Defining the organization
The economic benefits of inter-group cooperation are many. They include lower cost of farm inputs, better prices for produce, more people-power to solve common problems, and more market power to achieve economic objectives. But for inter-group cooperation to be effective, it must be well motivated, well organized and well managed.
There is no universal model for an SFGA. How an inter-group association organizes itself, and runs its affairs, should suit the particular capacities and needs of its member groups. The type of service the SFGA wishes to provide its members also has an impact on the way it is organized - for example, an SFGA involved in bulk marketing may be organized differently than a savings-and-credit SFGA.
In the beginning, the SFGA's structure will be fairly simple. It usually consists of a representative from each affiliated group, and a chairperson or SFGA leader who conducts meetings and manages the association. But as activities and member services begin to expand, the responsibilities of SFGA leaders will also increase. Later, it may be necessary to delegate some of their tasks and responsibilities to others, or to set up special task forces or service committees to manage the activities more effectively.
An SFGA is created and financed by all the individual members of its affiliated groups, i.e. the SFGA's "base membership". Its purpose is to provide them with valued services and benefits. Therefore, base members own and should ultimately control their association. The affiliated individual members - sometimes called the General Assembly of Members - exercise this control through periodic meetings with the SFGA management and, more frequently, through their group representatives.
The General Assembly of Members includes all of the individual members of the SFGA's affiliated groups. For example, in an SFGA representing six groups, each with five to 15 members, the General Assembly of Members would comprise between 30 and 90 people. For larger SFGAs - say, representing 10 groups - the total might reach 150 people.
The main responsibility of the General Assembly is to meet periodically to set overall SFGA policy. It usually approves or amends the SFGA's constitution, elects SFGA leaders, decides on member fees or the division of end-of-year profits, and reviews SFGA performance. At these meetings, the members review and discuss ongoing activities and the current financial situation, and question the office-holders. Proposals for future activities are presented for approval or modification.
Holding a General Assembly of Members means getting many people together at one time, and discussions may take some time. Therefore, meetings of the General Assembly are generally held no more than once or twice a year.
The General Assembly of Members elects a Management Team, i.e. leaders to whom it entrusts the day-to-day management of the SFGA. This team usually consists of a President or Chairperson, a Secretary and a Treasurer. In larger SFGAs, it is a good idea to also elect alternates for each post - i.e. a Vice-President Chairperson, a Vice-Secretary and a Vice-Treasurer - in case the principal officer gets sick or is otherwise unavailable.
To ensure some continuity of leadership from year to year, rather than a complete change each year, the length of each officer's first term may be varied so that elections of all officers do not fall on the same date.
Since the General Assembly of Members meets only once or twice a year, it is advisable to create a smaller decision making body to assist the Management Team in the day-to-day operation of the SFGA. This body - which we call the SFGA Board - is usually composed of at least one elected representative from each affiliated group. For example, in an SFGA made up of five groups, the Board would be composed of at least five representatives (one representative from each group), elected for a one-year period or less. Generally, each group is represented on the Board by its President or Chairperson, plus its Secretary or Treasurer. Each group representative is elected to represent and defend the interests of his or her own group at SFGA Board meetings and in SFGA activities.
The SFGA Board should meet at least monthly. It is a good idea to hold meetings on the same day of the week - e.g. the first Monday of each month, or every Monday if more frequent meetings are necessary. Meetings should be scheduled at fixed times, and the agenda for the meeting circulated in advance so that all members know what topics will be discussed.
The meeting place should be central to the area covered by the SFGA. However, to provide more transparency in SFGA affairs, the member groups might decide to host the meeting in their village or hamlet on a rotating basis.
As the SFGA develops and expands its activities, there may be need to assign some specialized tasks to other members, task groups or service committees. Task groups can lighten the burden of the Management Team, by giving it more time to focus on important management decisions. The task groups may be temporary or permanent, but to function properly they need to have clear mandates and objectives. (See Part B, Sections 1 and 2 for more details)
The success of an SFGA depends greatly on the capabilities and leadership qualities of the Management Team and the members of the Board. Therefore, group representatives and SFGA leaders must be carefully chosen. What qualities should these people have?
Group representatives are elected to defend the interests of their own group within the SFGA. Therefore, they should be honest people and good communicators, and have some experience in group management.
Those elected to the Management Team should have the same attributes, but also a wider vision. They should command respect, be good at building consensus and managing inter-group conflict, and have broad management experience. For example, the President of an SFGA should have some experience in dealing with local authorities and other important outsiders. In the early stages of SFGA development, literacy may not be essential for this post, in the long run it is.
The Secretary should have some basic organizational skills, be literate and able to keep accurate minutes of SFGA proceedings. The Treasurer should, obviously, be good at numbers, simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
There are always some expenses in running an SFGA. For example, paper, pens and record books must be bought. The SFGA Treasurer might have to buy a bus ticket to go to the local bank to open an account. Some small investment may be needed to get an income generating activity started. To cover these expenses, SFGAs normally require that their member groups pay some sort of membership dues. These dues may be paid once a year or once a month.
In addition, the SFGA may ask members to pay fees for the use of a particular SFGA service. Each group normally pays the same fee, but the SFGA General Assembly may decide to change to a proportional system in which the size of the fee is based on how much each group uses the service (See Part B, section 1 for further details).
A further point to remember here is that dues and fees provide income that the SFGA can then use to serve its members. The more solidarity and income, the stronger the SFGA.
In most SFGAs, decisions of the Board are reached through consensus, and no single group is allowed to dominate. Each group representative on the Board has only one vote, regardless of the group's size or importance. This is called the "one group, one vote" principle.
It is a good idea, when creating an SFGA, to tie voting rights to regular payment of member dues and service fees. In other words, if a group does not pay them, it loses the right to vote. This rule is made clear right from the start. In successful SFGAs, member groups learn to share the costs of collective action equally. There should be no room on the SFGA bus for "free riders!" As SFGA activities expand, a group's representative on the Board may become more and more involved with the day-to-day running of the SFGA, and have less time for his or her duties within the group. In these cases, the group may have to elect a substitute group Chairperson.
SFGA decisions are made in three main ways:
The base membership - acting either directly through the General Assembly of Members, or indirectly through their elected representatives on the SFGA Board - have the job of ensuring that the elected leaders and representatives act properly and do a good job. If not, they have every right to replace them with others who can do the job better. After all, they elect their leaders to serve group interests, not their own!
Inter-group decision-making runs more smoothly when there are rules and procedures recognized by all. If member groups fail to agree on procedures, the SFGA will reach decisions in a disorganized and inconsistent manner. A dominant group may try to make all of the SFGA's decisions, or the SFGA may even fall apart. Groups should be encouraged to develop democratic and effective procedures for decision-making. This can be done in four steps:
Step 1. The groups identify the kinds of decisions they will make together.
Step 2. The groups need to think about how much they value fairness and effectiveness. In the long run, democratic procedures will make the SFGA more successful in achieving its goals. But they can also slow down the decision-making process. Suppose, for example, that the SFGA Board has to make a quick decision but one group representative is away. Should the Board wait until the representative returns, and risk missing an economic opportunity? The IGP can provide the groups with examples of situations that could arise, and ask them what they would do. In that way, the groups will be prepared if those circumstances actually arise.
Step 3. The IGP can help the groups choose a method for making decisions. There are many different ways of reaching decisions, but the following are the main ones:
Step 4. Once the interested groups have agreed on procedures, it needs to record these procedures and the proposed SFGA's basic goals in a written constitution. The final constitution should be read aloud and discussed with the entire group, so that all hear and understand it. That way, members are more likely to adhere to the goals and procedures they have set.
SFGAs are relatively big organizations. Their basic unit for decision-making is the affiliated group, rather than the individual group members. Most decisions at SFGA level are made by the elected representatives of each group. Like members of parliament, representatives on the SFGA Board are there to defend the interests of the people they represent. Thus, decision-making is more indirect - a group representative at a SFGA Board meeting "decides" on behalf of his or her group members.
Families make rules to minimize arguments in the household. So do larger groups like SFGAs. It is always a good idea to establish some uniform rules and procedures for electing leaders, for defining rights and responsibilities, for running meetings and for decision-making.
Since members often forget what the rules are, it is a good idea to put them in writing. Normally, at an early stage of their development, SFGAs develop their own constitution or set of standard rules which are then approved by the General Assembly of Members. If the constitution needs changing later on, it can be "amended" by a special General Assembly meeting.