Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Forming a cocoa farmers' association—the community-driven way

Remember my “Sustainability” blog posts?  One of the things a good non-profit should worry about is whether it is really promoting the reality of that buzzword du-jour.  It’s easy to say a practice is sustainable (just like it’s easy to say a commodity is “fair trade” or coffee is “rainforest certified”) because it sort of sounds good and fuzzy and nice and so we don’t ask, well, what exactly does that mean? 

What does it take for a project, in this case a cocoa growing improvement project, to be “sustainable?” 
First, it has to have the approval and commitment of the people who are going to be involved in it for a long time after all the NGOs have left the building.

So that’s what the Aceh Timur cocoa farming community (small but growing) did at the end of February.  JMD facilitated a training on how to work together as a group that has some universally agreed-upon guidelines, some goals, and some ground rules for participation.

What was different about this training was that the farmers decided what type of group they wanted to form.
Co-operatives in Aceh are a necessary evil—for now.  Most donors or international aid agencies choose to work with them because they, like a government agency, are a formal “group” and are easier to fund and make “programming” for than a hundred individuals or farm families.  But the co-ops are not farmer-led, or farmer-centric, and they exist to make money for themselves.  They provide the farmer with storage and a semi-reliable buyer for their produce, and sometimes they make loans to farmers for seeds, materials and equipment.  But the object of cooperatives is not to create a vibrant and self-sufficient farming community.  It is to make money for the investors.  

Many smallholders, if they are able, have decided to take the less secure route towards economic stability and form farmer associations.  Although legal entities that are recognized by the provincial government, these groups are much less well-known in the province, and much less popular.  A co-operative is administered by people with some knowledge of business and financial management.  Associations rely on the membership itself to manage the daily affairs of the group. And very few people possess that knowledge.

You’d think that some small part of the hundreds of millions of dollars of tsunami assistance would have gone towards capacity building for local associations and agencies, so that after the international agencies had left, Acehnese citizens would be able to run their own NGOs, compete for future funding, adequately manage funds, perform good administrative and supervisory functions, and create a strong civil society component in a post-reconstruction province.

You’d be dead wrong.

This is one of the reasons why JMD is one of the only remaining NGOs in the province. No one thought to equally include the existing local NGOs in the humanitarian assistance matrix.  It was “easier” to just “do it ourselves.”  Sure, we’d hire bright and capable Acehnese citizens and train them to work in our agencies, and we’d pay them really well—so well that local NGOs could no longer compete to save their own province.  After we left or our $5 million ran out, we’d cut everybody loose, to go back to . . . where?  There was nowhere left to go.

No one thought about paying a local NGO the type of money the international agencies got.  No one thought about training managers and supervisors.  What, exactly did we think would happen?  That the government would all of a sudden put a line item in its budget to re-establish and fund the hundred assistance agencies that were now defunct?

Building Bridges to the Future Foundation continued to fund the administration of JMD.  As far as I know there is no other private or public agency funding any NGO’s administration, or training any NGO’s administration, in Aceh.
That’s just swell.
Because it’s such a good model for local community groups, don’t you think?  To be shown that the world thinks that it’s impossible for a community initiative to succeed without international “help?”
And yet, I will betcha that every single one of those multi-million dollar initiatives had the word “sustainable” peppered throughout their narrative.

So during the last week in February, the women cocoa farmers of Simpang Jernih sub-district spent a week telling the facilitator and JMD's Field Officer how they wanted their farmers’ group to be structured, what their goals for the future were, what things were important to them (being kind to each other was one thing, so that went into the Bylaws too), and they were asked individually and in small groups what would happen when they were all alone with their farms and the free training and materials stopped coming.

 And they explained exactly how they were going to keep everything going. 

To paraphrase, they said “well, the free training is not stopping because now we know that our district has people in place that we can call for advice, and if we have a problem with the bookkeeping we have people who can help us out, and now we have a relationship with the village leaders and cocoa buyers and other larger cocoa farms so we are not alone and we will figure out what we need and we will get it.”

These women are not to be messed with.
I am sure that they can do whatever they put their minds to, bless ‘em.

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