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No Free Lunch

Good teacher, bad practitioner

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” We’ve probably all heard that saying, originally traced to a 1903 play written by George Bernard Shaw. It may be unduly disparaging of teachers but, sadly, seems quite apt to the Philippines as a country. We’ve been good mentors to those around us, yet have been sorry underachievers, even laggards, in the very things they learned from us.

I had a recent dinner conversation with my friend and former colleague Dr. Eulogio “Eloy” Castillo, a veteran of the Los Baños-based Agricultural Credit and Cooperatives Institute (Acci) from its early days in the 1960s. He got assigned as training coordinator back then, he told me, when a group of South Koreans came for training on agricultural cooperatives. “What, they learned about agricultural co-ops from us?” I exclaimed with surprise. I recalled how I had been deeply impressed with South Korea’s National Agricultural Cooperatives Federation (NACF) in a 1990 visit there to speak in a conference on farm policy. Conference participants learned then how strong the farm cooperative movement was in Korea. We were toured around the NACF facilities, including their huge wholesale terminal market just outside the capital city of Seoul. We were briefed on how the NACF-owned National Agricultural Cooperative Bank was effectively providing for the credit needs of small Korean farmers through their co-ops.

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Today, the NACF has retail and wholesale outlets for its members’ products throughout South Korea. In 2012, it counted 260 small and medium-sized Hanaro (“we are one”) Marts, 270 meat and dairy marts, and 16 large Hanaro Clubs (with another 18 lined up), all selling only Korean fresh produce and processed products. The last were set up to compete with foreign-owned hypermarkets selling imported farm products. The Goyang Hanaro Club just outside Seoul sprawls over 13.5 hectares, with a wholesale market, retail hypermarket, packing and distribution center, and a large flower market. It was established in 2001 with a total investment of 130 billion Korean won (KRW), with 44 percent coming from the central government, 37 percent from the local government and 19 percent from the NACF, which manages the facility. The NACF’s distribution centers and Hanaro Clubs made an aggregate turnover of KRW1.555 trillion (around P65 billion) in 2012. About 30 percent of profits flow back to local communities.

As for the National Agricultural Cooperative Bank, it has since evolved and expanded into the NongHyup (“farm co-op”) Financial Group, a conglomerate that includes savings, commercial and investment banking, life and nonlife insurance, investment and securities, futures, capital and asset management services. NongHyup Bank claims in its website to be recognized as the safest bank in Korea and the most advanced cooperative financial institution around the world.

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By all indications, the NACF has been hugely successful in serving the financial and marketing needs of Korean farmers, and has certainly come a long way since some of its people sought training from our own Acci experts in the 1960s. Back then, they wanted to learn from our state-created Farmers’ Cooperative Marketing Associations (Facomas), which were prominent in our rural farm scene. Through Facomas, farmers obtained loans from the Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Financing Administration, set up in the 1950s to counter the spread of the Communist insurgency. Eloy Castillo, now administrator of the Cooperatives Development Authority, recalls the glory days of the Facomas, many of which he had helped capacitate. He was later to be told by an officer from the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd., now the largest fertilizer cooperative in the world, that our Facomas were their model and inspiration when they started in the 1960s. Strike two. It embarrassed him to inform the Indian that our Facomas had long been gone. Studies have since attributed their demise to politics, corruption and mismanagement. At present, our own farm co-op system is marked by a few islands of success amid many failed or struggling ones.

There’s clearly much we can learn about growing the agricultural cooperative system from the Koreans, possibly the Indians as well. Ironically, it seems that both looked to us as mentor when they started out half a century ago.

In 1992, the United Nations Development Programme convinced me, along with Presidential Assistant for Countryside Development Daniel “Bitay” Lacson and Center for Community Transformation founder Ruth Callanta, to do a brief study tour in Thailand. They wanted us to witness how that country was monitoring poverty effectively with their BMN (Basic Minimum Needs) system, wherein village officials routinely kept track of every household’s living conditions using some two dozen visible indicators. We came back impressed, hence embarked on our own MBN (Minimum Basic Needs) poverty monitoring scheme, since renamed the Community-Based Monitoring Scheme or CBMS. We thought we were copying the system from Thailand—until we were informed that the Thais originally got the idea from an old proposal at our own Department of Social Welfare and Development. We had the right idea, but it took Thailand to learn it from us and put it in action first. Strike three. And the “strikes” don’t end there. It’s well known that Thailand and Indonesia had their leading agriculture scientists trained by us at UP Los Baños—and look where their agricultural development is now relative to ours.

Alas, our country seems to be condemned to being a good teacher, but a bad practitioner.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, column, practitioner, teaching
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