My big trip is over. And although I’ve had a long weekend (and a very long flight) to digest what I’ve seen in Mozambique, I know that I’m only beginning to grasp the work being done there by NCBA’s CLUSA International program.
After all, how can I hope to summarize something that has been developing for 15 years, and which now employs several hundred people? I spent less than a week there. While I think I grasp the program’s significance, I am humbled by the challenge of describing it.
I’m reminded of a trip I took last fall to visit Mondragon, the massive Basque system of worker cooperatives that now employs well over 100,000 people and is one of Spain’s largest enterprises. At the time, I wrote, “Trying to understand Mondragon is like trying to understand Belgium or something; really you can only begin to do it by living there for a year or three.”
I’m not saying that CLUSA’s work in Mozambique is as significant as Mondragon, but I do believe it is close to that: More than 80,000 farmers have better access to resources and markets, and there are promising signs that CLUSA’s work has contributed to the creation of what may be a sustainable development model for Africa and the world.
And by “the world” I do mean to include the United States.
Shortly before I went to Mozambique, I had a chance to speak with Papa Sene, a longtime CLUSA staffer now based in Ghana and serving as CLUSA’s overall coordinator for Africa. He talked of a “CLUSA methodology” that is based on providing questions rather than answers, and focusing on what people have rather than what they need. I’ve done enough co-op development in the United States to instantly see these insights as tools I could have used.
Mozambique’s struggles are obviously more intense than ours in the U.S., but we are more alike than different: Farmers struggle to sell their crops and watch their kids move into overcrowded and expensive cities. The poor are denied access to credit or charged usurious rates (although at least Mozambique seems to have avoided the scourge of payday lenders). Cheap imports and corporate dominance distort the economy and prevent the creation of vibrant local markets. And – I have to add – co-ops sometimes miss opportunities to support each other through the principle of cooperation among cooperatives.
Similarly, Mozambique’s solutions look much like ours, as people who are excluded from economic opportunities help each other out. Farmers benefit from pooling to purchase inputs and market produce. Financial co-ops provide credit and control to members. Young people take an interest in farming once they are shown a way it can actually work. Ideas are percolating about how to build on past successes and create linkages to support a vibrant cooperative movement.
As I described in last week’s posts, there are lots of reasons for hope in Mozambique, despite its underdevelopment and poverty. Not only is CLUSA making progress toward addressing immediate economic needs; it is helping to mentor an independent and self-generating cooperative movement. This is essential, because once Mozambique is up and running CLUSA would be able to shift its attention to another target, applying the lessons learned. Even more intriguing, Mozambican cooperators would be able to do the same thing, perhaps with their neighbors in Zimbabwe.
The most tantalizing part of CLUSA Mozambique is the extent to which its work is building local capacity. I can’t overemphasize the importance of that piece: One of the most challenging things about cooperative-based economic development is that it is not possible to give people a co-op. They have to want it and build it themselves. CLUSA hasn’t answered all the questions around this key challenge, but its work is an important contribution to the ongoing study of how cooperative development can be extended.
Can we move from the level of helping start individual co-ops, to helping start co-op associations, to actually helping start entire national cooperative movements? I’m not certain this can be done, but I think that Mozambique is a key place to look for answers.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to take this trip, and want to thank everyone who made it possible – both the staff in our D.C. office and especially the folks in Mozambique – without your work I wouldn’t have had much to report! I also want to thank CUNAverse for the chance to blog about the experience so its readers can hopefully gain something useful from my little adventure. This gave me a good opportunity (and discipline) to record my thoughts regularly, which will be instrumental in the next phase of writing a report for the next issue of the Cooperative Business Journal. Finally, thanks to everyone who read and commented.
Read previous “On the Road with NCBA” posts: