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Esperanza and Our Project

For the past two weeks, a group of 28 Northeastern students and 20 students from intec (instituto tecnológico de Santo Domingo) have been working with Esperanza International to figure out why the retention rate of borrowers who are Haitian is so low.  This has involved many late nights fighting over survey questions or  analyzing data, and many long, hot days in the field. To start, Esperanza is an MFI (micro-finance institution) in the DR as well as in Haiti.  They are a Grameen Bank replicant (remember Yunus and that Nobel Prize?) which means they make their services available to the poorest of the poor, especially women.  Women are targeted due to their usual exclusion from traditional banking services and for their direct impact on the well-being of the family. ie men tend to spend the money on vices and consumables, whereas women take care of their children’s health and schooling first and are better at planning for the future of their businesses.  In order to get small loans without collateral, these women are grouped together in fives, and are responsible for the other group member’s bi-weekly payments if they show up without sufficient cash.  Finally, the loans are for business-use only, have interest in the neighborhood of 30% on a declining balance, and are typically for a six-month period.  Also, for those interested, Esperanza is a Christian organization.  But that’s for another day. So back to our project.  We were given this assignment by Carlos Pimentel, the CEO of Esperanza.  I’m told this sort of interaction between students and MFIs is unheard of in the industry, especially with so...

Business Training

It is the expected common practice in the micro-credit industry not to advise client on their enterprises in a direct way.  Every time I learn about MFIs, this is a huge controversy.  The reasoning behind this is that if the business fails and it  was recommended by the MFI, the associate would blame them and quite possibly sever ties.  Further, it is less empowering to the borrower. Unfortunately, whenever I hear these arguments I can’t help but feel that they are cowardly.  After spending time in the markets and bateyes seeing countless Haitians all reselling the same clothes to the same, saturated markets it is hard to believe that MFIs are doing their best to help the poorest the poor if they watch impotently while this continues.  Moreover, isn’t there greater empowerment from learning how to create a successful business and following through, rather than slowly failing in a business that was doomed to fail from the start? While many MFIs boast financial training programs (which donors love) they are largely brief and lackluster.  In the case of Esperanza, the training is for five days, entirely in Spanish (despite the 40% of their borrowers who are Haitian) and also includes the overall orientation to Esperanza, as opposed to just business training and financial literacy. Consider that many of their first-time associates are illiterate, innumerate and have been through very few years of schooling. In my mind, there is a lot of room for training that does not involve direct intervention into the business type or plan of the associate.  For example, numeracy levels could be improved, .  Bookkeeping and...

What is a Human Right?

Freshman year in all my classes there was The Marine.  Old for a freshman and a fellow  International Affairs major, he was always on time and often wore his mil backpack.  Manifesting himself as the booming faceless voice from the back of the class, the professors always seemed overly eager to both hear and honor him. One of his biggest stands which professors bent over backwards to not disagree with was that electricity is a human right.  His experience in the Middle East had made this overwhelmingly obvious to him, but he had a hard time pointing to the piece of international human rights legislation that backed him up.  Personally, I think he was getting more at the need for light and perhaps the ability to cook in a safe and effective way, neither of which has to necessarily involve electricity.  (I would now argue that electricity is necessary in order to honor several clearly-defined rights, such as to food security and bodily security i.e. protection from rape and other forms of bodily harm that befall women who collect wood at night.) Now that I’m spending so much time with micro-credit, I’m  starting to understand how their services can be human rights, especially when we’re discussing a certified bank like Grameen.  People without access to insurance, credit and savings a become vulnerable to all manner of incredibly harmful and undignified situations. These can include, but are not limited to: begging prostitution/human trafficking food insecurity losing access to their children Someone without the ability to borrow money, something we do all the time in the US, would have an extremely...

Happiness and Poverty

People ask all the time if the poorest of the poor are happy.  Actually, they don’t.  ask me if the people of country x are happy, most likely without realizing where they fall on the poverty scale.  I’ve been learning to distinguish between incredibly similar levels of poverty, which at first glance are indistinguishable since they’re all so devastating compared to the America many of us live in.  When we think of poverty, it’s fast food and metal detectors in schools and no health insurance.  Poverty in a batey is no food all day, no high school diploma even if you manage to walk to a school 3 km away and no access to health care. The things we look for to distinguish amongst the levels of poverty: Tin roof vs. cement walls vs. wood How healthy the dogs are (are they pets or a nuisance?) distance in km to a clinic or school presence or absence of power lines, televisions, microwaves, washing machines etc the color of children’s hair, the presence or absence of pits in their teeth, their age as compared to their apparent height and weight distance from the closest city, paved road, or bus stop When we go visit the bateyes (which are current or former sugar plantation barracks, mostly inhabited by people somewhere in nationality limbo between Haitian and Dominican, and largely forgotten by the world) it’s often hard to process.  Kids come running and singing, or sometimes people spit at our feet.  There is an overwhelming sadness to seeing so many grown adults with no work all day and so many caved in...

Joy is More Sustainable than Duty

“If you feel like it’s a duty or hard work to help the poor, don’t do it.” It was the first time I had ever heard someone say that many people who help the world’s poor do so because they find it fun, interesting and challenging. I smiled in spite of myself, and felt like I was looking up to see an old friend for the first time in years. Whenever people ask why I wan to do this, I’m at a loss. Yes, I do feel some sort of moral obligation to humanity, but there are a lot of ways to fulfill that obligation. I think my neighbors who deliver meals and spend time with isolated friends in nursing homes are also doing good work that improves us all as a species. I view those who lead campaigns to pick up trash at local parks in much the same way. So I could easily help people in a different manner, and in the past I have, from teaching CCD to leading free tours at the State House to being a good granddaughter. And yet, I feel compelled to do this, to do more. Or, more accurately, to do different. Hearing Professor Shaugnessy say that the people who do the best job helping the world’s poor at the people who love it, thrive on it, are good at it has, in a way, let me out of the closet as someone who is happily, selfishly trying to save the world.  Or at least some small corner of it. So here’s the thing: I’m good at this stuff, and it...

Sacrifice

Ive been thinking a lot lately about Paul Farmer and sacrifice.  While he continually states he is not the model (and, as Jim Kim says, if he is the model, we’re all screwed) it’s hard not to feel that farmer wants us all to do what he does, and that perhaps we should. And what exactly has PF done?  He’s spent the last few decades founding and running Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante, treating patients for free in Haiti’s central plateau, drastically cutting into the effects and prevalence of AIDS and TB, raising tons of money and speaking all over the country, and getting his degree in medical anthropology. But he’s also spent them turning into a man the love of his life could never marry, barely spending time with his child and the woman he did eventually marry, often unwittingly slighting his close friend Jim Kim, spending no more than a month or so in any place other than Haiti, flying across the world on a weekly basis or more, running himself ragged and almost dying of the very disease he so often treats. Paul gave up much of his youth, family life, friends and certainly any semblance of a normal medical school career.  Of course, it would be hard to say he should have kept those things and instead let thousands (or more?) die, remain in prison, or catch MDR because he didn’t work tirelessly on a new protocol for treating it. So to what extend does a person need to give up everything in order to help others and succeed at it?  Are you allowed to have...

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