September 19, 2010
Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries, with GDP averaging about $900 per capita. It has 23 million people in a territory that would stretch from Georgia to New Hampshire to Ohio. They achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, then spent most of the next two decades in an intense civil war. This ended in 1992 but the country is still recovering. Two weeks after I visited, there was a series of food riots triggered by the government raising the cost of bread. Ten people were killed.
I visited Mozambique to report on the projects of the National Cooperative Business Association, for which I am communications specialist. NCBA is not a faith-based organization so my reflections today are not reflective of its views or intentions.
It represents all sorts of cooperative business in the U.S. – including credit unions, electric co-ops, farmer co-ops, food, housing and worker co-ops, as well as large marketing co-ops. We also do a lot of international development work, helping spread the cooperative model. Mozambique is our largest portfolio at this time.
Mozambique, empire and collapse
I want to focus on a part of the trip that does not reflect the whole country, but which resonated with the verses for this week: Because Mozambique was plunged rapidly into its new role as a colony for resource extraction, the 20th century saw a great deal of development that was not possible to maintain with the post-colonial economy. Even without the negative impacts of the war, there probably would simply not have been enough wealth to maintain the infrastructure created by the Portuguese. So while there are numerous new buildings and bridges, some quite fancy, there are also many places where things are falling apart.
Present slides of decay
One spot where the decay was especially intense was the Ilha de Mozambique, which was where empire first arrived. Moussa M’biki was an Arab sheikh who ran a trading post here, nearly 1000 years ago. So the Portuguese were not the first colonists. I imagine that this is what Jerusalem looked like after the collapse of the kingdoms, as found in the descriptions of Jeremiah (8:18-9:1) and the psalmist (79:1-9).
Calling and Resistance
In many ways we face our own exile, and so we should look for clues about how the last Exile was ended.
The story of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) is probably my least favorite of Jesus’ parables. I was told that I didn’t have to preach on all the passages and I was tempted. But at the last minute it fell into place: There were many connections between the shrewd manager and my hero of the Hebrew Scriptures, Nehemiah.
I was struck by something in our liturgy today:
1 We pledge to care for your creation, and work for justice and peace, yet we pursue our own creature comforts.
2 We promise to respond joyfully to your call, but we fear what will be asked of us.
We seem to have this funny idea that answering the call is going to be unpleasant or lonely. We’re afraid of being another Jonah (usually failing to note that Jonah’s troubles were self-inflicted).
The most encouraging call I’ve found, and one that related intensely to how I see my recent trip, is found in the story of Nehemiah. He was a cup-bearer, with a job description I understand to include tasting the king’s food. He was trusted and his role was essential, but he was personally expendable.
Oddly enough, Nehemiah did not have a burning bush moment. Instead, (1:1-4) he hears his own calling in the plight of his people back home, and answered by sticking his neck out and asking the king to give him a vacation of unknown length and financially support his trip back to work on restoring his city. He apparently had no firm idea of what he was doing, and it wasn’t until he’d had a few days to poke around the ruins that he even approached the local leadership with his plan.
It was terrifying and overwhelming, sure, and in the early days of the calling Nehemiah was admittedly twisting in the wind. But look what God delivered, and how this connects with the grassroots organizing of cooperatives and the tactics of our manager friend. Nehemiah’s calling brought him into the heart of his community’s embrace.
Chapter three provides one of those lists of strange names that are so easy to skim or skip, but an essential pair of details is included in vv 9-12. Buried in the middle of the list, we find the leaders of each half of Jerusalem toiling alongside everyone else. One worked with his sons; the other with his daughters.
Nehemiah did become governor and had special privileges, but he and his officials declined their salaries. And when the collective work on the wall disrupted the economy, Nehemiah responded with debt forgiveness that was under pressure but ultimately voluntary. (5:6-12) I’ve noted that the percentage forgiven by the shrewd manager varies from one debtor to another, and it seems to me that this may be tied to what part of the debt was interest. I have no evidence of that, but it seems as plausible as anything else Jesus might cook up.
Nehemiah in Mozambique (with pictures)
The base projects are farmer associations, usually a few dozen men and women. For example, I visited Terra Natal, whose members have created an amazing and large vegetable garden with local herbs for pest control and water dug out of a dry riverbed. They grow carrots, tomatoes, cabbage etc. for better nutritional value and food security.
Associations are clustered into forums, with a few hundred farmers. I visited Forum Netia, which had built two sturdy buildings in a regional market whose infrastructure is otherwise mainly crude wooden racks. They have a warehouse and an almost-completed office that will include quarters for members to sleep in when they come from long distances for market.
To gain even greater economies of scale, we’ve helped to organize a trading company, which is partly owned by 200 associations with roughly 20,000 farmer-members. They provide fair-trade and organic certification for export, improving the incomes of members. They also have partnered with a local university to create a lab for testing for aflatoxin, which is a major problem in Mozambique. The lab helps identify production problems, reducing a major threat to the population while improving export opportunities.
They also have a few food co-ops, which provide small but well-stocked stores, at least one featuring a scanner-register. I also visited an artist association that runs a small workshop and showroom behind a public museum; members sit just outside carving under a thatched awning. Other projects include a doctor’s cooperative, which runs a medical clinic in the capital.
Finally, the Caixa Mulheres das Nampula have created a women’s credit union, providing financing for a wide range of small business opportunities. The leadership of this group is all local women, which is a stark contrast from many of the outsider-driven projects.
Where from here?
This model has already made an impact in Mozambique, although admittedly there is a long way to go. But there are models in which great progress has been made, showing scalability. I want to mention a couple that have been developed with a foundation in Catholic Social Thought.
One of these is northern Italy, where the province of Trentino has cooperatives as the dominant business model. About 2/3 of financial activity is through credit unions, and 90% of communities have a food co-op as their only grocery store. This has connected with other cooperative systems in nearby provinces to aggregate millions of members and create a brand that has a nearly 20% market share of all groceries sold in Italy. Some of these are organic and fair trade, sold at prices competitive to their conventional counterparts. I bought organic fair trade chocolate for the same price as a Hershey bar.
Meanwhile, in the Basque Country of Spain, a system of worker owned businesses began after the civil war and WWII laid waste to the province. From that ruin, they have created an economy with an average income 40% above the rest of Spain and Europe. They have their own social security, education, medical and financial systems, and really have created a whole alternative economy based on cooperative principles. They now have more than 120,000 workers, many are co-owners, and it is all voluntary. There is no coercion to join. It is all voluntary and in line with biblical teachings about how to order things.
As we saw in Nehemiah, rebuilding is a voluntary, grassroots enterprise. We have the models, and we can use them as a way to get to work restoring the city.