Feb 4, 2014

Confessions of a Co-operative Missionary

What am I doing here? Every overseas person – whether development worker, missionary, or in my case, “Co-operative Expert” – must ask that in at least one crisis, and hopefully as a reality check on a regular basis.

I’ve been sent to Myanmar by the Canadian Co-operative Association for 3 months to help promote/support the co-operative movement. For better or worse, co-operatives are a central pillar of the government’s Poverty Alleviation strategy. Co-ops are being set up in every village in the country, through which the government is channeling micro-finance loans for farmers and entrepreneurs. This presents a tremendous opportunity to work within the existing framework – on the surface, at least, we are not swimming against the current.

The first of two major challenges is the limited understanding of cooperatives. Co-ops are almost exclusively used for micro-credit loans, without seeing the potential to cooperatively address many other community issues. They tend to be run similarly to other businesses or non-profits. Leadership is often not rotated, and usually not shared by women. Overall (and please note that there are strong exceptions to each of the things I've just listed), members do not feel or exercise a true sense of ownership – the co-op is merely the necessary vessel to receive necessary aid.

I deeply believe that the co-operative model, comprehensively applied, would bring great benefit to the member farmers. Our hope is to help create a model co-operative that demonstrates:

• Community ownership – people understand the co-op to be owned by them, for the benefit of their own members
• Initiative – members use collective action to creatively address their own challenges, not just the narrow vision of receiving loans or other assistance from external sources
• Democracy – leadership elected openly, rotates, and is responsible to the members
• Gender balance – true women leadership and representation
• Accountability – members understand, exercise, and demand their right/responsibility to be part of the financial and operational oversight of the society
• Open and Voluntary Membership – co-op resists the impulse to close the doors after founding members receive benefit, but rather see the strength and mutual benefits of increasing membership

A co-operative embracing these principles will thrive. But how to help the farmers understand this, when there are no co-ops that I have found that model all of these principles? We can and will do endless education workshops, share Canadian examples, search out those few brave souls willing to try something new. But in the end, we have to be honest with ourselves – the initial participation will happen because we are also providing loans or fertilizer or something.

The second challenge, therefore, is how to develop a true co-operative in a place where people do not currently want, trust, or believe in such a movement? Co-ops have been forced down people’s throats for decades. First by a socialist government who made co-ops the way to start a business or acquire farmland. Then a current government –equally well-intentioned, I believe – tying access to credit to co-op membership.

Are we well-intentioned NGO’s any different? For two exciting hours last week I met with the co-op department staff envisioning an “integrated farming” co-op with seed saving, organic fertilizers, collective farming/processing/marketing. But in the third hour, we managed to get down to reality, which was that farmers do not want to farm collectively. They will jump through these hoops in order to get whatever assistance our project can offer, but their preference would be to receive the inputs then farm on their own.

So I am the missionary offering free meals in exchange for bible lessons, the government mandating co-ops to get loans. “It’s for their own good,” says the government Minister. “They’ll thank us for it later once they’ve seen the light,” says the church minister. “Once they see the true benefits of a true co-op, the movement will spread of its own accord, even without assistance bribes,” says this co-op development preacher. (And I can’t help but add Mary Poppins – “Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”)

My own FreeRange Consulting business is the result of this type of mutually-agreed-upon coercion. I entered a government business-start-up program just to get the financial assistance it offered. They knew that was my reason, and I knew they were hoping to convert me into a businessman along the way. But through this dance I did learn a great deal about how to launch and run a business, and in retrospect I am glad that they forced the training on me.

Just like that government business program, I can offer training/vision that will benefit farmers in ways that they can’t fairly be expected to understand or believe before experiencing. I’ve travelled 14.5 time zones from my home precisely because I have a unique perspective and expertise in this area. I can give examples, handouts and fancy power-point presentations, but until they’ve tasted the difference for themselves they deserve to remain skeptical. It is my job – and the reason that the local sponsoring agency has invited me here – to introduce people to new ideas that may or may not take root eventually.

This story has a happy ending, or at least interlude. After visiting several strong but not cutting-edge co-operatives, we finally found an inspiring example. It’s an integrated farm that was started in 1979, the only way these landless farmers could get land from the government. In 1996 the military expropriated ¾ of their land, but the remaining 123 acres are still farmed by 22 member families. The whole project was imposed by the government and almost destroyed by it, and there is still an undercurrent of being forced to exist as a co-op in order to get ongoing aid. Not a promising base.

But after 34 years of functioning together as a co-op, watching new generations grow into membership, they’ve grown together. They built a school for the children, and provide scholarships. They’ve launched a fish farm operation together. And most importantly, over 34 years they have naturally formed real co-operative bonds, even if it takes a nosy foreigner to point it out to them:

“What happens if a member is sick during planting time?” I ask.

“We all go and help them, of course,” is the automatic and somewhat incredulous answer. “Why even ask such a question,” I see them thinking.

I press my point home, and in the process remember why I’m here. “Because in a normal place where each farmer only sees to her own farm, coming together to help might not be the automatic answer. THAT is what a co-operative is.”

THAT is the seed I’m here to plant, with enough passion that people are inspired or at least curious enough to try. And there’s nothing coercive about presenting an idea and the opportunity to try that idea out if it’s offered with respect and honesty.


  1. Do they help a sick member at planting time because of the co-op, or because of a culture of generosity that cares for neighbors and those in need? After a few months you surely understand the cultural norms, I just ask because it seems an important consideration. Surely in some places the structure of a co-op is more necessary to engender that kind of sharing/caring; in other places perhaps it is less necessary.

    1. Excellent question, thank you! I don't at all think I understand all the cultural norms, so I did ask my coworkers before posting this. They said that in a normal village, there would be some effort to help the neighbour, but only if it didn't interfere with their own planting (sound kinda familiar?). In a farming community where everyone is crazy busy planting at the same time and labour is scarce, it would be hard for the sick farmer to get the full support they would need, whereas in this co-op there would be a deeper understanding that everyone must pitch in since that farmer is part of the co-operative family.

      This is, as I've written elsewhere, the most giving and sharing and caring culture I have ever experienced. They don't need co-operatives to teach them how to be good to each other, but co-ops can provide the structure to make it happen in all arenas of their lives, including what is usually the most difficult arena - economic.

    2. Thanks for the insight!