Tilling the Soil

I wrote in a post here last week about the need for both “planters” and “harvesters” in the development community to reasonably blunt the oppression of poverty in Nicaragua.  My choice of words and analogy prompted a couple of responses which requested some clarification of those terms and funding postures.  (That’s not at all unusual, as my brain and my words don’t always operate in perfect synchronization.)

In considering how to provide that clarification, I recalled an e-mail that was written by my colleague and Nicaraguan Director for Winds of Peace, Mark Lester.  He had written a response to an inquiry from another funder asking about our process and assessment of project proposals.  I revisited the e-mail and, as I had suspected, Mark’s words painted a clear portrait of a development process geared to clients themselves, and how WPF has come to work with its potential partners in a fashion that plants seeds for and is very focused on the future.  That e-mail is excerpted here:

I think the goal of having your grassroots group partners dictate to you what their specific needs and priorities are is a very good institutional goal, and one that we very much share, but our experience is that it gets very complicated when you try to put it into practice. 

Suppose you [identify] a grassroots coop, and they send you a request. That request will reflect the needs and priorities of the coop to the extent that the leadership really represents the rest of the members, and that is precisely the problem that I explained on our Skype call. These leaders [always] tend to be the same people (patron-fieldhand relationship). In this case the only way to know whether something being proposed reflects the membership is if you spend time in the coop; interviewing board members, but also interviewing a diverse selection of members in different regions of the coop, visiting them in their homes. This is the only way to find out what the members really think when there is great power disparity among the members of the coop. Because those with less power in the community will not say things publicly that would reflect negatively on those with more power in a local community. Their situation is too fragile, and their ability to be able to go to those powerful people to help them in times of need is too important to risk by being honest in a meeting.
 But when you have collected that information from private conversations with members, and then in a plenary session with the members of the coop present the findings, the collective is forced to deal with the true reality, because everyone recognizes it is true. But there was never a way for that truth to surface publicly and thus have everyone deal with it. Without this truth on the table, however,  there is no possibility for the coop to move forward for there to be change, and thus there is no change in the territory, because the [individual]organizations within the territory are not changing. 
This is the work that our colleagues have done and are doing with all the cooperatives that we are working with, and this is what the followup workshops have dealt with. We too put a high value on  the people deciding what their priorities are, but as we delved into it more, we realized to do so effectively often meant getting beyond the leaders, because they really were not representing their membership. 
As a result of the ongoing dialogue, and exchange among the coops, a number of coops have told us that they want to be able to export directly, i.e. not have to sell to either an export company or a 2nd tier cooperative. Especially two  coops had determined in their own internal planning – that for the first time was truly participatory, because the interests of sectors that previously were not reflected in the plan (because of the situation I described above) now were – they decided they wanted to learn how to export. In the last workshop we had, we were able to have a number of small coffee roasters present, precisely because the coops told us they wanted to export. In the course of the workshop the roaster said they wanted to buy coffee [specifically] off these two groups, and in the discussion with the roasters about what they needed, these two coops realized that exporting was more complicated than they thought, so the issue is a very hot topic for them.
To be clear WPF does not want any money, we are however interested in that your money (and other international aid) really does help the grassroots people, and not a local elite that looks like a grassroots group from the outside. Because every dime that ends up going to the local elite ends up financing the very people blocking what the grassroots really want and are able to express when they are offered a channel that does not put them at risk.
Our experience and research shows that unless there is a methodology that gets around the unequal power distribution at the local level, the resources are always going to be controlled by the local elites (who to outsiders may look poor, but internally they clearly are an elite). But there are very few organizations that deal with this central issue. That being said, there is another organization in Nicaragua that does this well, but using a slightly different methodology. I can send you more about them as well if you are interested.
The context Mark described above is happening every day in Nicaragua and in many if not most other impoverished nations where the poor work with assistance groups for their advancement, if not their very survival.  In many cases, they have become dependent upon the intervention of funders, and in the process have abandoned both their right and their hope to ever operate in a self-sustaining fashion.  The projects they propose may, in fact, be capable of generating repayment of loans received or accomplishing grant objectives.  But the essential question to be asked is whether the results are transformative or simply stop-gap until the next infusion of support.  That’s the recipe for dependency.
Within the WPF methodology, we prefer to think of ourselves as planters, “in the soil” with the campesinos, tilling the ground until the first shoots of growth emerge, transforming seeds into ways of life, and working toward an eventual harvest….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *