Tag Archives: Development

We Never Even Know We Hold the Key

“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.”                            -The Eagles

As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months.  Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use.  The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before.  For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.

The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need.  They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there.  In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed.  The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past.  In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.

But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts.  (Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.)  The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years.  The quote reads as follows:

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind.  But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.”      -Chanakya

It’s a beautiful thought.  But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment.  For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her.  Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us.  For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology.  It’s too inherent within us to feel credible.  But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.

What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique.  It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors.  How our influences work is not preordained or fated.  It is by choice.  The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.

Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader.  Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members.  Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances.   That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life.  But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first.  Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others.  If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today.  Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.

The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment.  But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction.  When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.

I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action.  When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price.  As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.

And we never even know we hold the key….

 

 

Together Is Better

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….

Book It

“No one who can read ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”                         -Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 

I finished reading two books last week, one an historical recounting of the life of Native American figure Red Cloud and the other about the worst hurricane ever to hit the U.S.   I love to read.  Reading informs my world view, piques my curiosities, temporarily abducts me from the nonsense in everyday life, makes me laugh, makes me cry.  It shapes my opinions and my character.  In fact, a love of reading was the lifeline that helped me through college, aided in obtaining my first real job, and guided my vocational choices, even to the present: in my next career, I’d like to return to performing voice-over work, reading for the benefit of others.

There’s nothing terribly unusual in that confession; indeed, most of us are creatures of the written word.  Reading is the central tenet of education, vocation, communication with other human beings and of evolution itself.  Imagine, for a moment, where civilization and the human parade might be without the ability to read.

It’s not such a far-fetched thing to imagine.  There are people who cannot read; not that they choose not to read, but that they are unable to read the written word.  They are certainly to be found in the U.S.  And I have met far too many of them in Nicaragua, frequently in the rural areas where education often may not exceed third grade due to the need for every family member to work for the family’s basic sustenance.  The need to eat comes before the ability to read.

This is the context in which “Let’s Read, Reading Is Fun!” was born and continues to grow in Nicaragua.  (I have written about the program here previously, but it continues to be one of the most directly impactful and [for me] personally satisfying endeavors that Winds of Peace Foundation supports.)  The premise is simple: get books into the hands of school-age children and thus release the inherent joys to be found in reading.

It’s easy to take reading for granted when using the skill everyday.  We read books.  We scan newspapers. We network within social media.  We send and receive e-mails.  We read menus before dining, ballots prior to voting, road signs while driving, and airline tickets before boarding.  In short, reading is perhaps the essential skill of modern living.  But in Nicaragua, books are not in great supply, so reading skills become stalled for lack of attractive and engaging materials.  I can only imagine what my own literacy might be today without help from Dr. Seuss and The Hardy Boys.  Where might you be today without the ability to read?  (Among other things, you wouldn’t be reading this essay!)

“Let’s read, Reading Is Fun” recognizes the essential need and right that is reading.  In 2017,  another 9,670 books were distributed within 313 schools.  Since its inception in 2010, nearly 54,000 children have participated in the reading program, honing a skill that forever changes who they are and what they will become.  (The full report of the “Let’s Read” campaign for 2017 and its cause and effect is posted under the Education Funds section of this website, located on the homepage.)

If you are able to read this entry, congratulations on possessing the skill to do so.  While the content written here may not shape your future or your character, what you absorb from the written word elsewhere most certainly will.  Go read a book- it will change you.  It’s a particularly good thing to know that in rural Nicaragua, those same transformations are happening.  You can make book on it….

 

Jacinto’s Tale

For the Nobel Peace Prize Forum last week, Winds of Peace had invited several cooperative members from Central  America to join in a panel discussion about cooperativism and its impact as a peace-building movement.  One of those invitees was Jacinto Peña Abrego from Panama, a member of Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos (Hope of the Peasants Cooperative ).  Like many of the fascinating people I have met from Central America, Jacinto had a pretty interesting story to tell.

Closing in on nearly 50 years of collaborative work for the common good, Jacinto has served as the coop’s manager on seven different occasions, and still works to teach and advise it younger members.  He is gifted with storytelling ability, his voice carrying the gravitas of experience and age, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of youth and exuberance.  Among the stories that he shared with the members of our dialogue was one about Father Hector Gallego, and the unlikely beginnings of the Esperanza Cooperative.

“One day in 1968, I was walking along and saw a stranger riding a mule. He reached out his hand to greet me: ‘I’m Santa Fe’s priest,’ he told me. ‘I don’t believe you, priests only greet rich people,’ I answered him. He said: ‘There’s always a first time…. I want to invite you to a meeting this Thursday.’ ‘I don’t have time for meetings,’ I said, lowering my head. ‘No? Those are the very people I’m looking for, people who don’t have time,’ he told me. And he left me bowled over. I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting children and that impressed me. We sat down in a circle. What I saw and heard that day, made me think differently. That day I changed forever.”

“We woke up to the injustice of the wages, the fraud that the stores pulled off with the weighing of the products and their prices. So we decided to form a cooperative. But how could we start a cooperative if we did not think we had any resources? So Fr. Hector threw out a 5 cent coin in the middle of where we were seated, and asked, ‘How many pieces of candy can we buy with that coin?’  ‘Five!’  we responded. Others present looked in their pockets for a 5 cent coin. And others as well. The priest held up 10 coins and said that we had enough for 50 pieces of candy and sent a young boy off to buy them. It was 12 noon, we were all hungry. That same boy passed out the candy to the 50 who were present. The priest asked us again, ‘what does it taste like?’  Someone shouted, ‘it tastes like heaven!’ The priest concluded, ‘that is how cooperativism is done.’  The next week a group from Pantanal bought 1 quintal of salt to sell, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents a week. That is how the hope of the peasants got started, our cooperative.”

Father Hector eventually was “disappeared,” never seen again nor his body ever recovered.  I found it interesting that Jacinto, in telling this story, never added the fact that the priest had been a guest at Jacinto’s home at the moment of the abduction.  I suspect that omitting that detail keeps the focus on the part of the story that Jacinto wishes to emphasize:  the priest was taken in the dark of night, but his lessons about humility, cooperativism and stewardship continue on as lights in each day.  In Jacinto’s thinking, the story is all about the man and his message, and not the details of a midnight atrocity.

Jacinto says that his job is to keep telling the tale and teaching the cooperative youth the profound lessons of the humble priest, that cooperatives can be life-saving structures when they are founded upon and operated for the common good.  Even as an elder of the cooperative, his appetite to represent the lessons of Father Hector pushed him to board a plane in Panama City, fly through the questionable skies of Hurricane Irma, visit the foreign land of the U.S. for the first time, navigate a language barrier and offer himself as a testimony to successful cooperativism.

I never met Father Hector Gallego.  I never even read much about him before the last several weeks.  But I feel as though I somehow know exactly what kind of a man he was….

 

 

Headwinds

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast.

I spent the better part of last week with colleagues and guests at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  The annual gathering features recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates and many others whose passions are about peace-making.  In this year’s edition, Winds of Peace was invited to host a dialogue about the potential impact of cooperatives on post-conflict societies.  In the session, our colleague Rene Mendoza offered his research conclusions about what constitutes strong cooperatives, how all of the “actors” in the cooperative chain sometimes unknowingly contribute to a lack of fairness to the small producer, and how Fair Trade isn’t always fair.

Our session featured representatives from all quarters of the coffee cooperative chain: producers, buyers, roasters, funders, cooperative associations, consultants and even academics.   They came from Europe, Central America, South America, Canada and the U.S.  We sought as many perspectives as we could find to consider the research and join in the discussion about where and how improvements might be made on behalf of the small producer, and in the process contribute to better chances at creating more peaceful societies.  The gathering was an impressive one, made even more so because of the intensity that they brought to the Forum: these were people who were serious about the topic and, especially, to the notion of contributing to peace.

We heard stories from peasant farmers and the nature of perseverance.  We listened to the findings about premium payments in the Fair Trade and Organic markets and how that money often never reaches the farmers who grow the crops.  We heard stories of progress, for women, for peasant farmers, for struggling organizations attempting to fight the currents of political and monied interests.  We learned about the importance of transparency, of walking in another’s shoes, collaborative work, the importance of “the common good.”  And we felt the passionate undercurrent of an eclectic group of people seeking, in their own way, a means of peacemaking.

And then there was the news coverage this week at the U.N.

The President of the United States openly taunted the leader of North Korea, in front of the rest of the world, by referring to him as “rocket man.”  In the same breath, he stated flatly that, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Later in the week, the leader of the free world, in addressing African leaders, twice referred to the African nation “Nambia.”  Unfortunately, there is no such country.  The chief peacemaker in the world did not know the name of the country to which he referred.

In quoting the President I imply no judgment as to his intelligence or the soundness of his political strategies; all persons on the planet can judge for themselves the appropriateness of the President’s position. I only note the stark contrast between last week’s energies toward building peace, and this week’s headlines threatening an annihilation.

I can’t help but be startled by the contrast….

 

The Inherent Lens

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.

Adam Turville

It’s an interesting study and a sobering one.  I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?

Not Invented Here

Can I vent here?  I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations.  I understand that.  But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK.  I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.

As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16.  This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day.  The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.  They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies.  We’re excited about the topic!

In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion.  The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong.  In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.

To that end, we have identified key organizations which have  significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective.  Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers.  To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to  the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself.  In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual.  (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)

All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address.  I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap.  I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys.  But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.

First, there is the receptionist.  The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation.  This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow.  (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.)  When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.

Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message.  As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long.   So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions.  I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached.  But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call.  Eleven days later, I have had no response.

I’m frustrated.  So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished.  Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success.  My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call.  I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant.  (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day.  Is it possible that  large development organizations share administrative assistants?  Or do they just all come from the same schools?)  When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y.  And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available.  She will be pleased to pass along my name and number.  I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up.  In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.

I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy.  I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day.  I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate.  (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant?  Or has that become too plebian these days?)  Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff.  Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve.  Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination.  There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.

There.  I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore.  My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered.  It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more.  Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….

 

 

The Need to Own It

I have written here often about some of the cooperatives with whom we work and, especially, the remarkable people encountered in these organizations.  Along the way, I have shared descriptions of some of the tools that we have shared with Nica partners (like Open Book Management and Lean principles), because many rural producers have become convinced of the need for organizational strengthening.  It should be no surprise that Winds of Peace Foundation regards these tools, and others that encourage inclusiveness and participation, as key to sustainable organizational strength.  So do many Nica partners.  But thinking that something is true does not automatically prove that it’s true.  So I decided to share some data about ownership that has recently been published.

The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) has published a new study of employee-ownership in the U.S.   Now, the U.S. is not Nicaragua, and employee stock ownership is not cooperativism.  But the results cited in the report focus on enterprise ownership, owning the business and social equity of an enterprise, and that definition encompasses an entire spectrum of stakeholder models.  And this is a portion of what the study has found:

*Enterprise-owners in this dataset have 33% higher median income from wages overall. This holds true at all wage levels, ranging from a difference of $3,160 in annual wages for the lowest-paid employee-owners to an extra $5,000 for higher-wage workers.

*Median household net wealth among respondents is 92% higher for owners than for non-owners. This disparity holds true for the great majority of subgroups analyzed, including single women, parents raising young children, non-college graduates, and workers of color.

*Enterprise-owners of color in this data have 30% higher income from wages, 79% greater net household wealth, and median tenure in their current job 36% over non-employee-owners of color.

*For families with children ages 0 to 8 in their household, the ownership advantage translates into median household net worth nearly twice that of those without employee ownership, nearly one full year of increased job stability, and $10,000 more in annual wages.

The report is full of additional data which supports the organizational value of ownership; take a look at it for lots of details. But the picture being painted here is one of many colors: organizations that involve their workers as owners are more successful;  greater opportunity comes from ownership; greater participation through ownership yields greater strength and organizational growth; there is a central tendency in us as human beings to nurture and protect that which we own.

Concurrent with the publication of this groundbreaking study was the publication of Fortune Magazine’s 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For.  Of the 73 corporations recognized for their outstanding workplaces, more than half of them (35) incorporated ownership plans for their members.  It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the best companies to work for are companies owned, in whole or part, by the employees or members themselves.  (The Fortune list is traditionally weighted heavily toward technology and healthcare providers; the preponderance of ownership would presumably be even higher in a more representative sample of U.S. businesses.)

There is no mistaking the fact that Nicaraguan cooperatives are owned by their members, in at least the structural, legal sense.  But like their U.S. employee counterparts, Nicaraguan owners need the understanding of what ownership is, of what their ownership obligations and rights are, and how their success truly rises or falls based upon the members taking responsibility, collectively.  Successful ownership is not reliant upon heroes or the efforts of the few or the presence of a beneficent patron.  Success follows a basic understanding of how their cooperative works, how A+B=C, and importance of each member to the whole.

So when the third Certificate Program is convened in August, there will be modules about family strategic planning and access to markets and means of improving production and quality.  But at its core, the Program will be about ownership, seizing the opportunity for self-improvement by embracing both self and collective responsibility.  We’ll be there to help conversations about Open Books and Lean, but the days will really be about our partners’ futures, and their appetite to own it….