Tag Archives: Development

Sick In Nicaragua

I traveled to Nicaragua during the last week of June, only my second journey there this year.  When the frequency of site visits is so limited, I become especially eager to travel there and interact with partners both new and old.  In the course of such meetings I anticipate adding to my knowledge and understanding of culture and realities there; in fact, my education at the feet of my Nicaraguan teachers has provided some of the most important lessons of my life.  So my Sunday flight to Managua was filled with even greater expectations than usual.  Unfortunately, that was among the last good feelings I experienced all week!

I got sick.  For the first time in my eight years of travel to and from Nicaragua.  I could feel the headache developing by the time I boarded my connecting flight in Houston, and by the time I landed in Managua, I knew what was coming.  I checked myself in to the hotel with the growing dread of one being assaulted by the familiar sore throat-cough-congestion combination that has power to make life miserable even in the best, most comfortable circumstances.  In my case, though, it was an “assault en route” amidst plans for driving great distances among our planned stops for the week.

Monday morning awakened me with confirmation of my own diagnosis.  By Tuesday, my voice was completely absent, just at the moment when we were to be participating (verbally, of course) in a special workshop of nearly 40 coffee producers.  Any comments I wanted to make had to be written down so that Mark could add voice to them.  Maybe more importantly, I’m sure that I was only half-present.  I really wanted to be in bed to nurse my misery.

If there was any sympathy among my classmates, it surely emerged during any of the mealtimes.  I could not even contemplate breakfast.  Lunch afforded little better appetite, and the few things that I might have eaten were far from accessible at our rural site.  Dinner was a celebration, of sorts, held at the home of one of the participants and I found myself rudely unable to eat, drink or converse in any meaningful way.  I’m certain that most of my time was spent fantasizing about getting into bed for a full surrender to the lack of energy that consumed me.  One of my worst days ever!

Wednesday dawned with slightly better voice but with little additional energy, even after a long night’s rest.  By now I had acquired some cough lozenges, though, so I had hopes of at least croaking out some thoughts in this final day of the workshop.  And in fact, Mark and I were both able to contribute independently to the forum and by the end of the session I felt as though I had given up whatever energy I had, as small a consolation as it was.  Although another unwanted meal awaited us at the conclusion, I had a new objective in mind to keep me going: cough medicine.

By three in the afternoon I possessed the cherished cherry potion.  I don’t know whether its efficacy was due to its medicinal properties or a psychological boost, but at least my cough calmed itself for a few hours.  I checked into my hotel by four o’clock and I was asleep by four-thirty.

Two weeks hence, I still nurse a slight summer cough and what remains of a sick sinus; sometimes these things just seem to feel permanently at home in your chest and head.  And I find myself reflecting on a week where I could offer very little of myself or whatever energy I might bring to WPF work; was there anything redeeming or instructive in the experience of being sick in Nicaragua?

The answer, of course, is yes.  First of all, no trip to Nicaragua is in vain.  If one is only breathing, there is ample experience to take in from the everyday people met.  Just sitting in a meeting space for two days and listening to people who are trying to strategically envision their plan for meeting basic life needs through their work is a humbling and yet strangely energizing feeling.  The human spirit is moved when face-to-face with needs of intensity; it’s no less true in the face of illness. I have little doubt that had I been home bed this week I would have felt worse and strengthened slower than I did surrounded by my Nicaraguan classmates.

Second, there is something redemptive in persevering in one’s work despite an illness.  There is the value of being able to tell stories about it or write blog posts to tout one’s determination and resolve, of course.  But there is also value in being required to push oneself, even if at half-speed, and to recognize that the world is full of people pushing themselves daily against circumstances that render them even less than half-speed.  A cold is one thing; hunger, want and despair are far greater illnesses being fought.

Third, I will not soon forget that during the final, verbal evaluation of the workshop, as participants were relating their most important “take-aways” from the workshop, at least four of them cited ideas or lessons that either Mark or I had shared.  For these people, at least, our presence was not a waste of time or exercise in futility, but rather an important component in their struggles to understand how their cooperatives, their lives, might be made to work better.

I’ve got to constantly remind myself that trips to Nicaragua are not about me or how I feel, but about  those who seek to learn….


Dear Coop

Dear Coop:

I was very happy to meet with you once more; I hope that far less time goes by before my next visit, because sometimes absences can be corrosive for healthy relationships.  It’s much easier to imagine things about one another- good or bad- when we’re not often together.

You have experienced a difficult year, to be sure. You have struggled with several internal governance issues that are pivotal for your future direction.  You have faced a brutal attack on the coffee plants by the coffee rust disease that has decimated your harvests.  Your cooperative has taken on significant debt, just at a time when economic resources have become very tight.  At times, you must wonder if there is any future for the cooperative and, if so, whether it will be worth your effort to participate.  I have some ideas about that which I thought I should share with you, even though I’m just a North American visitor to your part of Nicaragua.

First, about those governance issues.  There is no better time to repair them than now.  Organizations always seem to have management problems that need fixing.  Most often, they come about when an individual or small group of members assume more authority and power than they’re entitled to.  As a result,  they are inclined to become less open, less transparent, with the other members of the coop.  They begin to make decisions without a broad consensus.  And in time, the decisions that are made tend to favor that same group of decision-makers, even if the choices being made hurt others in the collective.  That seems to be at least part of what you have had to face lately, and I feel sad that you have experienced what becomes a lack of trust and confidence in your own organization.  After all, you “own” the cooperative and it should be working for the benefit of all members, not just a few.

When an organization is performing well economically enough so that everyone is benefitting, governance problems like those described above may be tolerated by the members; after all, why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken too badly?  But when difficulties arise, the “rocks in the water” become visible and floating downstream is unsteady. The problems become more visible, more painful, less tolerable.  It seems like that’s where you are today.  So, there is no reason to delay facing the troubles and addressing their corrections.  The best time to bail out a boat is when it begins to leak!

The good news is that your repair kit is already in your hands.  Your leadership has changed. It is leadership that wants you to be part of the solution, wants you to know what is happening within the coop so that collectively the best possible decisions can be reached.  The solutions to your organizational problems are in your own hands; there is no greater wisdom about your needs, your obstacles and your future than in your own experiences.  You might not have all the answers, but if you are working together you can discover where to find them.  No one of us is as smart as all of us.  My question would be: what are you waiting for?  Your need is now.  Your new leadership is now.  The coop needs you and your commitment to make it succeed, for everyone this time.

Second, the coffee rust.  Wow, what an unexpected disaster!  I know that this fungus has been around before, but maybe never quite like this year.  You have said that partly it’s due to the weather pattern.  Or maybe from a depletion in the soil.  Others have blamed the high incidence of infestation on the lack of sufficient preventive practices of some producers.  Or even the type of coffee plant that is grown.  I’m not a biologist or coffee technician, but I suspect that the epidemic was created from a combination of all those causes.  There’s rarely a simple answer to something that has created such a massive loss.  But there is an answer, right?

It’s going to be the same thing with regard to its solution.  It’s unlikely that any one answer is going to prevent a reoccurrence of another disastrous harvest.  But there are answers, as proven by some of your colleague producers who suffered far less damage this year.  It may require a commitment to invest more than in the past.  In turn, that may require a deferral of certain purchases or expenses for personal goods.  But whatever the solutions may prove to be, they will be far more effective, far more consistent, if you decide to adopt them as a community of coop members.  That suggests learning from one another- coop to coop- more than in the past; it’s like having free answers to problems just by talking with one another.  I guess I’m back to the organization issue: you’re much stronger together than you can possibly be apart.  Winds of Peace commissioned a study on the causes of the rust problem earlier this year.  I think it’s important reading, if you haven’t already seen it.  Let me know if you need to have a copy of it.

Third, this debt of yours that seems way too big to ever conquer.  I know that it looks unsurmountable, and that the holders of the debt might even be threatening the coop with all kinds of legal actions and consequences.  But I think taking action from a posture of panic can lead to some pretty bad results.  So I’d suggest addressing the issue with great deliberation and care, not speed and reaction.

For starters, Winds of Peace has continued its commitment to you in one form or another, so that’s a positive.  We’re not in a position to remove all of your debt, for sure.  But having an initial partner, an initial sum from which to work, we at least have a chance of getting through the storm represented by debt.  You have some technical expertise available through consultants and organizations who really want to see you succeed.  You’ve even got resources for legal help to discover a solution that can work for everyone involved, IF the coop is willing to do what it takes to survive.  I’m not saying that’ll be easy or pleasant or a short-term answer.  But few things of lasting value ever are.  I happen to believe that your coop is worth keeping.  I have the confidence and faith in your collective abilities, otherwise Winds of Peace wouldn’t be partnering with you in the ways that we are.  But the work is yours, and it will be difficult.

Well, I guess I’ve said more than I ought to in this letter.  After all, it’s easy for an outsider to give lots of opinions.  After having my say, I get to walk away and can forget the tasks that you have.  But I won’t.  I think about you every day, with the hope and the belief that the opportunity you still have in front of you is worth fighting for.  And I’ll keep paying attention until you either decide to give up or reach success.  Let me know how things are going!




Anatomy of a Betrayal

Stories about unscrupulous behaviors visited upon unsuspecting innocents are commonplace these days.  From politics to business, from banks to non-profit organizations, from developing countries to supposedly well-developed nations, from organized fraud to scam artist, the tales all seem to end with a similar result: somebody entrusted with power and/or authority has stolen from somebody else who could not see the deception coming.  Nicaragua, unfortunately, has had more than its share of  such history and the result is that such acts have tended to spawn more of the same.

I recall meeting the members of a second-tier cooperative up in a coffee growing town in the Madriz province area years ago, and discovering a philosophy and practice that really got me excited about what might be possible in working with rural coffee coops.  Here was an organization which spoke of holistic, community development, educating its members on all aspects of what it means to become whole and healthy, and involving its women members in financial education.  We provided loans which were always repaid timely.  The coop grew in stature among producers in the countryside and in many ways modeled what was possible when peasant producers linked up with a progressive, connected leadership.  In several subsequent visits over the years, we re-connected with this organization, always coming away with a renewed sense of hope that organizations like this one could be replicated elsewhere in the countryside. On more than one occasion, we referenced what was happening there to other coops with whom we met.  When Winds of Peace began funding a series of workshops in the area, including all members in the coffee value chain, this group responded with its presence and its participation as a leader in the territory.

Quite suddenly two years ago, there came “rumblings” from the territory that something was not right with this second-tier coop, that some mishandling of coffee and revenues had occurred and that the family occupying the primary leadership role within the organization had been misappropriating resources.  The claim was a bombshell in the region, both for the members of the coop and the people of the surrounding communities.  Police were involved, auditors came to assess, funders nervously checked in with the leadership.  We did, too.

Not wanting to believe that the accusations were true, WPF met with the president, who is also the son of the original founder and president.  We spoke directly about our concerns arising from the accusations.  We asked point-blank whether the principles and objectives espoused years earlier were still in place, or whether they had changed in some ways.  We asked whether there was any hint of truth to the allegations and, if not, what might be precipitating such claims.  (Politics was the culprit, we were told.)  More importantly, we had the opportunity to look straight into the eyes of this young man and discern for ourselves whether we were hearing the truth.  We came away convinced that the coop was still on very solid footing.

The sad truth is, he lied.  In subsequent months it became clear to everyone that in recent years the coop had been used for the personal enrichment of its leading family, that some loans received by the coop never made it into the hands of its producers, that coffee commitments made by the leadership could not be fulfilled, and that an enormous indebtedness had been incurred in the name of the coop, while none of the funds could be accounted for.  This once brightly shining star had tarnished seemingly overnight, and the tarnish had been spread to the unsuspecting peasant producers who had trusted in its integrity and promise.  This has been a tale of corruption and betrayal of profound impact, and its victims completely undeserving of such fate.  Except for one small matter.

The cooperative is nothing more or less than its name implies, an entity owned by its members, its benefits and responsibilities shared by those members.  Therein lies a significant piece of the problem.  For as deceiving as the perpetrators have been in this episode, it is the closed system that they created which allowed them to syphon coop assets for their own use.  The lack of transparency made for an easy cover-up, long enough for the family to temporarily cover their tracks, recruit several key confederates, avoid suspicions and establish a set of outcomes which would both insulate them from prosecution and further enrich themselves even as the coop’s bankruptcy plays out.  Their plan was fiendishly clever and utterly without regard to the financial impact upon the hundreds of family members who had trusted them.  But this closed system which allowed the cover up was also the direct result of coop members who did not pay attention, who trusted blindly, who shed their own responsibility in exchange for the ‘ease” of letting someone else do it.  Too little knowledge, too little participation, too much trust, and too late to prevent a collapse.

It’s a formula all-too-common in Nicaragua.  The “gatekeepers” of coops and Indigenous governance and other organizations occupy a place of  control, whether intended or not.  And in that space they can come to recognize not only the power they wield but also the  ease with  which they can deceive.  It’s a temptation that might infect any of us, but especially after being in a position of want and need for so long.  Finally, we might think to ourselves, there is a chance to do something for myself, for my own family, even at the expense of my neighbor.  It might be a price that any of us would be willing to pay and that too many elected leaders have chosen to accept, and never with good result; in the end, somebody must absorb the hurt.

That pain is not the burden of WPF.  We have sustained disappointments in the past and there will be more in the future; the human condition does not encourage perfection.  Nor does the continuance of our work depend upon the performance of any one actor or group.  The pain is the burden of those brothers and sisters who relied on the integrity and honesty of their leaders only to discover that the enticements of easy money were too great for such leaders to ignore.  And the pain, eventually, is also the burden of those who would abuse the trust of their neighbors.  Because in time, the easy money is spent away on things that do not last.  But the scars of betrayal last forever and leave a legacy of shame that remains long after the violation.  The pain burdens both the victims and the perpetrators alike, and the circle of loss is complete.

Such a postmortem as this may seem to offer a despairing view of future development progress.  But the remedies for this ailment are relatively available, clear and demonstrably effective.  The wall of betrayal is prevented when members of a group stay connected and active.  The disease of unilateral decision-making is cured when participants decide to participate.  The veil of deceit is pierced when leaders are held accountable for transparency and truth by the peers who they represent.  These remedies could be cited as requirements by funders and technical groups which purport to serve our sometimes inexperienced partners; organizational leadership and governance are hardly topics taught in whatever limited schooling partners may have had.  And the irony of these actions is that they not only maintain the integrity of the organizations, but also enhance their performance, as people can openly see the cause-and-effect of their actions.  In the U.S. it’s sometimes referred to as “open-book management” or “ownership thinking.”  Whatever its label, it represents the curative for the ailment of the closed system.  And in the case of a once-promising coop in Madriz, it might well have derailed what has become an organizational and community train wreck….





All Jazzed Up

The task of survival among small, rural cooperatives in Nicaragua is not an easy one.  Any success beyond subsistence requires an uncommon blend of resources, technical help, favorable weather, sufficient labor and knowledge of the land, agriculture, organizational strengthening, marketing, logistics, reinvestment, strategic planning and community development.  In short, a producer must cultivate not only a crop, but also his/her ability to see things whole.  Within the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it’s especially daunting, and recognition for any success that might be encountered along the way is so infrequent as to be non-existent.

So when one of these first-tier cooperatives receives front-page attention in the business section of one of the major newspapers serving the country, it’s big news for those who labor so anonymously for so little in return.  This is precisely what has happened with the people of the Jose Alfredo Zeladon cooperative (JAZ, for short)  from the San Juan del Rio Coco area of north central Nicaragua.  JAZ has been a long-time partner of Winds of Peace and has consistently demonstrated its commitment to an holistic vision of the cooperative and its impacts.  And while we have had our own good feelings about the organization for many years, it’s nice to hear others recognizing the positive development of this very grassroots group.

Here’s what the article had to say, along with some photos provided from our own visits to JAZ territory:


                                         Efficient Cooperativism

  • The 170 coffee growing members of the Jose Alfredo Zeledon cooperatives of San Juan de Río Coco are recognized for their capacity for organization, management and productivity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               by William Aragón Rodríguez

The rows of the trees with branches full of hundreds of red or green fruit, and that inside protect the coveted grains of coffee on the mountainous farms covered with mist, are a matter of pride in each year of harvest for the small scale members of the Jose Alfredo Zeledon coffee cooperatives in the municipality of San Juan de Rio Coco, an area loced in the eastern part of the Madriz Province.  This is because the productivity of their plants represents an alternative of economic income in their homes and a work opportunity in the coffee harvest for the rest of their families and outsiders.

Healthy Coffee

This multifunctional cooperative, that for organizations of financial credit is an example of organization that has allowed their members to have access to economic loans, was founded in 1995 with barely 35 members that were able to produce some 300 sacks of coffee. Now they are 170 small coffee growers who are producing more than 10,000 quintals of good quality red bean.  The members dispersed in most of the communities that make up the municipality of San Juan de Río Coco, an area considered to be the most coffee growing area of the region of Las Segovias, had their own economic fund available to be used in the support of the development plans of the farms of each one of the producers.

Raul Gonzalez points this out, who works with the cooperative and who assures that the technical assistance in the field has contributed to the maintenance and ongoing care of the coffee  farms, the renovation and plantation of new rows that have helped the members to produce and sell excellent quality coffee.


Edmundo López Muñoz, founder and leader of the José Alfredo Zeledón cooperative, revealed that this coffee cycle 2012-2013, that was affected by the coffee rust and antracnosis, allowed only 3,000 quintals of the production to go out, that historically had been 15,000.  “The coffee rust and antracnosis did away with some 550 manzanas of coffee of the 1,080 cultivated and the losses go beyond 80% of the production,” pointed out López Muñoz.  This forced the members to seek alternative solutions to the problem, many convinced that the Government has not shown an interest in helping, which is why they went to experts in coffee growing, principally on the issue of the coffee rust and antracnosis.

Coffe Rust

 “We use the leaf spray Mo-enzima, which helps to resolve the low assimilation of nitrogen in the plant and so the coffee adapts better to the hydric stress, to high temperatures and higher solar radiation that climate change is creating,” said López, showing the results of the farm of member Jose Pillo Montalvan Olivas from the area of Matapalo, in San Juan de Rio Coco, who is recovering from the coffee rust. 

 Many affected members will have to renovate entire plantings of coffee or cut back to the stem, but they are clear that they are going to have to wait some four years to see the first harvest. Meanwhile, they will have to plant other products.

Coffee Hull Stoves

What most stands out about the Jose Alfredo Zeledon cooperative is the organizatonal capacity of its members and the management that its board members have, who are promoting some projects like the making of metal stoves based on coffee hulls that reduce the consumption of firewood, decreasing environmental damage and the felling of trees in the zone.  They are also producing honey, they are planting a variety of food products and are raising a diversity of household animals for their reproduction and sale like poultry, pigs, goats and fish raised on ponds built to harvest water.                       

As another accomplishment, the members thenselves have a store of food products to benefit the families´homes, and they receive credit, ongoing training and technical advice for improving their coffee farms.

                                                                         Own Resources

Edmundo and Store Mural

López Munoz said that the members have a fund available for the improvement of their coffee farms.  “Now we are testing a product that strengthens the least affected plants and working on the renovation of the most affected plants,” he indicated.  The most important thing is that now they are selling their produce directly without intermediaries and training the children of the members.

                                Data about the cooperative

242 kilometers from Managua is the location of the José Alfredo Zeledón coffee cooperative of San Juan de Río Coco.

JAZ Store


186,000 quintals of coffee is what is produced each year in the municipality of San Juan de Río Coco, in Madriz.        

 1,080 manzanas of coffee is owned by the 170 members of the cooperative that generates some 15,000 sacks.

 7 million cordobas  are the funds they have currently available.


The article may seem sparse and maybe even a little matter-of-fact for a recognition piece.  But make no mistake about the fact that front-page placement for this story underscores an importance, an accomplishment to be emulated, and the message is clear: there ARE models in the countryside which are working.  JAZ happens to be one of them for as long as they can maintain their holistic focus and willingness to balance their short-term wants with their long-term needs.  We’re very proud of them, to be working with them, and that others are coming to recognize their work and ethic….



The “Piece” Prize Forum

I attended the Nobel Peace Prize Forum during this past weekend.  It was the 25th annual gathering of Nobel laureates and an eclectic mix of others who have activist interests in the pursuit of a more just and peaceable world.  The Forum has now grown to an attendance of approximately 6,000 at the Minneapolis site, with perhaps thousands more connected by Internet livestreaming technologies that  linked up with more than 20 countries around the world.

The theme of this year’s gathering was ‘The Power of Ideas: People and Peace,” and there is no question that the big ideas represented by the plenary speakers, in particular, have had a great impact throughout the world.  Participants were afforded the opportunity to hear 2006 laureate Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, the father of social business, the founder of Grameen Bank, and of more than 50 other companies in Bangladesh.   2011 laureate Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work for the rights and safety of women and children in Yemen.   Malcolm Potts is a Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive scientist, whose most recent book is a fascinating look at Sex and War: How Biology Explains War and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World.  Dr. Paul Farmer is one of the world’s leading thinkers on health and human rights and the consequences of social inequality.  Dr. Farmer has written extensively on the right to health care and the sanctity of every human life. Powerful thinkers with powerful ideas, all.  The chance to hear these activists and “pioneers” is always inspiring, usually thought-provoking, and even occasionally life-changing.

It’s fascinating to hear the stories of how single, decisive actions on the part of seemingly everyday people can generate such transformational movements.  Appropriately, the Forum served, in part, to celebrate the enormity of the ideas; such celebration is absolutely warranted in the face of the enormity of the issues to address.  But as I sat in the audience during the three days and soaked in the inspiration from these gifted activists and storytellers, I was struck by something significantly smaller than the big ideas attributed to them.  Quite the opposite.

If one considers the story of Muhammad Yunus and the birth of microlending, it is not essentially a tale of Grameen Bank and the billions of dollars that have been loaned to impoverished people around the world.  At its heart, it is the story of a university professor who could not reconcile his knowledge of economics with his empathy for a poor woman begging on the streets of Bangladesh.  In a moment of feeling, whether from guilt or practicality, he loaned her a small sum to be paid back whenever it might become possible, whenever he might again meet her on the street.  They did meet.  She did repay him.  And the rest, as they say, became history.

Paul Farmer has become a veritable medical force in the world, working against convention and bureaucracy on behalf of his patients, almost all of whom reside in the very poorest reaches of the world.  But he began practicing medicine in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere- Haiti- with the idea of simply helping every patient he met.   “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world,”  he says.  His story is less about the organizations and medical movements he has influenced and more about his commitment to a patient. Every patient.

Tawakkol Karman never set out to become the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.  Essentially, she could no longer remain quiet in the face of an oppressive culture which denied basic rights to women, including the right to express their own ideas freely.  With other female journalist colleagues, she simply said “no” to the continuation of censored speech, and “yes” to the promotion of all human rights, “particularly freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights.”

Their impacts have become huge.  Yet for each of these change agents, the starting point was a single, small act.  Each sought to be an influence within his/her own niche of life, to make a difference in the life of a beggar or a patient or a colleague.  The outreach was close and personal.   And in that mix of connectedness something singular was created among its actors, something which possessed the capacity to grow far beyond its original dimensions and to become more universal in character, a force too strong in its makeup to remain unknown, a movement which captured the imagination of the entire world.  Not Yunus nor Farmer nor Karman sought to change the world.  Each only sought to do what could be done, one borrower, one patient, one step at a time.  From such seeds, movements can bloom.

One Peace Prize Forum attendee  asked what she could possibly do in the face of the immensity of the world’s problems, citing hunger, disease, poverty and oppression of all kinds.   I thought I heard in her question the wonderment about what the Forum speakers had shared and the initiatives that had developed under their activism.  But really, her wonderment might have been better directed to the simplicity of how these pioneers have acted.  For the power of their ideas stem from a basic truth: there is no cause greater than the love of your neighbor, no gift more important than the role of servant to those in need, whether helping a neighbor, an organization, a village or a country.  Each one of us represents a single piece in this great puzzle of life.    It’s a piece we each need to play….




The Power and the Weakness of One

  • One of the headlines in the news this week was the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  Although he died at a relatively young age, Chavez has seemed to be in the news headlines forever, sometimes for his outrageous statements, sometimes for his larger-than-life persona, sometimes for his disparagement of United States policies abroad, and often for his utter disdain for Western-style capitalism.  He demonized Western leaders, befriended outcast, “rogue” governments around the world and consolidated his power in Venezuelan politics until he controlled it almost single-handedly.  Indeed, there were few agencies of Venezuelan government which did not feel the pressure of the Chavez grip.  He garnered the support and even love of many Venezuelans due to his posture for the poor.  And then, there was all that oil lying beneath Venezuelan lands, which provided him with the platform from which to be heard by all parties, foreign and domestic.

The word “charismatic” has often been used to describe Chavez and his swashbuckling style.  He rarely fell victim to diplomacy when a straightforward bellowing could get his position across, a characteristic which befuddled unfriendly governments but which endeared him to the people of Venezuela; he was elected to the presidency four times.  During those years, he increasingly identified himself as not only the president, but as the very country itself, blurring the line between the nation and the nationalist.  If nothing else, the government of Venezuela during the Chavez years was “a one-man band.”  He wielded his voice and his power unilaterally.

In Nicaragua, Chavez became a foreign patron, providing the Nicaraguan government with access to cheap oil and lots of it.  The economic pacts made between Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were largely secret affairs, but ones touted by the Nicaraguan leader as being enormously helpful to the Nicaraguan economy and its people.  But they were accomplished, as much of the Chavez legacy was, man-to-man, on a one-to-one basis.  And within that posture of apparently straightforward, uncomplicated, effective relationship building lies the problem: it was but one man.  Nicaraguans might now rightly be asking, “Now what?”

Chavez is now gone.  And for all anyone knows, his intentions, promises, relationships, knowledge, and strategies might now be gone, as well.  Because the man became the country.  He was the whole show.  The broad participation and transparency of government that might have solidified an entire generational movement in Venezuela were never given the opportunities to take root, and thus the strength of the man and his country became its weakness, as well.  Time will tell whether his successor will  perpetuate the policies and directions fostered by Chavez, but one thing is clear: even if the strategies do continue, they will do so at a slower pace and with diminished impact due to the Chavez leadership style.

It’s both the blessing and the curse of singular leadership.  When one leader makes all the decisions and possesses all of the authority, he /she becomes the identity of whatever institution is being served, whether governmental, business or non-profit.  If that identity is a positive one, the organization can become well-served by the strength of that individual’s charisma, talent, integrity and caring heart.  But if that individual is all that the institution represents, then it will be as fleeting as snowfall in Spring.  Any organization needs strong and even charismatic leadership to be planted and spread throughout its ranks so that its roots are deep and its life is lasting.  It’s the way that continuity is assured and the way through which followers really understand what they are cheering about when the leader leads.  And no one of us can ever be as smart as all of us.

Working in Nicaragua, I wonder what changes will come about with the passing of Chavez and his secret agreements.  Will Daniel Ortega suddenly find himself in a partnership without a partner?  It’s an important question that every one of our partners needs to ask when they seek to build stronger, more lasting organizations.  A coop member’s health and strength may come from organizational solidarity, but organizational solidarity is built upon the ownership engagement of all its members….




Great Expectations

I’m preparing for another visit to Nicaragua next week.  The staging for each trip usually begins a week or two before I actually travel, as I contemplate our itinerary, the partners with whom we might visit, what I think I can learn, what opportunities for impact we might have, and why I never learned to speak Spanish.  There is not only the physical readiness of packing, but also the mental preparation for being in a very different place from where most of my life is lived.  And the weeks leading up to every visit are always filled with an internal excitement, an uncertainty, a familiarity, and an anxiety about leaving my comfort zone- if only for a week.  I’m looking forward to all of that and more next week.

If someone asked me what, exactly, I expected to accomplish or to experience during the week, I’d likely have to look at our intended partner visits in order to respond with any detail.  We haven’t completed that roadmap quite yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry with me certain hopes and wished-for outcomes for my time there.  And lately I’ve speculated about how our partners might anticipate our visits during the week.  Do they feel excitement?  Hope?   Anxiety? A sense of necessary obligation?  I’ve decided that my visits are only half-complete if I haven’t thought about expectations from both sides, so that I  do whatever I can to help attain those outcomes.

For my part, I’m always hoping to come away from every visit in Nicaragua with a better understanding of the elements that conspire to keep poor Nicaraguans in deep poverty.  The causes range widely (take your pick from issues such as politics, natural resources, history, education, economics and culture) and there are complex connections between all of these factors and more which make a complete comprehension very unlikely.  But each time we’re immersed in the life issues of rural Nicaraguans, we inch closer to a true understanding of life’s realities for them.  If Winds of Peace can acquire an authentic  understanding of those circumstances and their root causes, there’s a better chance for us to make an impact.

I don’t travel with many preconceived notions.  (I’d like to claim “none,” but I’d be inaccurate.)  But I do hope to meet Nicaraguans who are focused on exploring their realities with objectivity and passion, so that best possible solutions become more clear.  My expectations are not that we hear presentations from organizations who have become good at saying what they think we, as funding partners, will want to hear.  My expectations are that we connect with potential partners who possess at least an emerging sense  that there are certain universal truths about successful organizations and leadership and sustainability, and that those partners intend to seek the keys to those truths if given the opportunity.  Those keys are pretty well stated in the “Cornerstone” considerations from Winds of Peace:

1.  Sustainability

2.  Participation of people in projects based on local analysis and plans

3.  Social Change

4.  Accompaniment of oppressed people

5.  Community-based and self-directed development

6.  Transformational education and training

7.  Relationships and partnerships in grantmaking/microlending

8.  Accountability and responsibility

If these Cornerstones resonate with the organizations with whom we meet, then my expectations are that Winds of Peace can be a resource for strong development.

No matter what my expectations might be, they will always be tempered by whatever our Nicaraguan partners might be expecting.  Their perceptions of Winds of Peace, Mark, me, our funding criteria, or our Cornerstones will impact their real expectations.  As they anticipate a meeting with us, I know there exists a hope that financial assistance is possible; I suppose it’s technically their bottom line.  I know that they expect to make a representation of themselves and their needs as humbly and sincerely as they can.  They hope to “make a case” for consideration, citing whatever important words or concepts they think might capture our attention favorably.  Maybe they even have goals that are well-aligned with our Cornerstones.

What do our partners anticipate from our visits?  Do they wonder why we’re in Nicaragua?  Are they frustrated by our criteria and demands for information?     (I recall hearing feedback from one organization which characterized us as “easy.”  If they were referring to our openness to taking risks with unknown or unproven organizations, then I might agree with the label.  If they were thinking about a long-term partnership with us, they might have been in for a surprise.)  Whether their expectation is that we are truly seeking a partnership of development, or that we are simply another global organization looking for opportunities to place funds, I am certain that we have funded partners that fit both descriptions.  It’s true regardless of the sincerity or the insincerity which may be written in the pages of a proposal.  But naivete is not a characteristic of the Foundation.  My curiosity about their curiosity stems from a strong belief that if the expectations on both sides of the development equation are in synch, if the desire for reciprocal teaching and learning is real, then the expectations of both of us can be met and exceeded.  That’s not easy, but it’s worth doing.

I look forward to an interesting week, and I remain full of great expectations….


Universal Truths

One of the hopes that I had held during my years at Foldcraft Co. was that some day we might be able to compete successfully enough to acquire one of our local competitors, Waymar.  We actually engaged in conversations with the owner of the company who was contemplating his own retirement, but we never could advance the conversations in any substantive way.  You might imagine my sense of satisfaction, then, when last month Foldcraft completed the process of acquiring that company and its subsidiary in Seattle, Washington.  Some good things just take time to develop.

The acquisition wasn’t free, of course.  The employee owners of Foldcraft have their work cut out for them in order to make a success out of this acquisition.   They will have to learn new things.  They will have to familiarize themselves with the way that Waymar conducted its business.  They will have to envision changes that can be made to blend the two manufacturing operations.  They will have to learn about an entirely new set of customers and their demands.  They will have to make Waymar a profitable enterprise if they are to cover the debt incurred from the purchase, and almost certainly surprises will be encountered along the way.  The two cultures will have to be blended into one, and a collaborative workforce will have to be fashioned out of two previously competing ones.  A great deal of education within both companies will be required.  When you stop to consider all of the hurdles that exist in such a transaction, it sounds downright risky.

That’s one of the realities about being in business of any sort: every one has both its risks and rewards.  It’s never any different.  If success was guaranteed in any particular economic undertaking, everyone would be doing it.  But the tensions between the risks and rewards are what make the success stories so compelling to us.  We marvel at the obstacles that successful enterprises have overcome, and we listen longingly to tales of financial success, often concluding that we should be able to accomplish as much.  Whether a cooperative in rural Nicaragua or a factory on the plains of Minnesota, we love to hear stories that affirm the notion that unlikely- even miraculous- things can and do happen despite the odds.

As a member-owned company, Foldcraft will tackle the challenge in the manner that best assures success, a process that will draw upon some truths and methodologies which pertain to organizational life everywhere.  The first thing that management will do is to recognize that people need to know.  Leaders will ensure that members understand clearly the risks mentioned above and what exactly will be required to counter those risks.  Truth will not be a luxury but a necessity, because where information is lacking, rumors will fill the void and success cannot be built upon innuendo.  There will be nothing automatic about success in this venture, and the owner-members absolutely must know the truths of their new organization, good and bad.

Engagement will require that the members of the organization- Foldcraft and Waymar both- become educated in the new organization’s success equation, those elements that must occur in order for the new business to succeed.  Unfortunately, in all too many organizations even today, members simply do not have knowledge about what creates success for their business.  They only know that they perform certain activities which they have been directed to do, without knowing why or how those activities synchronize with the efforts of others in the organization.  As in any game, the objective is to score, and the players need to understand how those points are made, how certain actions and reactions mesh within the company to reach the goals.  They want to know how to win.  In the case of Foldcraft, principles of open book management will teach members exactly what needs to happen for success and then will track success (or failure) so that members know whether they are winning or losing the game.

Foldcraft will create ways for its members to be involved.   The transition difficulties encountered simply won’t be able to absorb people who not fully engaged in its success; that’s a reality of any business.  Participation of every member becomes magnified in an undertaking such as this.  The company will continue to assemble teams and special project groups to address issues, and for at least two reasons.  First, even when members are excited about contributing to change and improvement, they may not fully recognize what role they should play or where to begin.  The leaders of Foldcraft can help with that by “positioning the players.”  Second, sustainable and effective change needs the wisdom and experiences from as many sources as possible, and that means broad member involvement from all areas of the organization.  Foldcraft has already utilized this approach as it was performing its evaluation of Waymar as a possible acquisition.  Teams of Foldcraft people were involved in assessing factors such as financial health and transparency, company ethics and integrity, employee safety, production methods,  opportunities for improvement, marketplace strategies and more.  Members of Foldcraft shared the responsibility of gathering and evaluating this information under the belief that “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  As a result, the evaluation was performed more rapidly and thoroughly than it would have been with only a few involved.

Finally, success of the new organization requires that there is a reward for all of the effort and responsibility-taking exhibited by members at both worksites.  In addition to strengthening their job security by forging a stronger company, the members of Foldcraft are owners of their enterprise.  By participating in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) of the firm, the members are the ones who benefit from stock growth.  And that wealth accumulation can have a major impact on those members who remain with the company for many years.  The incentive to make this acquisition successful is firmly in place, for those members who want the chance to make a better future for themselves and their families.

Of course, Foldcraft knows that success is not fated.  It’s only an opportunity, as any enterprise is.  The good news is that the truths and methodologies mentioned above are ones that resonate with most of us.  They feed a human need to belong, to understand, to contribute, to succeed, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  It’s a truth that transcends national and cultural boundaries because it touches something deep in our psyches, something innately human.

Some organizations allow opportunity to slip through its hands, whether through leadership power struggles or greed or lack of transparency or too few members being seriously involved; good ideas die every day at the hands of ignorance and self-centeredness.  Success stories, though, emerge from the foment of universal truths that absolutely lie within our reach when we’re willing to stretch….