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What does it mean to be a Thousand Currents “senior partner”?

By Jennifer Lentfer, Director of Communications, and Katherine Zavala, Latin America Regional Program Director


Lasting, transformative change takes time. It is not linear. It is often unpredictable. And it requires efforts at multiple levels.

Listen, we’re up against industrial agriculture pushing broken food systems around the world. We’re up against polluting, extractive industries. We’re up against rising global inequality.

In order to accompany our partners responsibly through necessary cycles of change to meet these challenges, our grants aren’t tied to an artificial project timeframe. We provide long-term support that follows mutually-established goals and outcomes, an important shift in the modality and mindset away from traditional international philanthropy and aid. This approach enables us to build trusting and respectful relationships with our partners that extend beyond the time-bound transaction of resources and results.

Recently three international organizations released a report on “aid exits” from partnerships with community-based entities given the desire to support locally-led development. But given our global shared challenges, how does this make sense?

Where we differ from the organizational approaches included in the report is that we do not define our grantmaking nor our support to our partners as an “intervention.” Intervention – it’s a funny word. Nobody we work with in the Global South needs to be interfered with or rehabilitated or cured.

And this is why our relationships with partners don’t end, really. Rather, they evolve, because our partners don’t abandon their commitments to food sovereignty, alternative economies, or climate justice. So it only seems fitting that we don’t abandon them.

When our partners are the leaders and when our partnerships are contingent on deep relationships and solidarity, money is not the defining factor.

Our senior partnerships may or may not include funding, albeit no longer on a regular or ongoing basis. Yet the relationship and the advisory function to Thousand Currents and our other partners remains. We continue to rely upon the stability and strength of our senior partners, and vice versa, based upon mutual agreements that outline new roles/relationship, which we discuss and develop together for at least a year prior to transition.

In many ways, it might not be totally accurate to say we have an “exit” strategy. But Thousand Currents does have a “shift” strategy, as demonstrated in our relationship with Desarrollo Económico y Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas (DESMI, or Social Economic Development of Indigenous Mexicans).

Thousand Currents’ partnership with DESMI began in 1992, with funding for a shoe-making project. By the end of our formal funding relationship in 2014, Thousand Currents provided general operating support with no conditions or strings attached for how DESMI would use our funding.

We continue to support DESMI as our senior partner, as they do us. We continue to connect them to funding opportunities and awards, as well as conference opportunities. For example, DESMI recently received a two-year grant from the Agroecology Fund, via a joint partnership with Grassroots International and Thousand Currents. When the earthquake hit Chiapas last year, Thousand Currents again supported DESMI with discretionary relief funds. We also supported the publication of a collection of essays on DESMI’s experience written and compiled by the organization’s first General Coordinator Don Jorge Santiago entitled, Economía política solidaria: Construyendo alternativas.

Last year, DESMI planned and hosted a global learning exchange on agroecology with 120+ participants, including 18 Thousand Currents partners from 11 countries. Their vision, skill, and leadership made it all possible. This year, Maria Estela Barco Huerta joined us as faculty at the Thousand Currents Academy.


Senior partners remain a part of us – offering continued guidance and solidarity. We remain interlinked in our efforts to bring about societal transformation, because deep and long-term relationships carry on.

Day to day, DESMI brings over 200 Indigenous communities together in the Northern, Southern and Highland regions of Chiapas. Collectives are the starting point for the formation of what DESMI terms political consciousness. This involves generating systems of production, distribution, marketing, and responsible consumption based on ethical principles, social justice, and ecological justice, known as the solidarity economy. DESMI also runs 10 agroecology centers created by the autonomous communities and that serve as demonstration farms. DESMI walks and learns together with farmers to organize and sell their products collectively at scale directly to exporters.

Thus, collective action, alternative economies, and food sovereignty remains a fundamental part of the construction of the Lekil Kuxlejal-Ich’el ta muk’ (Buen Vivir, or the good life in the Tzeltal language) with DESMI.

So why would we want our partnership to end?!

That’s called grassroots brilliance, and it doesn’t stop when the funding does.

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