Assessing self-interest and problems
Whether an extension agent is working with a particular existing group or has been asked to help a group organize itself, or has identified the need for a group in a community in order to accomplish a certain goal, the first step in each case must be an assessment of people's interests and problems. This assessment identifies the motivations for cooperative activity. In the case of a simple form of cooperation like sharing a tool, the assessment effort is limited to a quick check to make certain the tool is available, the people involved are agreeable, and a way of sharing can be agreed upon readily.
However, as the type of cooperative activity becomes more ambitious, there is an increased need to study the unique interests of potential participants. Each farmer has a particular set of interests which motivates her to act. People cooperate for a variety of reasons, but, generally speaking, everyone participates in those activities from which they derive some benefit. This is a definition of self-interest. Therefore, cooperative activity must meet the needs of those who participate in order to succeed.
Just as important, however, is an assessment of the problems facing the community. Problems often lend themselves more easily to one type of solution than another. For example, when heavy rains threaten the tiny rice seed beds which thirty farmers individually have made on their own farms, the best solution to the problem is to ask each farmer to open the dikes of his or her rice field which lead to the drainage canal, or, if it is a real emergency, to rush around and do it oneself.
On the other hand, if a small common milking parlor is to be built for a village goat project, it makes sense to organize the livestock farmers to mix and pour the cement floor, build the walls and raise the tin roof together. In the second instance, the scope of the problem is greater than any one farmer's resources, and the benefit of the effort is to be shared among the farmers involved. Studying the nature of community problems, the extensionist can determine whether the effort involved in organizing cooperative activity is worthwhile, and whether cooperative effort is the best means of achieving the solution to the problem.
In order for cooperative activity to work at all, it must be both concretely linked to participants' interests and clearly the most practical way to solve a pressing problem. Otherwise, the barriers to cooperation - mistrust, rivalry, competing interests overwhelm the best of efforts. Cooperation, as inspiring and powerful a force as it is, relies entirely on the motivation of each individual participant. Without focused, committed personal motivation, cooperative efforts fail.
As part of this initial assessment, it is important to pay particular attention to hierarchical structures and interest groups already functioning within a community, for several reasons. There may already be a group which addresses the problem the extensionist and people have identified. Perhaps energy should go to enhancing this effort before embarking upon a new one. Secondly, without a stamp of approval from interest groups and leaders, a new cooperative activity cannot progress very smoothly and probably will not outlast the extensionist's presence in the community.
Knowing the other cooperative activities going on in a community, the extensionist can estimate the amount of competition there will be for participants' time. Also, existing groups are the building blocks for cooperation now and for more sophisticated forms of cooperation in the future. Often the easiest way to solve a problem is to follow the local pattern of activity. (A representative list of interest groups in rural communities is included as an ILLUSTRATION and TOOL following this INTRODUCTION.)
Almost every group at work in a community will have leaders. As the extensionist is observing groups as they work, she should discern who leads them and how that leadership works. This yields clues as to how to organize the leadership of a new cooperative activity, and identifies potential leaders who might be able to participate in the new work.
Finally, it is important to remember that things change. People's interests, the membership, existence and even the leadership of groups are dynamic and open to change. Initial assessments must be constantly updated to gauge these shifts.
Field notebook entries made while assessing the people's interests and problems in a community where a cooperative peanut marketing venture is contemplated:
Existing groups in a community may include:
elected local authorities
a hierarchy among women (or men)
an agricultural decision-making group
male and female societies or clubs
informal work groups
thrift, credit or savings societies
A partial list of problems that lend themselves to cooperative solutions:
• marketing ag products
• transporting ag products or inputs
• grain storage
• irrigation, wells (water systems)
• farm land development
• building construction
• other public works projects (bridges, dams, etc)
• wholesale inputs procurement