Mata Revisited

This week I will be returning to Mata los Indios, the small batey in Monte Plata where I spent spring break, assessing poverty, digging a foundation and attempting to bring micro-finance to a poor, rural population.  As of when you read this, I will be on my way back to that place of no internet, bucket showers and crushed frogs.  I had been itching to get back since getting here, but now it seems like it is so suddenly upon me.

Recently, we got the green light from Esperanza to continue moving toward micro-credit in Mata los Indios and the surrounding area.  I know we had been told before that it was a good chance we would have success, but being back in this country and not knowing the verdict had me itching.  Going into bateyes again with so many failed borrowers had me feeling a little hopeless, a little worried that nothing could ever change in Mata, even if we helped provide he intervention from Esperanza.

Now that we’re returning to Mata, I feel like we all have a firmer grasp of what we’re doing, why and how.  We’ve seen people both better and worse off than those in Mata, those who have been able to succeed in improving from that standing and those who have failed.  Our survey-creation, -delivery and -evaluation skils have improved with experience.

Right now I’m just looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and getting to work on my project’s business plan, so that maybe I can accelerate some assistance and learn a little in the process.

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 much personal attention from a CEO.  We had classes taught by Professor Shaugnessy about Social Business, Social Entrepreneurship and Micro-credit, divided up into color groups (Rojo!) and dove into a survey created by Dtra Lourdes of Esperanza (a Cuban!), which was meant to be used with current and former Haitian borrowers.  In order to speak with these associates, we went into the field in Santiago, Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo Norte y Los Alcarizos which are areas of particularly low retention rate of Haitian borrowers (in La Romana they do just fine).  We gathered over 200 interviews that covered information like literacy, numeracy, and sending remittances to Haiti in order to make recommendations to Esperanza about how to retain more Haitian borrowers.

What I can tell you now is that we have no idea.  Statistically, there is no reason why these borrowers aren’t doing well, and that just doesn’t sit well with me (or pretty much anyone else here.)  Our presentation to Esperanza of our findings was therefor uncomfortably short, and based on observationally-based recommendations backed up by outside research of the micro-credit industry.  While I was discouraged by our findings, the six presenters (4 NU, 2 intec) did a great job.  I was particularly impressed by all the people who did not present but wanted to and still stepped up to do the behind the scenes work.  In the end, I think Carlos and the Esperanza team were impressed by our work, and I’m glad someone at their organization will be digging deeper into the issue in the coming months.

Luxury and Insult

Sometimes we forget that the totally normal things we do at home can be seen as totally not okay elsewhere.  Before going to Egypt, we were asked not to go running through Cairo.  For one thing, between the smog, the traffic and the craterous sidewalks, it’s quite dangerous.  And for another, it’s insulting.  Some people ignored this advice and ran anyway.  In their mind, no one has the right to tell them not to exercise.  But in the mind of an Egyptian, running is an ostentatious show of wealth.  For hard-working poor people, the idea that you have so much energy and time that you can exert yourself for fun is downright insulting and bizarre.

In Benin, students came to me upset about the behavior of an otherwise excellent student.  He was such a nice guy, such a good friend, that they couldn’t believe his parents had raised him, “that way.”  Confused, I figured out they were referring to his smoking.  Like in the Dominican Republic, very few people can afford cigarettes in Benin.  For someone to smoke them often in public would be akin to flashing expensive watches and purses in an American slum.

Whenever traveling, there are special considerations that vegetarians need to take to ensure their health and suitable meal options.  It’s important, though, to remember that vegetarianism (while some people firmly believe it has the moral high ground) is a way of being picky.  This means that additional limitations beyond the lack of meat can often be incredibly difficult to honor, and are generally seen as demanding.  The concept of vegetarianism is upsetting for many of the world’s poor, as they can’t imagine ever being so wealthy that they could afford to say no to protein.

Sometimes, it’s just rude to insist on being vegetarian.  For example, when the women of Egbe Misogbe (the women’s micro-enterprise collective I volunteered with in Benin) offered us a humble meal of tilapia, rice and vegetables, I attempted to force our group members to eat everything on their plates.  While the meal was humble to us (and a bit gross to me, as I dislike seafood in general and food that watches me eat it specifically) it was a huge sign of thanks from them.  Tilapia is their country’s specialty, they took almost no food for themselves, and they even got us beer and American soda with ice (ice!) that took many miles of walking to get.  I understand the reasons for being vegetarian, but I found it wildly impolite for students to refuse to eat that meal, especially for those who simply claimed vegetarianism as a quick out.

Body language can also being misinterpreted easily, and I have found that crossing your arms over your chest is a clearer and more negative symbol abroad than it is at home.  It can show disinterest, or sometimes is seen as a very confrontational signal that you disagree with the speaker.  In Cuba’s Santeria celebrations, crossing your arms and standing still shows that you are not welcoming the proceedings, and our lack of movement even conveys your desire for the celebration to not go forward.

Before I went to Egypt, I had already studied the Muslim world quite a bit and thus knew that some men may not shake my hand, and not to show the bottoms of my feet.  I like to curl up in chairs, and while i was conscious of not crossing one leg over the other, it didn’t occur to me that tucking my feet under myself was not okay either.  Another thing I didn’t realize was that my common practice of going out with wet hair (due to my aversion to hair dryer’s and my tendency to be late) was actually a signal to many that I work as a prostitute.  Quelle horreur!

The point is, we can’t all foresee the many ways we can possibly offend and confuse those we meet on our travels, or even at home.  But, with some research we can avoid potentially uncomfortable situations for ourselves and our hosts.  And, perhaps more importantly, if we carry ourselves with an air of open-mindedness, approachability and respect, perhaps those we encounter along the way will be more likely to inform us of our foibles in a friendly, gentle, helpful way.

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 basic financial literacy will improve he businesses of the associates without causing blame to be laid at the feet of the MFI.  If MRIs were really just worried about empowerment of their borrowers and protecting their relationships with them, they would engage in non-intervention training methods.  I would instead posit that resources of the financial and time variety are the true reason for the lack of training, along with the general reluctance of associates to spend more time on training.

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 difficult time raising their station.  Someone who does not have secure savings cannot plan for the future, is subject to robbery for the cash they most likely store in their home.  Sometimes, human rights is not just about the theory but about pragmatic on the ground approaches like selling water instead of giving it away in order to make it sustainable and accessibly.  In this instance, I think our modern world and insistence on capitalism makes access to credit and savings (in one fashion or another) necessary in order to live a dignified, secure life.

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 roofs, and yet we are welcomed with the frenzy warranted to celebrities and religious figures.  bearing that in mind, there is a natural inclination to declare these people (especially their children) as happy.  They sing, they dance, they hold our hands and climb on our shoulders.  They are tiny and adorable, as long as you don’t ask too many questions or look at anything other than their smiling faces.

It worries me sometimes that once we begin to see those in the bateyes as happy, we can excuse ourselves for forgetting them or for not doing enough to help them. But then you think about how awful a life without occupation would be.  How much a toothache hurts, and how bad that would be if it just went on for days months or years.  How unfulfilling to never advance or have a chance of advancing, to be illiterate with virtually no chance of ever changing that fact.  To not have a country to call your own, to be subject to arrest at any moment, to be hated in the most insidious and subversive of ways:  neglect, condescension and collective denial.  I’m sure there is happiness in their lives, and in a way that is perhaps enviable because it involves tradition, community and pastoral cliches.  But it is not the lasting happiness and sense of content that comes from autonomy, advancement and stimulating work.

what we’re doing for Esperanza will (i hope) help their borrowers, especially those of Haitian descent or nationality, but we can’t know that for sure.  it’s very abstract, what we’re doing.  We’re not sure yet that our results will be worthwhile, or what they’ll say, if we will have good recommendations based on that data, or if our recommendations will be taken.  I think social entrepreneurship can be harder than straight charity because (at least for us) we’re not seeing results.  There is no school to take pictures in front of, or bags of food to hand over.  Just us and our clipboards, fumbling through Spanish, French and Kreyol, trying to make sense of hundreds of years of oppression, racial tension, poverty and industry.

WLs

Sacrifice has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.  How much should we do it, is it meaningful, is it imperative.  While sometimes I think Farmer goes overboard, it seems selfish to question making personal sacrifices when there are lives on the line.

I tend to agree with Paul Farmer on one thing: the token sacrifice (such as wearing a Che shirt or going without shoes, both of which I often do) seems largely irrelevant if it is an isolated “act” of solidarity with the world’s poor.  However, I do admire people like Michael Franti who partner a small personal sacrifice like his barefootedness with genuine good works, philanthropy and publicity for his causes.  On many poverty alleviation-style trips, there have been many…conversations about finishing one’s food.  I agree that we should not waste food, and do my best not to.

However, I don’t think we can be punished for failing to eat the massive helpings others often serve us against our will, and I think hounding someone to keep eating when they’re not hungry is damaging on so many levels.  Only a fit person who has never had personal food issues would think that yelling at someone that they have to eat whether they want to or not was somehow okay.  But getting back to my point, even if the rest faded away, I still think that most of the time, my cleaning my plate won’t make anyone any less hungry.  Neither would not eating food at all, unless I had a specific goal and a lot of publicity.  Otherwise, it’s just a way or making this about me instead of about the people I claim to be helping.  It becomes an empty gesture.

Of course, there are differing circumstances.  For example, in Cruz Verde I think Tim is totally in the right to lecture people to serve themselves small helpings and go back for more if they’re still hungry.  In this instance, what we do not waste will in fact be eaten by our Sister Island Project colleagues, who wait, hungry, until we have served ourselves.  And I understand people like Claire who quietly live through discomfort at the site of food because it is so emotionally charged for them when in a place like this.  Furthermore, in my book, neither Tim nor Claire is a WL (White Liberal, a term of Farmer’s).  They take real, tangible steps to alleviate poverty.

I am always wary about veering towards becoming a WL, about centering this experience on myself to the detriment of those with whom I work.  Wary of being a fake ally,