This month we decided to suspend the account of one of the most well-known cooperatives in Morocco. While the decision was difficult to make, particularly during the holiday rush, it was necessary because we believe that transparency is a cornerstone of Anou’s community.
As we’ve written about many times before, access to limited resources coupled with illiteracy and low-education levels all contribute to the challenging and opaque environments in which artisans frequently work. As a result, many artisans have little awareness of what happens within their own artisans groups, associations or cooperatives. Even when artisans have the awareness to see something wrong, they’re often too afraid to expose the issue so it can be resolved. This makes it frighteningly easy for artisans to be taken advantage of by anyone, including members of their own cooperative.
Sadly, this was occurring in the cooperative we suspended. We had long suspected that a small group of women within the cooperative were embezzling money, or depending on your perspective, covering the ‘costs’ of operating the cooperative. However, we never had evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that money was in fact being stolen.
During the last several months, we have continued to tighten up our transparency efforts. This has included actively reaching out via phone calls to artisans tagged as the maker of specific sold products to confirm how much they had received as a result of their sale. In addition, multiple cooperative members became comfortable enough to reach out to Anou artisan leaders and alert them to problems within their cooperative. All of this enabled us to paint an accurate picture of what was happening within the cooperative.
The first thing we found was the true story behind two slightly incorrect custom orders the cooperative had recently made. The president told us that the incorrect designs were the result of having the items handmade. The customer of the rug graciously accepted them as they were. However, in reality, the president instead bought similar rugs from a local market and pocketed a 400% markup.
We also learned that the members within the cooperative were unaware that they were only being paid 50% of the price listed on their online store on Anou. The officers claimed that the other 50% went to cover the costs of the cooperative. While it is none of our business how a cooperative distributes their revenue, it becomes a problem if none of the members are aware of this information nor agree to it. In this case, the members never knew about this information nor could they, or the officers, clearly explain what the costs were of the cooperative. As the officers fumbled trying to sort out their finances, it was discouragingly obvious that the 50% was exclusively going to three members of the group.
These actions not only violated the values of Anou’s community, but threatened the trust the community has built with the thousands of customers who have purchased from Anou’s online store. Anou’s artisan leaders quickly decided to suspend the group.
In preparing to suspend the cooperative, we investigated the situation further to outline what conditions they would have to meet if they wanted to rejoin the community. During our investigation, we found that the cooperative had not held a general assembly in over two years. Annual general assemblies are a legal requirement for Moroccan cooperatives. It is at these meetings where members agree on how payments are distributed within the cooperative. With no general assembly, there was no clarity on where their sales money was going and no one could be held accountable. This makes it incredibly easy for money to disappear.
We decided that if the cooperative wanted to rejoin the Anou community, they would have to hold a general assembly and establish, in writing, what percentage of their sales from their online store would go to cover the cooperative’s expenses. All the members would be required to sign it, and an Anou artisan leader may be present if requested. After a rather intense meeting, the artisans finally agreed to meet these requirements. Once this occurs, we will reopen their store on TheAnou.com and follow up with every artisan after they make a sale to hold them accountable. At the time of writing, the artisans still have not held their meeting but they have told us it will happen soon.
The Deeper Problem
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that this cooperative is not the only cooperative where similar problems may be occurring. In fact, it is fairly easy to find these groups. We have learned that cooperatives where members are exploited often sell via fair trade businesses where honesty and equality are never measured and enforced down to the member level.
One of the challenges then is how do we continue to grow transparency across Anou’s community if the cooperatives that have the most connections with fair-trade businesses will be the ones most likely to leave the community rather than to reform how they work. We’ve reached out to some of these fair-trade businesses to discuss having them source their orders through the Anou artisan community where transparency is enforced. Doing so would enable the business to guarantee that their payments were getting where they are supposed to go. However, a recent fair trade business declined. They said that by teaching artisans to sell independently instead of through intermediaries, Anou is teaching artisans how to “work outside the system rather than within it.”
When you Google the name of the cooperative we just suspended, you’ll find several articles written by fair trade businesses that canonize its female members. The articles paint the members that were embezzling money from the cooperative as examples of leadership and the steady hands that are working to preserve their craft and heritage. These statements are not false, but they generalize artisans into simple caricatures who need to be saved. This isn’t surprising because when you combine limited on-the-ground knowledge with the primary motivation of driving sales at incredibly marked up prices, these fair-trade businesses tend to gloss over the fact that artisans are no more or less human than the people who purchase their products.
The artisans that contributed to their cooperative’s suspension are not criminals nor saints. Rather, their actions were simply the result of the opaque, challenging environments they work in. Creating transparency in these environments is complicated, so complicated that the only individuals capable of setting the rules to create transparency is the artisan community leaders themselves. This is why having artisans leading the Anou community is so important. Even today, Anou’s leaders are still sorting out how to create a truly transparent platform that works for all artisans. While it will take the community time to perfect the Anou platform, we couldn’t dream of a better system to create.