“Our buen vivir was taken 500 years ago when the Spanish colonized our lands and people.” Milvian Aspuac Con, AFEDES, Guatemala.
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.
We also had to re-imagine our relationship with time. Maybe our initial plan and timeline needed more than a week to kick off, we thought, but with the outstanding leadership, initiative, and ideas of the people we had gathered together we could surely complete the co-design process of the Fund within a few months.
We assumed that many elements of the Fund’s design could be identified in virtual conversations prior to the gathering, and planned to complete the details of its operations face to face. However, it was only when we came together in person and built more trust and authenticity among us that the most important questions, ideas, and challenges arose.
Prior to the gathering we had essentially been assuming a mainstream investment model as a starting point, and then a process of proposing changes to that design. But when the conversation started our grassroots partners pushed us to depart completely from these mainstream models. Instead, they wanted to start with designs that already placed collective wellbeing at the center, like community-led savings and lending circles in their regions.
In order to learn the basics of each other’s approach to investment, savings, and enterprise, we realized that we had to deepen the sharing among grassroots partners and financial investors. We also extended the co-design process to more than a year to ensure that adequate time and care could be given to this vital opportunity for a completely different way of thinking about money and social change, one that was firmly centered in buen vivir but also financially feasible and sustainable.
Those living in higher-income countries have been conditioned to the commodification of time and the short-termism that’s created by mainstream financial investment practices. I too was frustrated, and our mindsets meant that many of us felt the pressure of time in the design process. Yet as Don Jorge Santiago reminded us, one of the advisers of the Fund who’s based in Chiapas and is a decades-long practitioner of the Solidarity Economy: “Are you committed, as this is what it takes when you are creating something entirely new?”
Ari Sahagún, another participant, shared how important it was to trust the process: “Bringing underrepresented voices into a previously-constructed process that was never designed by or for them simply does not work,” she told us. Hence, we needed to create a new and rigorous process that would uplift the determination, agency and leadership of grassroots communities. We learned that we had to prioritize this new process over expediency or efficiency.
Time did pass, and money from the Fund is now flowing. We started with one million dollars in investment capital and US$200,000 in grant capital, distributed between eight visionary projects in five countries—from a Members Assembly that puts ‘on the ground’ expertise on an equal par with those who put up the money, to loans where the investors shoulder the risk (because they can), to borrowers making a solidarity contribution of their choosing back into the fund after their project ends rather than being required to pay any interest.
In these and other ways the Buen Vivir Fund is designed for any growth (or more properly, abundance) to be passed forward to the next set of groups. But this isn’t just a matter of technics or operations. As I reflect back on my participation in the design process I can see how my own family’s relationship to money is also changing. My wife is currently in a two-year training program that has resulted in a significant decline in our household income. There has been the usual stress and anxiety in our conversations about wants and needs. And yet, at the point last year when our household income was at its lowest, our annual giving to causes we care about was at its highest.
We are continually reconsidering what wellbeing and a ‘good life’ means to us, and we are appreciating the abundance of wealth in our lives in the form of health, love and joy; relationships, community and family; and food and the stunningly beautiful Bay Area that we call home.
As it turns out, Milvian was right, and not only about her own experience or the design of the Fund: ‘It’s not just about the money.’ Confronting our fears about scarcity—whether within our own families or the global economy—means focusing not on wealth accumulation for the few but on the good life for all. The next challenge is to extend this realization to the mainstream of philanthropy, social investing, and foreign aid that currently runs on the opposite set of principles.