Within the many tiers of impoverished people of Nicaragua, the rural poor reside very near to the bottom of the list. They labor in an increasingly global marketplace which, both nationally and internationally, has imposed practices and rules that create artificial impediments to their success. These obstacles are in addition to the other circumstances which they face in terrain, weather, growing cycles, seed/soil compatibility and other factors. WPF recognizes the central impact of agriculture on the lives and well-being of Nicaraguans, especially those who directly strive to raise and sell crops and animals for their livelihoods.
Of particular interest to WPF are the cooperatives. In light of WPF staff experiences with effective U.S. employee-ownership (organizationally very similar to the cooperative structure), cooperativism is seen as a potentially significant form of organization and economic success in Nicaragua. However, WPF also recognizes the importance of the historical principles of cooperatives -freedom, democratic control, economic participation of members, autonomy, education, cooperation among cooperatives. In addition to the structure of cooperatives and those principles, other essential characteristics must exist for that structure to yield sustainable and holistic development: enhanced understanding of basic financial concepts, business/economic planning, community participation, improvement of women’s health and access to care, and resources for addressing domestic violence. WPF seeks coops and other business entities which embrace this holistic view of success and reflect it in their activities and priorities for funding requests.
WPF has commissioned research and publications on cooperatives, including their strengths and weaknesses as organizations within their historic and geographic contexts, including their cultural impact and economic importance on the producers, the social territories where they are located, and the general Nicaraguan economy. (The initial study done in 2011 can be accessed here, subsequent reports may be accessed at the WPF Homepage under the name Rene Mendoza, a primary author.)
The studies led to expanded conversations among the various entities involved in the agricultural process and eventually suggested that these entities might benefit greatly by better understanding each others’ roles and issues within the process. Thus, a series of three, three-day workshops was begun in 2011, with participants including producers, buyers, technical support agencies, first and second-tier cooperatives and funders.
These workshops have proven to be interactive, revealing and helpful to the participants, who have repeatedly asked for more opportunities to engage in such give-and-take, and to engage the key actors in thinking strategically and collaboratively about their future collectively. The uniqueness of the participant diversity and the practical content has led to requests from other communities for similar programming. The dialogues have also provided a valuable resource for WPF and other funders seeking to more fully understand the dynamics of development from a deeper social and cultural perspective.
These workshops have led to the development of a broader and deeper opportunity for cooperative development in the form of a Cooperative Certificate Program. This six-day endeavor is an holistic presentation-and-dialogue gathering wherein cooperative members, technicians and members of supporting Nicaraguan NGOs learn from one another on topics of cooperative history, organizational transparency, continuous improvement techniques, climate change, gender issues, spirituality and health. The first of the Certificate Program offerings took place in April 2015.
The education component to cooperative development is essential for the members’ understanding of both the rights and the obligation, as well as the risks and the rewards, of cooperative membership. Underwritten by WPF, these workshops synthesize the research, real-life experience and organizational development proficiencies gained by WPF over the past 30 years with the cultural, social and political realities of Nicaragua today.
ANATOMY OF A WOUNDED COOPERATIVE
The objective for any development initiative or funding is to create a positive change in the circumstances of the beneficiaries. Yet as obvious as that may sound, such a result is not always assured, and for potentially many reasons. Thus, from time to time both financial and social audits are requested, whether by the beneficiary organization, past and potential funders, the government or other entity with interest in funding performance.
The building blocks of strong organizations, including transparency, high participation, well-developed feelings of ownership and enterprise literacy are not the hallmarks of most Nicaraguan cooperatives. In its 30+ years of experiences, WPF has been far more likely to encounter the organizational model of one individual leading the coop and often unfairly benefitting his/her own self and family. It’s a model of autocracy that is common and reflective of the way the nation’s own government often functions. Thus, introduction of concepts that run contrary to these is a difficult and rather alien
In one recent case, a well-established, second-tier cooperative fraudulently defaulted on significant outstanding debt, to the detriment of the individual producer cooperative members. Upon investigation, allegations of deliberate misrepresentation and theft emerged, which led to an audit demand from the lending parties. (While WPF had been a longstanding supporter of this second-tier cooperative, we were not engaged with them at the time of the default. However, WPF did offer support and financing to several of the member producer coops in hopes of their economic survival.) The attached report is an executive summary of the issues that impacted the problems of this second-tier organization, what still needs to happen there and what roles the various agents need to play for survival. In many ways, it should serve as a wake-up call for other cooperatives which have followed similar patterns of organization and leadership.
SOPPEXCCA is a second-tier cooperative, serving as a union of 17 grassroots coffee cooperatives in the province of Jinotega. Serving 750 small-scale producer members, their mission extends beyond the necessary organizational and business needs of the producers. Theirs is an holistic approach to the broad well-being of its members in all dimensions: economic, social, political, environmental, health and community participation. As part of this conceptual approach, SOPPEXCCA maintains a high degree of participation by women producers, both as direct loan recipients and as beneficiaries. It’s a visionary organization in an intensely competitive industry.
Even the best intended external interventions end up displacing local initiative, especially in rural contexts, as peasant communities with countless needs over time perfect the capacity to adapt to the priorities of external agents as a way to access funding. PRODESSA is a unique organization which has developed a methodology to counteract this tendency. In recent years they have helped turn a previously passive community heavily dependent on external aid into proactive groups of farmers and women who identify and analyze their own problems, construct their own solutions, only calling in outside support for specific help under specific conditions. Here is their most recent report.