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Here’s how we can a build sustainable economy without relying on mega-projects and big corporations. 

Watch out, though, it’s a messy process.

The Coast’s article last week regarding mutual support (Two decades of world-class delusion, July 11) is spot on. Nova Scotia has a strong and vibrant history of mutual support based on study clubs, cooperatives and credit unions.

But here’s the challenge: cooperatives have struggled. Small and localized has a hard time sustaining itself in a globalized world. Cooperativism alone isn’t enough to run a business. And charity and subsidy have lousy track records.

So we throw up our hands and turn to big megaprojects and big business. All we have to do, we rationalize, is make enough profit to simply invest back in social or community. This is wealth redistribution or “trickle-down,” an approach that has an even lousier track record worldwide than subsidy.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Here are some practical examples from a recent conference at the Coady Institute and the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University, the source of the Antiongish Movement.

EcoTrust is a BC organization that has created a locally owned sustainable seafood company and a coastal licence bank owned by a group of BC hook-and-line groundfish companies. It is trying to duplicate that in the forestry sector, with five First Nations communities.

I met a woman from Tennessee who works in a small rural community foundation that uses a land trust model. The community-owned trust owns the land and leases lots for 99 years to people who then own the homes. There are community spaces and members are supported in permaculture or self-sustaining farming practices. The trust acts as developer keeping home ownership and rentals affordable for the long-term.

Push Buffalo is a network of neighbourhood agencies that have reclaimed vacant lots and created community centres and affordable housing that focuses on green and sustainable building and retrofitting. The process is driven by locally-owned financial ventures including but not limited to a cooperative.

What do these and examples tell us about mutual support models that work?

Embedded in community.
In all of the cases, community members and neighbours invested individually and collectively in these schemes both with sweat/passion and financial capital.

Leverage externally.
Importantly, the initiatives didn’t stop at the community. They leveraged external support and financing to build on the community space. These supports were strategic and complementary, not drivers of the process.

Non-profit projects, set funding formulas and government-run programs often don’t last---they don’t have the local ownership to steward for the long run. Governments and program staff turn over, but neighbours invested in their communities don't.

Tackle scale.
Small is beautiful. It is a mistake, though, to take that maxim without understanding scale. We need different types of structures, small and large, some exclusive and some comprehensive.

In these cases, citizens played a central role. Scale was achieved through coalitions, a mix of community members, businesses, government agencies and educational institutes. Smaller associations kept the right scale for connections and mutual support. Networks were able to be sustainable and keep policy in check.

This is new ground with no blueprint. It requires endless, frustrating hours of finding the ball, passing the ball, financing the ball, discussing what the ball is in the first place and what it is becoming. It means every two steps forward may mean one step back and two to the side. It means every group and every brilliant, creative and gutsy contributor will lose ground somewhere on something. Decades of difficult dialogue and deliberation by people who genuinely want to be around the table together.

It's messy and time-consuming. And is it worth it? Absolutely. It’s what it’s going to take to turn this ship around. Or at least point it into a more interesting sunset.

Here’s the thing. These economic models succeed not because of money. It’s because they’ve found the right place for money in a scheme that is based on the kind of ownership that comes from genuine and lasting connections. Broad-based change is about imagination and deliberation---not, it turns out, money.

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Nanci Lee is a community finance analyst, adult educator, poet and north ender who works with savings groups, cooperatives and credit unions. She is not ashamed to be a come-from-away or to work with money.

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