knowledge, many of them from prior to colonialization. Figure 8 shows this confluence of institutions and shows the collective results in terms of trust, living relationships with nature, other paths, recreation of identities …
Under this framework of community which organizes and recreates itself, several elements stand out. Discerning the specific context implies “digging” into the context in which cooperatives emerged in Europe, from workers getting off the rails of industrial capitalism (England) or from peasants freeing themselves from usury (Germany), building principles of self help, self governance and self responsibility, and of “digging” into the context of peasant and indigenous communities, to then connect both contexts out of which might emerge the spirit of social enterprises, word and change. This is “digging out” endogenous rules buried by so many layers of colonial, capitalist and patriarchal dust, in Europe as well as in our communities of Central America.
With this spirit of innovation, few rules and values emerging, social enterprises implement it through decisions made in assemblies and rotation of members in organs involved in the associative and business sides. In this way social enterprises practice self governance. When this happens, the transnational and local triangulations (alliances) generate mutually beneficial synergies, social enterprises deepen their processes, and external actors adjust their changes – because studying good changes infects one to do self-study, that it is possible to change the “rails” you are on. Behind Table 5 there are a world of cross-overs experienced: triangled contributions, distribution and credit is connected to diversified farm/cornfield, savings and collaboration (e.g. sharing pork-lard); rotation of leaders and decisions made in assemblies connected to visiting one another (“getting out of the kitchen and the home”), commerce, equitable inheritances, not dividing up the farm and the forest.
In this type of social enterprises, that rule of “get rid of you to put me in”, done so that nothing changes in the mechanisms of dispossession, is left far behind.That technocratic and elite pretension of conceiving themselves as the brain and guides to community social enterprises is left aside. Those dualities of condemning the peasantry to only raw materials, women to just reproduction, or the forest as a simple symbol of waste are diluted. These social enterprises are mixtures and combinations of forces, wills, knowledge and emotions, of organizing other forms of life, communities that function in a spiral fashion, like the conch seashell, opening doors and multiplying organizations.
These social enterprises turn communities into universities. About re-understanding how to organize cooperatives, associations and stores. About re-ordering the farm/cornfield. About recovering the garden in the yard of the home, behind the phrase “My Mom´s green thumb.” About rediscovering women in multiple roles. About discerning the footprints (feet) alongside the reflection (reasoning, head). About rediscovering images, like the mountain with lush trees that produce water, wood, food and oxygen, without needing to be fertilized nor have chemical inputs applied.
We started this chapter with the question about what characterizes the type of organizations that get “off the rails” of capitalist and patriarchal colonialism, and how they are able to remain different over time. We read Quijano, Polanyi, Federici, and Lucas dos Santos and Banerjee. Afterwards we characterized the type of social enterprises dominant in Central America. Then we went into describing the cases of innovative social enterprises in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. From there we pulled out what is common to them. And on this basis we reconceptualized the community that organizes on their own “rails”. It is like we have followed the young woman of the story, who went away alone with her thoughts, starting another path, with the difference that we studied “Rosita” in 3 countries, finding her 45 years (Honduras), 40 years (Guatemala) and 5 years (Nicaragua) later.
These social enterprises or community forces have a history of “swimming against the current”. Instead of partnering people and providing profitable services, with managers who are eternal, hierarchical structures, subjecting women and nature, and believing that change comes from above, the social enterprises described have few rules which are decided in their assemblies and get implemented. Their members reflect, awaken and envision every day. They self govern. They break out of their “piñuela fences” and free themselves from the curse of “raw materials”, and consume the best of what they produce. They multiply organizations in the same community and at the same time build alliances in forms of triangulation where all benefit. Symbols like the farm/cornfield, the garden or the forest acquire new meaning; images like water, phrases like “eating the best of what we produce”, “my Mother´s green thumb”, and “alone with my thoughts” permeate deeply into their self esteem.
New challenges are appearing. Including more powerfully written culture. If Europe is rational, how can we be rational, emotional and intuitive looking at our footprints? Making the most marginalized people in the communities themselves become protagonists. Distinguishing more the Mesoamerican culture to find our roots and making communities even more innovative.
In the end we learn that when we lose all that technocratic emphasis and formality, that logic of volume, having more land, more money and more children, and that desire of wanting to be “the brain”, we encounter ourselves with our roots and the roots of our friends from any country.
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Polanyi, K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.
Quijano, A., 1992, Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad, Perú Indígena. 13(29).
Quijano, A., 2014, “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina”, en: Cuestiones y horizontes: de la dependencia histórico-estructural a la colonialidad/descolonialidad del poder. Buenos Aires : CLACSO
Stiglitz, J., 2001, “Prologue” in: Polany, 2001. K. Polanyi, 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Second Edition. Google Books.
Wheelock (1998), J.R., 1998, La Comida Nicaraguense, Managua: Editorial Hispamer.
 In April 2018 they invited me to a meeting with the Municipal government of Intibucá. The Mayor spoke about the effort that his government made in favor of the poor. I said to him that one of the most interesting organizations of Latin America existed in his municipality. He was surprised, “What organization?” he asked. “The Store of Los Encinos; more than 40 years of existence; economically sustainable without ever having received foreign donations-projects; they distribute their profits each year; their members rotate in leadership and are leaders of other municipal organizations”. “In Encinos?” he asked. He could not get over his surprise. “Yes,” I responded.
 We say “conditioned” in the sense that this triangulation does not make sense if the social enterprise is not democratic, transparent and distributes its profits. That triangulation makes sense only if equity, democracy and transparency are a constituent part of the actors that make up that triangulation.
 In order to get inside Nicaraguan food based mostly on the garden and cornfield, see Wheelock (1998).
 Women who can leave their kitchens and homes, to which they were reduced by the mono-cropping system. “Leaving” signifies an institutional change, which is facilitated by the meetings of the social enterprises and/or their initiatives for commercializing products. For a broad historical perspective of influential women, see Ferrer Valero, 2015.
 The phrase “my Mother´s green thumb” we found among elderly people recalling the garden that their Mother had some 80-100 years ago. Gardens that have practically disappeared nowadays, replaced by the logic of mono-cropping. That phrase is like a living hieroglyph, it expresses the culture of the peasantry itself.
Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance. There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force. Every one of the issues is daunting. Facing them all together is nearly beyond our imaginations. But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.
We are living within a perfect storm of challenges. It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve. In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort. But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this? Surely it seems that we are being tested. It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again. But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.
Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being. First it was my hip. Then my lower back and joints. This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter. The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle. And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel. Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.
Nationally, we are ill. We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service. That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving. Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far. The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression. And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling. We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.
While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving. The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain. In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.
Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding. There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian. The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands. Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not. And it persists.
From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really? A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference. It’s there because we allow it. We prefer it. In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.” But it is. Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the rioting in response to it would be happening.
That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way. The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had. What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others. This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward. Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.
Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another. A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve maximum well-being as long as others are not well. As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised. We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t. We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t. At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….
“Frogs were the first in the evolving animal world to develop a true voice. Pushing air into their pouches, across vocal cords, frogs produce a variety of sounds, from trills and whistles to grunts and chuckles, depending on the species. Each species actually sings its own unique tune, which has now become an important mechanism for identification. All of us have our own songs to sing, in the celebration of life.” -Linda Jade Fong
I get to hear the frogs for most of the year. They live on the river banks of the Upper Iowa River, or in the rain garden on the north end of a campus. I happen to live in a college town. It’s a small town and a small private college, but the presence of the school nonetheless enriches the lives of the citizens in the community. At various times of the year, we have opportunities to hear national speakers on current topics, watch athletic events, attend classes, observe whatever is current in the lives of students, attend plays, or enjoy concerts. Of course, we don’t have to partake in any of these activities, but it’s certainly a nice benefit to have the choice to do so. And, of course, we have the frogs.
The college is Luther College. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful campus settings in the entire country, further adding to its value to the community. And Luther College boasts (appropriately, I think) one of the most accomplished music programs in the country, as well. Its 600+ member combination of orchestra and vocal choirs annually stages a musical performance that is, by any measure, exquisitely professional. The crystalline sounds of the voices from each of the six ensemble choirs is an emotional experience worthy of the distances that audiences often travel in order to be swept away to yet another place altogether.
Of course, development of exquisite sounds requires great determination, practice, exceptional teaching and exhaustive coaching. Members of the choirs work one-on-one with voice coaches to cultivate and extract the very best from themselves, to discover the ranges and tones and expressions that will wring tears of sheer joy from those who have the good fortune to hear them. A voice coach can “reach inside” of the student to bring forth the unique character of sound residing within. The result is nothing short of astonishing.
I have thought about the remarkable role that voice coaches play. When students first arrive on campus, they are, for the most part, only full of potential. But raw talent requires forming and nurturing, confidence and a calling, a shaping capable of creating not just beautiful expression, but reflecting an essence of life. Through voice, we have the privilege to glimpse the soul, and to know its most basic self. In many ways, that peek into the spirit is a great gift.
By truly hearing the voice of another, we are gifted with the opportunity to respond to it, with our own precision and perfection, to that individual’s deepest need. We are given the chance to fully hear and know that which could confer a greater well-being, a connection between us, a promise of mutual strength. There may be few gifts so important or precious as those which meet the deepmost needs of another.
It’s a rare skill, this voice-coaching. To enable others in the full scope of their expression requires more patience and selflessness than most of us possess. Encouraging others to venture out beyond the boundaries of comfort and reticence calls for the full valuation of one’s own voice. Only then can there exist a belief in the intrinsic value of others’ voices and an elevation of their self-esteem, sufficient to enable confidence of articulation. Voice coaches bring vision to sounds. We need the tonic of their inspiration.
Among our own varied, daily aspirations, being a voice coach should rank somewhere near the top of our lists. Coaxing others in the practice of their own voice makes us more equal. It’s enabling. Voices together, like those which have been coached in ensemble choirs, are more powerful than solos, and capable of achieving more than any one alone. Not incidentally, releasing the power of voice is one of the coaching jobs most important to WPF in Nicaragua.
We each deserve the release of our own voice. It’s a little like those frogs I mentioned above. It’s the music of life and fulfillment, the integral piece of the sound that is full humanity. And I am especially energized at the realization that we can be, each of us, voice coaches to others. Just listen, sometime, to the frogs….
Long ago and far away, I sat in a January classroom and concluded what was then called January Interim. The month of January was dedicated to students choosing a topic of study that was likely outside the realm of their major field. Biologists studied Shakespeare, English majors learned about personal investments, accounting majors looked at the solar system. (One cold January I even studied a UI, the “language of space,” developed by one of the school’s psychology professors. Foosh um bru?) The Interim was an open space in which to explore new ideas while taking a break from the rigors of a major field of study. The J Term, as it is now often called by many of the schools which offer it, is still very alive and well, though it has morphed significantly. Instead of reading about far-off spaces, today’s J Term student is just as likely to travel there.
As expansive as that opportunity may be, there’s another level of engagement that has been created at some schools. More recently, it’s a matter of not just traveling there, but also interacting with local populations and contributing something of significance and lasting value. Winds of Peace Foundation has been in the middle of facilitating that. The Foundation has partnered with Augsburg University for more than 30 years as it has sought to study, analyze and provide resources for development in rural Nicaragua. It’s the Augsburg Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) that has led the Foundation there and served as significant conduit for contacts and entres to the country and the countryside.
What has worked so well is a synergy. WPF has a acquired an in- depth understanding of Nicaragua’s persistent poverty through its development work; it has not only funded organizations seeking to strengthen themselves through access to capital and education, but also created a research base of sociological evidence. Meanwhile, Augsburg has had the benefit of a development “laboratory” at its CGEE site in Nicaragua, a real-life classroom application for students and academics from around the entire country. What began as a small symbiotic partnership has expanded to something larger and more potentially significant.
What the synergy has created is a real-life boilerworks, wherein learners have the direct contact and impact on people somewhere else in the world. It’s well past book learning, and even beyond the personal immersion experiences of the old J Terms. The synergy here is bringing together students who seek to learn and to understand the reach of their abilities, coupled with rural peasants who live day-to-day in deep need of modern resources. How else would one describe the application of mathematics to measure arboreal CO2 outputs of the actual forest surrounding a peasant farm? The result is knowledge for the farmers who can now appreciate the precise contribution and importance of their trees, and real-life, vocational application by students who experience the practical effects of a chosen field of study.
It has been a curious mix, this bridging between rural Nicaraguan populations and urban U.S. students. They would seem, at first glance, to be unlikely collaborators. They speak different languages. Their worlds are thousands of miles apart. Many of the peasant farmers are of an older generation; their student counterparts are millennials or Gen Z members. Rural Nica education is experience, with perhaps a bit of history thrown in. Student education is primarily from the books and classrooms of expensive university surroundings. How different can two group be?
But the “synergy” which holds them together is their universal longing and need to work together, to benefit from each other, to give in return what each has received. What they have experienced, what the University and WPF has sought to foster, what real life teaches us to be true, is that we need each other. We’re better together. We may see the world differently and hold differing views of what that world is trying to tell us, but our differences help us to see it better. What a lesson! If you doubt its truth, just observe any group of U.S. young people saying good-bye to their Nica community.
The collaboration between peasant and student is a remarkable coming together of two disparate entities; that’s a lesson in and of itself. It’s also a mirror of the alliance between Augsburg University and Winds of Peace Foundation: another two disparate entities in collaboration. And, if I may be so bold, a blueprint for our organizational and political leaders in an expanding fog of mutual marginalization….
Bias. It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not. We see the world through the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us. Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told. Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit. But we are born with the predilection toward bias. Is it also true about the way we view the poor?
I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world. I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:
How The Rich View The Poor
The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.
Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.
The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.
However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?
So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?
A New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”
Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.
The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.
The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.
If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.
Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.
The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.
This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.
The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.
When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.
The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.
This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.
Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).
Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.
The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.
If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.
The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.
So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.
We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”
I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.
One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.
It’s an interesting study and a sobering one. I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?
It’s June. The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while. It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months. And all I can think about is Nicaragua.
I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August. No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.” Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua. That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance. Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February. But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless. Obviously, I do not see their faces. I do not hear their voices or the anxieties within their words. They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening. We cannot share meals together. I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared. We are… apart. Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship. I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.
In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea. One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents. The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations. We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.
For a time, we kept our pledge to one another. From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos. Christmas featured gifts in both directions. The bonds remained vibrant. But in time, they grew less frequent. Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy. Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters. And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.
It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities. And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know. I experienced it happening with South Korean family. I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends. We become victims of our isolations.
At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time. They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity. They siphon away touch and contact and emotion. They feed doubt and gossip. They sew seeds of suspicion. Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.
At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea. And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….