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.
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.
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.
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