Winds of Peace Foundation has committed a great deal of time and resources to the study and development of cooperatives in Nicaragua. Over the past five years alone, WPF has supported more than thirty coops; underwritten the cost of a half-dozen cooperative workshops for rural participants; commissioned studies about their history, makeup, the effects of climate upon them, and the context of coffee; and now partially sponsored an entire cooperative certificate program to continue teaching and to provide a tangible marker of achievement. We’ve even pitched the idea for the creation of a “Synergy Center,” whereby WPF might partner with a North American university to share its wealth of experiences and findings and provide a destination for students and delegations wanting to know more about the realities of Central American neighbors.
We’ve had some amazing successes. We’ve also experienced some unexpected and disappointing defaults. We’ve come to know a lot about Nicaraguan coops and what makes them work. Yet, at the same time, we’ve had one organization- not even a cooperative in structure- that models the cooperative methodologies and successes as well or better than almost any other partner. Yes, I’ve had another visit with ANIDES.
ANIDES has been guiding women of the rural communities of Matagalpa in the creation of small community banks in recent years, creating financial literacy, sustainability, independence and savings accounts for its participants. The impact upon the lives of its members is palpable, not only in terms of financial strengthening, but also in quality of life and family. WPF has admired the motivations and results of this group for years. And now, ANIDES is proud to be reporting that these small community banks are becoming formally-registered cooperatives, with ten of the current thirteen banks in the registration process. The objective is to eventually form a union of cooperatives once all registrations are complete.
These coops offer strengthened opportunities for their members to establish outlets for their small enterprises: crafts, bread-baking, small services and other commercial ventures. These entrepreneurial efforts have created the financial wherewithal to “feed” the community banking enterprise. The resources generated by these small enterprises often are used to fund significant events, such as the addition of indoor plumbing to a home, a water softener for cleaner drinking and washing water, or education opportunities for members’ children, a dream that might otherwise seem very out-of-reach for these same families.
The legal cooperative status confers some technical advantages for the women members: they will have access to joint banking accounts, easier accessibility to those accounts, greater security for deposits, cooperative education to further their understanding of collaborative advantages, opportunities to learn from one another. The plan is to conduct monthly meetings among the cooperative delegates to consistently share experiences, problems, concerns, financial lessons and to celebrate what has been and promises to be a continuing success story in the rural countryside of Matagalpa.
The real value of these fledgling cooperatives, however, may not be in the technical or legal characteristics that registration will confer. The bigger impact just may be on the lives and attitudes of those who have been willing to risk moving out of their comfort zones and into positions of learning and financial responsibility. For most, it’s an act of faith. (By comparison, imagine yourself voluntarily signing up for a quantum physics class as a forty-something year-old, when you barely understand arithmetic.) But such is their determination for improving their families’ circumstances, to work in some form of solidarity. It also underscores a deepening sense of self-respect: in discussing a request for possible funding, they have specified for the first time in our work together that the funding be in the form of a loan, to be fully repaid. (I truly wish I could convey the sense of pride on the faces of the women as they specified a loan.)
They are taught and they understand the basic finances of their banks. They assume positions of leadership, likely for the first time in their lives. They make decisions among themselves. They establish and attend meetings of their banks, sometimes walking for miles to be present. They create celebrations of their work and themselves. In short, these women do the things that successful cooperatives- successful organizations of any sort- must do in order to endure.
As WPF imagines new ways of bringing together organizations to model best practices and to learn from one another, ANIDES might very well need to be part of the mix, even though they aren’t growing coffee, beans, rice or raising cattle. What they are raising is their quality of life, their knowledge and their self-esteem, and being very cooperative about it….