Trip to Troncones to see AWISH

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Pelicans on the beach at Troncones

In an earlier post, I wrote about my drive from Ciudad Guzmán to Troncones, in the state of Guerrero, which took me the length of the beautiful Michoacan coast. In this post, I want to write about why I went to Troncones, and a little about Troncones itself.

My reason for going to Troncones was to meet up with Michael Karp, a friend of mine and President and CEO of an organisation called ‘A World Institute for Humanity’ (AWISH). Michael lives on Lopez Island, in Washington State USA, about 40 minutes ferry ride from Anacortes, one of the most northwestern islands off the coast of Washington State. He was in Mexico at the beach at Troncones for a week of vacation with his wife, Anne. They were staying at an exquisitely beautiful beach-front house, called  Casa las Piedras. The house is owned by an American who rents three rooms there.

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The kitchen at Casa de Piedras

In fact, Troncones has become something of a paradise for a number of foreigners, mainly Americans, who have built houses on the beach, some of which also double up as boutique hotels. There is a wonderful yoga retreat center there called the “Present Moment” which has a great restaurant. I also ate some of the best seafood (pan-seared Ahi Tuna with mango salsa) I have ever eaten at the Inn at Manzanillo Bay. Being something of an expatriate colony, prices are much higher here then in other parts of Mexico. I stayed at Quinta d’Liz, a delightful small hotel with six individual bungalows on the beach, run by Luis, a charming and hospitable Mexican.

The office at Quinta d'Liz

The office at Quinta d'Liz

Apart from the opportunity to spend a couple of days on the coast, I was keen to renew contact with Michael and talk to him more about the work that he and AWISH are doing.

I first met Michael at Schumacher College in 1997, where he attended a three-week course on the “Ecology of Business”, which I was facilitating. All of the courses at Schumacher tend to effect people strongly, but this course seemed to have a special impact on the participants and forged bonds and friendships that still exist. Partly this was due to the quality of the three teachers involved – Paul Hawken, Karl-Henrik Robert and Jonathon Porritt – who were, and still are, three leading figures in the attempt to ‘green’ business and make it contribute to, rather than destroy, social and environmental well-being.

In relation to the significance of this course, Michael wrote that:

“Quite a few of the voting and ex-oficio board of directors of A.W.I.S.H or affiliates came out of those relationships.  Jorge Kanahuati, from Mexico, is a local example of a representative to the organization that can be traced to those compelling three weeks spent in Great Britain.”

In 1995, Michael set up AWISH – “A World Institute for a Sustainable Humanity”. Prior to setting up AWISH, Michael had worked all his professional life on anti-poverty and environmental issues for NGO’s. First in social work, then for different NGO’s in the field of poverty reduction, and then as an independent consultant working in energy policy and programme design in particular, and sustainability in general.

michael

Michael’s vision in setting up AWISH was to create an umbrella organisation that could support and connect different projects promoting sustainability all over the world. It is registered as an NGO in fourteen countries and states. Its mission is “to provide models and support for life sustaining activities that integrate solutions to poverty and the environment while fostering self-reliance”. The organisation has grown organically since 1995 to encompass over 100 projects in 40 countries.

The projects are very varied. Some are local and small-scale like the ecological rally I am coordinating in Ciudad Guzman, which has been run the last two years. Some are much larger in their scale and impact, like Michael’s work with energy programmes and policies that help low-income households, which, in the state of Washington, has led to a budget of $80 million USD being made available to help poorer income families with their fuel bills. Michael calculates that this project has impacted 270,000 households – which could make the difference for people in these households between being able to stay in their homes and pay their fuel bills, or face eviction and homelessness.

Part of the ecological rally held in Ciudad Guzmán, Mexico June 2008

Part of the ecological rally held in Ciudad Guzmán, Mexico June 2008

A particularly interesting feature of AWISH, apart from the scope and variety of interesting projects that it brings together, is the way that it is organized. AWISH offers a model of an organization that:

  • provides a virtual space for people in the field of sustainability to work together, which encourages networking and learning, offers technical assistance, and gives people in diverse projects and countries a sense of common identity.
  • enables its affiliate projects to fund-raise and manage funds, without needing the organisational infrastructure and having to spend significant money themselves to do this. A key role is to serve as a channel linking donors with different projects and, because of its track-record, assuring donors that their money will be well-spent, properly administered and evaluated. Acting this way, AWISH serves as a fiscal agent for donors to meet their criteria for accountability.
  • now has the capacity for people to make donations directly on-line, which can be tax-exempt in certain states of the USA. Donors range from 40 individuals who each give $600 a year to sponsor high school students in Ghana, to large foundations and government departments.
  • is run by a Board of Directors who screen and oversee the different projects that are affiliated. In general, Boards of Directors in NGO’s in the USA are very risk-averse because of legislation, which makes them financially responsible for the projects in their organizations. Michael, however, believes that because of the extent and urgency of the world social and environmental crisis, it is actually more risky to be overly conservative in relation to projects that have great potential to contribute to sustainable development.
  • is unique as an NGO in the way that it deals with the issue of control. Michael has evolved a successful organisation, where the different member projects are independent, and have complete control over their own decisions, but where the Board retains responsibility for the overseeing of the projects, which ensures accountability and protects the reputation of AWISH as a whole. This is akin to – but in practice more fully realised – Peters and Waterman’s concept of ‘organizations of excellence’ having simultaneous “loose-tight properties”. Nowadays it is more fashionably referred to as a ‘chaordic organization’.
  • has minimal overheads. It has no paid staff and relies on on private and governmental grants, fees for service work, and voluntary contributions to get work done. Michael receives no reimbursement as President and Chief Executive. He does, though, on occasions work as a consultant on projects that are part of AWISH. The money that is needed for major ongoing costs, such as the web-site, liability insurance and accounting services, is raised by recouping a small percentage of the money from grants that AWISH helps its member projects attain or by writing and administering its own proposals.

Finally, perhaps the most important feature of the effectiveness of AWISH as an organisation is its capacity to function as a network. It offers an overall framework within which its member projects can self-organize, connect to other people and resources, and retain autonomy. Like all human networks, it works because the relationships between people, rather than the structure of the organization itself, are strong. Michael has built the organisation up over many years through the contacts and relationships he has created and developed. Its success is largely due to the warmth of his personality, his passion and commitment to what he is doing, and his capacity to create effective trusting partnerships.

It is precisely this ability to form effective partnerships that is so problematic in Mexican culture, and which was the theme of an earlier post. In a future post, I want to explore further the challenges in creating similar network-based structures in Mexico.

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