We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. –Albert Einstein
Change in the effectiveness of development work in Nicaragua will occur as the result of change in its development practitioners. -Steve Sheppard
Next week’s workshop with rural Nicaraguans will focus heavily on the notion of change: its necessity, its difficulty, its potential and its universality. Winds of Peace has been invited to make a presentation on the topic based on our own organizational perspective and from the viewpoint of change experienced in a more corporate setting in the U.S.
We’re always eager to share ideas with our Nicaraguan partners when asked. But in preparing remarks for this session, I found myself perplexed about exactly how to speak with this group of producers, cooperative leaders, second-tier coop organizations and a few other funders. It’s a great audience for addressing the issues found in the production chain of coffee or other agriculture. But it seems like the wrong audience for addressing the topic of change in Nicaraguan development efforts. That audience would best be comprised of international funders, because that’s where the majority of development troubles lie. The change exhibited there has been loose and not particularly effective.
Let me acknowledge a couple of important facts. First, as I have said here previously, there are a great many organizations from the U.S. and all over the world which have done great work in making a difference in the lives of the poor. The intentions of their work are right-minded and their sincerity is unequivocal. Second, the WPF perspective offered here is not simply an impression or feeling, but rather based upon 30 years of both experience and research in the Nicaraguan field; there is substantial study to support these views.
WPF does not claim to corner the market on development expertise. We have been involved in Nicaraguan development long enough, however, to know that the most substantive changes which would bring about sustainable development within Nicaragua are those that can only be made by the funders themselves. And until funders as a group embrace an alternative means of relating to their Nicaraguan partners, development will not accelerate to any meaningful degree beyond its current snail’s pace.
That alternative relationship implies a close and local accompaniment by the funder, knowing the details of the organization being funded, their realities, their obstacles, whatever temptations toward dysfunction they may exhibit, and the methodologies needed to help strengthen the cooperative or association toward healthy collectivism. Tolerance of “gatekeepers,” autocratic leadership or the presence of self-serving figureheads may ensure the ultimate repayment of a loan, but does not establish a foundation for long-term economic life. In such cases, the real objective of the lender is the recovery of the funds rather than any development that has occurred.
If the responsibility for development change is in the hands of the funders even more than the recipients, then by extension a significant role is also in the hands of the everyday contributors who make it possible for publicly-funded organizations to operate in the first place. Neither the amount of money provided by such groups nor the amount they have successfully recovered in their lending programs provide a very reliable barometer of their effectiveness. It’s the responsibility of donors to truly understand how their contributions are impacting the end users; otherwise, it can be like throwing clear liquid on a flame and hoping that it isn’t gasoline. It turns out that it’s hard work making effective development investments, but the effort is worth the result to those who seek to improve their circumstances.
Rural Nicaraguans, whether educated or not, are quite perceptive when it comes to the process of requesting funding. After all, many have had a great deal of experience in it. And what they have come to learn is that very often donors are focused on the placement and retrieval of their capital, and not so much on the outcomes that result. Essentially, loan recipients are savvy enough to recognize what they need to say and do in order to achieve funding. If the primary objective is simply repayment of funds, then that is what will be their priority, as opposed to anything longer-term or more foundational in value. Repayment of a loan is a good and important thing, but by itself it does not build a future.
All things considered, I guess I’d rather be addressing an audience of funders next week, rather than a group of production chain actors. While it’s true that change in the expectations of lenders can be driven by the people they serve, the real impetus for substantive strengthening of economic development will come from the lenders tightening their process, or change will be slow to come at all….