This blog originally appeared on Open Democracy.
By Rajiv Khanna
I knew right then I was going to be schooled.Thirty-eight of us, representing 24 organizations from six countries, had gathered in rainy Mexico City to design an investment fund that would re-imagine our economy—and our investment practices—with the concept of buen vivir at the center.
Buen vivir comes from Indigenous movements in Latin America and implies “right living” or life in balance with communities, natural systems and future generations. Our grassroots partners, financial investors, and adviser allies—all leaders in alternative economic practices—had joined the gathering because of relationships built up over time with my organization, Thousand Currents. They trusted us because we have a 30-plus-year track record of establishing respectful and productive partnerships with grassroots leaders around the world, and with those who have deeper pockets in wealthy countries.
But that doesn’t mean we knew how to build an economy that’s centered on love and equality. That was the challenge that emerged from the grassroots, and specifically, how to develop an investment fund that’s run on these same principles and values—in stark contrast to the mainstream of philanthropy, foreign aid, social enterprise and investing.
Most impact investment initiatives are centered on persuading investors from the Global North to lend money and ‘expertise.’ The accumulation of privatized wealth is then reflected in the centralization of power and control in philanthropy and social investing. That’s why we came together to design a fund that would not only provide capital to grassroots groups who had never had access to investment before, but also support donors in the US who are floundering in a broken, fear-ridden financial system.
In order to re-imagine finance in this way we asked: What if that economic power could be shifted to communities in the Global South? What if capital could flow in the service of well-being? That’s why I needed to be ‘schooled’ by Milvian Aspuac Con, the leader of an Indigenous-women led group called AFEDES, a long-term Thousand Currents partner in Guatemala. She went on to share what it means to “recover the deep love for life” after a long history of Spanish colonization.
In generations past, she said, her family lived well. Her grandparents produced food so they had enough to eat. Her grandmothers knew how to weave so they had enough clothes to wear, and what they needed for the house. They produced, sold, or exchanged the rest. They had little stress. They had a chance for recreation, to do other things besides work.
But in 1980, after the approval of neoliberal and “Green Revolution” policies in Guatemala, many multinational agribusinesses arrived to convince farmers that it wasn’t profitable to produce their own food, and that their land could produce extra crops and extra money instead. This, they said, was the ultimate goal. These companies got rid of trees and other forms of biodiversity in order to focus on cash crops like green beans.
As a result, Milvian’s community lost their traditional crops. Industrial agriculture meant that they had to buy seeds and apply for credit from these companies, trapping them in cycles of debt. Her family lost their way of life. In the end, Milvian’s father suffered bankruptcy.
“It must be the money,” she said. “My father lost the love of life and went after money. We are recovering from this…slowly.”
That feeling of loss—of substituting love for money—is common in contemporary societies, and it also characterizes the ways in which we usually approach the question of mobilizing finance for social change. We wanted to escape from these constrictions and develop a model that brought love and money back into a healthier relationship with one another, but this process proved to be much more challenging than we imagined.
Conventional attitudes toward money run deep—who has it, who controls it, and how many strings are attached to how it’s spent. Working through these questions became a year-and-a-half long process of co-designing a radically-different investment vehicle which would come to be called the Buen Vivir Fund. What we thought could be resolved in a week took many thousands of hours—2,934 to be exact.
That’s because we had to acknowledge that our own relationship to money was grounded in scarcity. Until we transformed that relationship—until we truly acknowledged our fears about money and inequality—we couldn’t build an investment fund that would run on different principles and result in wellbeing instead of profit or top-down control.
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