The farmes themselves are the benchmark
Farmers in Germany have been organising themselves into cooperatives, farmers’ associations and machinery rings for more than 150 years. Social innovations can help make the farmers’ actual needs the benchmark.
Arthur Schopenhauer said: ‘If there is any recipe for success, it involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes.’ One of the areas in which this ability to show empathy is crucial is in the drive to reduce poverty. But it doesn’t come about of its own accord: national and local governments must take account of many different interests, and the needs of urban consumers often conflict with those of farmers and their families. Trading partners, however benevolent they may be, prioritise their products and profit margins; farmers’ welfare is only of secondary importance. And it is questionable whether western agricultural experts can even imagine themselves in the position of African farmers. Their advice is not impartial, because they are influenced by their own ideas about what the developing agricultural sector should look like or by the requirements laid down by funders.
Social innovations can help make the farmers’ actual needs the benchmark. Farmers in Germany have been organising themselves into cooperatives, farmers’ associations and machinery rings for more than 150 years. This enables them to more effectively assert their own interests in dealings with market partners and policy-makers; it also puts them in a position to organise services cooperatively and in ways that meet their needs.
Social collaboration is recognised as an important aspect of the drive to reduce poverty. Civil society is a positive force in business and politics – but it is sometimes feared, or even regarded by those in power as a source of troublemaking and opposition. Yet democratic, grassroots, member-controlled organisations play an important part in development towards a market economy:
- The cooperative is a classic self-help institution based on the principle that by acting together, the group can achieve more than is possible for an individual. Unfortunately, socialist ideologies have left many developing countries with a history of a centralistic and often corrupt cooperative system that in some cases they are still trying to shake off. As they move forward, though, cooperatives are taking on a positive new role in a changed, democratic, market-based and profit-oriented economy.
- Member-led organisations that represent farmers’ interests are a social, political and economic force. Policy-makers and urban society therefore tend to take a critical view of them. This makes it all the more important to supplement classic development cooperation work between governments with action to strengthen these civil-society structures and enable farmers’ voices to be heard.
- Especially in Europe, machinery rings are a widespread form of cooperative mechanisation, providing individual farmers with low-cost access to modern and effective technology and promoting the cooperative organisation of work processes. In developing countries there is particular interest in encouraging technological adaptation that enables as many farmers as possible to benefit.
The basis of these social innovations is the principle of allowing people to take decisions for themselves – autonomy instead of heteronomy. In agriculture, organisations such as cooperatives enable local actors to participate in the globalised economy in an autonomous and self-determined manner. This results in farmers being perceived as entrepreneurs and taken seriously as such. Entrepreneurs are people who actively take responsibility for themselves and their business – no matter how small it is. Policy-makers and advisory services can influence the underlying conditions and provide assistance, but they do not have to bear the consequences of the decisions that are taken: these are borne by farmers and their families. Self-determination is therefore a prerequisite for the assumption of personal responsibility.
Self-determined and autonomous organisations that are controlled by farmers themselves are best placed to developed needs-appropriate services in rural areas. They can respond to local demand and hence adapt to farmers’ needs. When organised on an economically viable basis, they can also provide these services sustainably. Cooperative mechanisation is not adapted and sustainable unless it takes account not only of soil-related issues, climate and the environment but also of social structures and economic conditions
Outside assistance can only be supportive. It can put forward suggestions and ideas, but above all it must enhance the personal competence of individuals and enable them to assume responsibility for their own affairs. This is where the innovation potential of farmer-led organisations comes in. In building the capacity of farmers’ organisations, the Andreas Hermes Academy (AHA) therefore adopts the following principles:
- Cooperative action must be based on social networking. Within a cooperative the aim is that people should not only come to understand each other better but should also be able to explore their differences. If a cooperative is to be strengthened, it is essential that women and young people are able to participate on an equal basis in decision-making and benefit-sharing.
- Organisations that operate professionally work on the basis of strengthening personal competence and individual responsibility. Teamwork, joint decision-making, trust and respect can be learned and practiced.
- The systemic approach of the Andreas Hermes Academy is particularly well suited to enhancing personal responsibility. In this approach the solution emerges from the existing system. The experts providing advice see their role as being to generate ideas and act as coaches. They boost the skills of people in positions of responsibility within the organisation.
- One of the main aims of dialogue with the real-life agricultural sector in Germany and Europe is therefore to obtain ideas that are useful in one’s own setting and to learn from the successes and failures of others. Detailed knowledge of the functioning and dynamics of models that already work successfully can significantly boost development progress.
- The success of development cooperation projects is often diminished by the fact that they are time-limited and geared to single issues. A further constraint upon such projects is that they involve building structures locally. By adopting the coaching approach that has proved successful in the private sector and in organisational development, the Andreas Hermes Academy seeks to avoid creating parallel structures locally; instead it focuses on processes and on strengthening organisations’ own strategies and the achievement of their goals. This approach is flexible and based on selective intervention. The exit strategy is part of the method.
- Participatory forms of teaching and learning are rarely encountered in rural areas but as part of the drive to strengthen individual responsibility they are extremely successful, culturally adaptable and an indispensable aspect of the path towards entrepreneurial thinking and individual competence.
Conclusion: There is scarcely a branch of the economy that has faced such challenges as Africa’s agricultural sector. Simply imitating European systems is neither helpful nor sustainable. Social innovation is essential, both in international cooperation and as a catalyst of social and economic development in Africa. This is why we are helping farmers’ organisations to develop into learning systems with the farmers at the helm.