“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.
I’ve continued to think about the comments made last week by the President of the U.S. Even though he later denied some of the words attributed to him, and two of his most ardent supporters stated that they did not recall his use of the words, there seems to be little doubt about what was actually said and why. The entire episode was astonishing to those with any sensibilities, regardless of political affiliation.
But my own reflections on the matter shifted to the countries in question, the ones which were denigrated so graphically by the leader of the free world. What’s the possible basis for such demeaning remarks? Are these nations really so awful? And if so, why? I suppose that, by comparison, Nicaragua might be one of those countries which the U.S President had in mind: it’s the second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti), has a history of internal conflicts and dictatorships, contributes to both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. and has sustained a strained relationship with U.S. administrations for decades. With that in mind, I considered the circumstances that might have led countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and the African nations to be held in such contempt by the wealthiest country in the world.
At least in the case of Nicaragua, the beginning of their modern-day difficulties date back to the 1850’s invasion of that country by invasion from the U.S. Over subsequent decades, the North American neighbor alternately funded insurrection, invaded with U.S. Marines, supported a generations-long dictatorship of oppression, illegally funded a war against a duly-elected Nicaraguan administration, ignored a World Court penalties of $6 Billion for their illegalities, consistently and forcefully interfered in elections and has recently threatened legislation to eliminate U.S. remittances to Nicaragua families. In sum, it has been an excellent recipe for the creation of a troubled existence.
In Haiti, the early troubles inflicted by the U.S. were quite similar to the incursions in Nicaragua. On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy the capitol. Forces were instructed to “protect American and foreign” interests. The U.S. also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control. To avoid public criticism, the U.S. claimed the occupation was a mission to “re-establish peace and order… [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future.” Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti’s custom houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti’s national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks. For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S. retained influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947. It was a good way to subdue a culture, an independent economy and self-determination and to ensure their third world status.
For the African continent, the litany of U.S. interventions and self-serving intrusions is far too long to even summarize here. Africa is a big place, and nearly every one of its fifty-four countries has experienced U.S. interference at one point in history or another. But the following description of cause-and-effect, excerpted from an article by Mark Levine at aljazeera.com provides some context for current reality:
Traveling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growth is most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.
The poverty which continues to envelop much of the continent is the result of far more than just the meddling of the United States. But the U.S. footprint is present in both actions taken and assistance NOT rendered; if these constitute s***hole countries, perhaps they are perceived this way because we in the U.S. have chosen to see them and respond to them in that way. After all, no less than the U.S. President has identified them as such. (I think the President is unaware of the fact that earliest humans emerged from Africa. Not Europe. Not North America. Not Norway. But Africa.)
The unfortunate truth for many struggling nations is to be found in the poor-man-crawling story:
A wealthy man was walking on a city street, preoccupied with cell phone and important connections. His preoccupation resulted in a collision with a somewhat disheveled and homeless man walking in the opposite direction. The poor man fell down, momentarily stunned by the contact, but immediately reached out to gather up several of his belongings which had been knocked from his hands. The wealthy man, perturbed at the mishap and the dropping of his own phone, retrieved it brusquely and then observed the poor man on hands and knees, salvaging his few possessions. As he walked away indignantly, the wealthy man observed, “It’s disgusting to see the way these vagrants crawl our sidewalks. The police should do something about them, to make the streets safe for respectable folks.”
Where there is hunger and thirst, need and distress, poverty and injustice, there are reasons for it. And sometimes the reasons lie at the feet of those who are not thus afflicted. S***hole countries, if they actually exist, may well be the result of outsiders who have created them….
The reality is that there is a singular head of the country who has caused some very deep divides among the population. He is known for saying controversial things about his opponents and his own achievements. He governs in a very hands-on fashion, a style which many call autocratic. That style is accentuated by the fact that he has family members serving within his administration, affirming decisions and positions which are not always popular. It’s not helped by the fact that he is wealthy and that there are so many within the country who are in serious need.
The government has seemed to be consumed by controlling the press, one of the foundations of a strong democratic government. It has repeatedly discounted any news story that is critical of policy or the president himself. As a result, the president only speaks with media which represents his positions favorably. For example, even long after the election results of last year, the administration continues to challenge how many voted.
Even in this age of unprecedented political divide, where polarization is the norm, the administration has adopted an extraordinary agenda of intense marginalization of those who do not support the party in power. It might mean losing one’s job. Loyalty is prized above all other traits, even at the expense of truth and integrity. Within the administration, officials follow only the party line as the singular means to the truth, even to the demonization of those who disagree.
A continuing puzzle is the apparent friendliness of the government toward Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Unlike a vast majority of nations of the Western Hemisphere, this government has been silent in criticisms of Russia and consistently praising of Putin as a great leader. Perhaps there is some expectation of return favors in the future, but the government raises suspicions by its unusual posture and kid-glove handling of Russia. Are we, in fact, independent of “the bear?”
This is one of only three nations to decline participation in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. Whether that effort is sufficient to have a significant impact upon climate change, the country’s unwillingness to participate in the agreement along with 195 other countries creates a signal of dissonance with the rest of the global community. There is a great deal of disappointment within the country over the unwillingness of government to work with the other nations of the planet in addressing the global warming threat.
So are my musings about Nicaragua, with some interesting comparisons to the U.S., or vice versa? The reality of both countries is that there is great distress as a result of increasing polarity and fewer opportunities for full participation in society.
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….
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….
As one who has tended to be drawn to the Fair Trade (FT) label on a wide range of products, I have always been pleased that some of our cooperative partners in Nicaragua are part of that movement. Their participation has simply felt right, and just, as they have sought to connect with a consumer base around the world which has been eager to support the small producer effort. It has seemed a “win-win” circumstance about which both the end user and the producer could feel good. But there is a growing cause for doubt about both the fairness and the trade in FT, and reasons for all of us to take a closer look at the evolution this once- (and future?) empowering concept.
In a very well-researched and analytical article authored by researcher(and consultant to WPF) Dr. Rene Mendoza, he has undertaken a close look at cooperatives in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries , to assess the effectiveness of the FT movement. After studying the symptoms and complaints of the cooperative “patients,” he has also offered a detailed diagnosis of the ailments, including contextual analysis of the pathology which is draining the energies from cooperatives and their members. His conclusions should provide all parties interested in the FT ideals with both understanding of the disease and hope for its cures.
Dr. Mendoza attributes no blame for the spread of the unhealthiness, but does identify the complicity shared by all of the actors within the FT chain, from producer to consumer. He identifies both the malady and its contagion points and has created a clinical treatise on where it leads if the disorder isn’t treated.
The best news is that Dr. Mendoza’s article includes several prescriptions for healing and recovery. He does not offer a magic pill for immediate wellness. And restoration of confidence in a system that initially hoped to marry producers with well-intentioned consumers, in a win-win undertaking, will require serious treatment. Like any well-considered rehabilitation, the restoration to full health is likely to be slow and demanding. It will require patience, discipline, a collaborative mindset and re-focus on values. But full remission is possible.
For anyone who has ever purchased a product under the FT label, or sought to be supportive of small farmers in a small way by purchasing their goods, I encourage the reading of Dr. Mendoza’s work. WPF has provided a link to this groundbreaking research on our website homepage, under the column with Dr. Mendoza’s photograph, and entitled, “Toward the Reinvention of Fair Trade.”
Read it. It may change your thinking about that next cup of coffee, or that recent chocolate bar and the truth about how it may have reached your home….
Thanksgiving is nearly upon us here in the United States, which means that we have moved into late November and early Winter. It’s always a transition time, with the reds and golds of Autumn giving way to dormant brown and, eventually, snow white. Lots of people don’t care for November here in the upper Midwest of the country, but I love it. It’s another promise of change and of time moving on, hallmarks of getting out of the “comfort zone,” and that’s a good place for us to be. But this month has already presented a series of “moments” for me, three significant days in a row, even before the promise of turkey.
The first day of note was the U.S election. To my knowledge, and certainly in my experience, there has never been a contest as coarse, demeaning, undignified and as utterly devoid of fact as the election of 2016. Much has been written about the candidates’ behaviors by others (nearly everyone), but from the perspective of one rather ordinary citizen, I characterize the fiasco as an event which oozed disgrace and lack of civility at every turn. If this is, in fact, democracy in action, then my own sensitivities suggest that we search for an alternative form of government altogether.
Yet the discouragement and even despair that I felt during this election season is ironically what made the second day of my November journey stand out so brightly. On the day following the election, I met with both the Managing Director and the Program Director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. We convened to meet one another for the first time, to talk about some of the new aspirations for the Forum and to discuss a potential presentation by Winds of Peace at next year’s assembly. The conversation was a stimulating and hopeful one.
I mean, how could it NOT have been, when elements of the discourse included the names of past laureates, the efforts being made around the world to convene peaceful resolution of conflict. Yes, members of the Tunisian Quartet, the 2015 recipients of the Peace Prize, would be in attendance. President Obama has been invited, in addition to his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is among the faculty at peace and conflict resolution institute in Hawaii. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will be in attendance, with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. And many others, less celebrated and completely anonymous, will be present over those days to talk about their own initiatives and experiences with peace-building. Against the glow of enthusiasm and commitment of my hosts, a feeling of hope seemed to lift me a bit straighter in my chair. I walked back to my car with a little more bounce in my step, I think.
On the third day of this sequence, I was to speak to a University of St. Thomas class about the work being done by the Foundation, and how it mirrors, in many ways, the strategies and attitudes brought into play in my former for-profit organization, Foldcraft Co. I arrived on campus a little early, so I took advantage of the beautiful morning and walked around for a while, taking in the surroundings and feeling the promise that only a university campus can provide. Quickly I noticed the scores of banners hung around every sidewalk and building, which read, “All for the common good.” I was struck by the rightness and optimistic promise of that phrase and truly moved to see its presence everywhere. It was an advent to the class experience to follow.
The presentation went well ( I was told). The class participants were engaged and curious and full of outward excitement at ideas of organizational wealth-sharing, broad participation and transparency, collaborative work and rewards, and the practice of capitalism without distinction of class, the sanctity of human worth. The questions penetrated the essence of broad ownership and widespread involvement. The students were intrigued and enthused. I was pumped and energized. Together, we had a good time. After the class period, several students asked for my business card so that we might talk further about the marriage of business and social responsibility. On this day, I did not notice a bounce in my step as I walked back to the car; I rather had the sense of floating
Within the span of three days, I experienced the lows and the highs that I know are inevitably a part of our human existence. The outcome to all of it was simply this: I am reminded that the lows are to be found wherever we choose to see them. There are enough to bring the entirety of mankind to its knees and complete dysfunction. But just as assuredly, the highs are at least as numerous, and carry the potential to raise us above the mire of surrender. It’s a matter of where one’s gaze seeks direction. With heads down, we see the world as a dark place, indeed, and its paths lead to seemingly endless disappointment and loss. But there is a great deal more to seen with heads up, absorbing the brighter prospect, allowing us to see and draw strength from the hope that still does surround us.
All of which leads me to the fourth important day of this month, the one during which we are encouraged to be thankful for every blessing of our lives. What a great idea, gratitude. What a terrific posture for looking up, noticing the uplift that surrounds us, for acknowledging and embracing it, and for choosing to be the very engine for change, “all for the common good.”