Could you tell us about your background? How did you get started in development work?I have a background as social worker from the 80’s in Sweden. Due to being bilingual (Swedish Finnish) I mainly worked with migrants from Finland who due to high unemployment in Finland were seeking a better life in Sweden. And this led to work with other migrants and refugees in their adaptation to life in Sweden. The Swedish NGO Save the Children Sweden organized trainings on how to work with unaccompanied refugee children and by getting to know this organization – I found out they were recruiting a social worker to work in Mexico and Central America early 90’s. My job there was organizing psychosocial support program to refugees, conflict affected internally displaced population and children affected by war.
Since then I have worked only in development work. 20+ years with Save the Children in various locations – Latin-American and African countries. First 10 years after coming home from Mexico my arena of work was children affected by armed conflict and forced displacement- but 2005- 2014 as country director and regional director in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Latin America.
Due to the merging of 29 various national Save the Children organisations 2012 into Save the Children International – a mega-organization with 14 000 staff members – I felt that I wanted to be part of a smaller, more manageable organization. I did know about the work of We Effect (Save the Children Sweden shared office with them in Costa Rica and I had a good friend working as country representative for We Effect in Nicaragua) -and when seeing a vacancy as regional director for Eastern Africa – I applied. My background working with advocacy, human rights and large operations was attractive for them – but in the job interview there was some doubts about my experience of rural development work. This was saved by saying my parents were farmers why I grew up in a farm and do know how to milk a cow.
What has been the nature of your engagement with cooperatives and farmers’ organizations?Well, this obviously has been something I worked deeper in the last 6 years since joining We Effect. Earlier by working with people affected by forced displacement and/or living in refugee camps I would really have had use of what I know now on saving and loans groups, cooperative models for starting business etc.
The 5 years spent in Eastern Africa the majority of partner organisations were farmers cooperatives – but we made sure that the farmers got access to the expertise of other partner organisations working on gender equality, financial inclusion, advocacy and environment.
What do you think is the role cooperatives and farmers’ organizations can play in eliminating rural poverty?I have seen so many examples of small holder farmers being totally dependent on middle-men who pay way too little for the farmers products – and the difference being a member of a cooperative that has more power on both negotiation the prices, by selling larger bulks but also organizing transportation of products to a buyer who pays more, and improved value chain avoiding loss of production. Farmers need knowledge on climate change adaptation – being alone one does not get new knowledge – there are too few extension workers giving advice. But I have seen the cooperatives organizing training with our help by model farms for learning, by home visits etc. Solidarity with solidity is the secret.
You have been working with We Effect in different capacities. What is the relation of WeEffect to cooperatives?We Effect was founded by the larger Swedish cooperative companies and organisations 1958. We are still owned and supported by the Swedish cooperative movement. They form our board of directors, give us guidance and ensure all knowledge gained 100+ years ago when cooperatives helped Swedes to get out of poverty – can now be used in our work today. This also means that our partners we support are mainly cooperatives or other member owned organisations.
You have worked in Latin America and Africa. In your experience how is cooperative development different in the two regions?Civil society in Latin America is more of a popular movement than in African countries. There was also in the early 2010’s several countries in Latin America where former civil society activists were elected as presidents – opening up good dialogue on poverty reduction with larger inputs from governments compared with the reality in many African countries. However – there is now a backlash in Latin America where in several countries more populistic governments are ruling – and seeing civil society more as enemies, doing what they can to shrink their space.
But there are many similarities – we can learn form each other. Our Latin America program as been more successful on the right to adequate housing via housing cooperatives and our programs in Eastern Africa more successful on the right to access financial services- we ensure cross regional exchange and learning. Also, the cooperative development platforms of ICA ensure we learn from other organisations experiences. And this has suddenly been much easier due to Covid-19 pandemic where the world has suddenly shrunken due to all online meetings.