Category Archives: Social Entrepreneurship

Mata los Indios

This cement housing is typical of bateyes, as it was once used as barracks for sugar cane workers. Now, whole families live in them. This blue section is three separate homes, with a third one not pictured.
This is a playground.
The sweet, quiet girl who came and hung out with me while I was super boring and wrote. She sat on my lap and snuggled up with me for the afternoon. She barely even let me get this picture.
Town Leadership, and a Sister Island Project rep on the left
Ubiquitous trash on the rocky road to Mata
Ninos playing basketball

Apres moi, le deluge

I awoke last week to a facebook update from Angie: Mata is underwater.  Mata is incomunicado.  My reply: come mierda.  Eat shit.  Sort of the Spanish equivalent of the f-bomb.  For Mata los Indios and other bateyes, a flood, even for a short time, can be devastating.  It means the truck with potable water cannot get through, so people go thirsty or get sick from what few water sources they have near their homes.  It means crops die, so what little subsistence farming they have is easily swept away.  It means no new supplies get through, so commerce stops.  For those who did have the money to buy food, the current supply will run out or rot soon enough.IMG_0711

 All that week, I had been working on my project plan, my final paper for the summer 1 classes that I sometimes forget are attached to this trip.  Grades seem like an after thought not because we aren’t learning, but rather because we are so very busy doing it.  We had the option of doing a research paper or some sort of proposal that would concretely help the DR and the populations we saw.  I can easily think of research IMG_0676topics, and love doing that sort of work, but for the first time in my life, a research paper seemed cowardly.  It seems imperative that I at least outline a plan for how to do something, to accomplish some goal toward the alleviation of suffering, even if it is slight.

I don’t know if my proposal is good, or big enough, or business-y enough, and the troop of freshmen who vow to adopt the idea in real life will undoubtedly surpass my goals easily.  But when I think about these faces, think about how muddy the path was in early June, which is just the beginning of the rainy season, it seems like the only option I have is to try.

When we (the capstone class that went to Mata over spring break) first heard about the flooding, we had a collective light bulb moment: build a bridge.  Duh.  How hard can that be?  And if we can’t do it, Engineers Without BIMG_0731orders (EWB) will just get right on it.  Claro.  As so often happens with international aid (because let’s face it, that’s what this is), we weren’t seeing the whole picture.  It isn’t one river that swells and must be forded.  In fact, where that is the case, there already is a bridge.  The problem is that the entire walk, which takes 20 minutes by foot when dry, becomes muddy and flooded.  In June it was taking us about 40 minutes to walk it, and it was even deemed too dangerous for Claire, in that she might slip and fall and agitate her injury.  That must have been so hard for her, to not go back to Mata .  But they were right—we were all slipping, sliding and falling the whole way.  Nonetheless, I probably would have thrown a fit if I were told I couldn’t go back.  In fact, I went every time I could to Mata.

Field Work

Put on:

  • sneakers: anything flip-floppy will get muddy or you’ll feel the rocks through them as you scramble up hills
  • shorts or a skirt that come to the knee, so you attract as little attention as possible.  Even though the people you interview will be wearing less.  and even though covering up more DOES NOT correlate to less attention.  more on that later.
  • deodorant.  so much deodorant.

Leave at home:

  • any flashy jewelry, sine you’re already a big enough target (for…?)
  • revealing clothing, since we’re in a Christian country with a Christian organization and a bus full of gringos is weird enough as it is

Get in a van with 14-16 other people, even if it’s only meant for 10-12.  Hope there’s air conditioning as you turn on your ipod and look out the window.  Try not to get sick from the stop and go city traffic, the lack of lanes and the pock-marked country “roads.”  When you get to a batey:

  • Leave your camera and your water bottle.  Children will want them and you probably don’t have enough to share.
  • Bring notebook, pen, and a translator if you can’t do the job for yourself.  Be prepared for conversations across 3-4 languages.

Days are long, people are unhappy, and the questions get as tired as you will be by the end of the day. You get covered in dirt and sweat and clothes stick to skin as skin sticks to vinyl and we all stick to each other as we bump along the dirt roads.  This particular survey is hard because most of the people interviewed are no longer affiliate with Esperanza.  Many of them think we can offer loans, or that we are interested in deporting or arresting them.  Some cry, some yell, some won’t speak to us.  Some talk about us when they think we can’t hear them, some hug us, some want pictures, some glare.  Almost all ask when we’re coming back.  And the answer is never.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Structure

This Dialogue has been reminding me more and more of the Egypt trip every day.  And it must be so, because people who aren’t here have been commenting that it seems like I feel the same way about this Dialogue as that one.  After Esther asked me about the trip that has had the most impact on me personally, I began thinking about it more directly.  I’ve loved all the travel in between, but this trip seems to align the ever-fickle planets of academics, leadership, location and group members.

I love the books we read.  Why the Cocks Fight is maybe a little boorish and poorly written, but is nevertheless entirely necessary as it’s the only real history of the island of Hispaniola as a whole.  I can’t understand why there aren’t more books about this topic, and why the author (Michelle Wucker) didn’t arrange the book chronologically instead of thematically.  But alas, we are able to bypass so many basic overviews of DR/Haiti history when we are on site visits or in the field, and instead move on to deeper issues.  With Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (DR) and The Farming of the Bones and Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), we have been able to see the contemporary lives of Haitians and Dominicans at home and abroad, and just how important history, race, nationality and poverty have been to their lives.  I highly recommend all four of those books, and those two authors in general.  Nothing could make the 1937 massacre come to life as much as Farming of the Bones, to the point where I know flinch when I see the word perejil.

It seems that being informed about where you go is a basic form of respect, much like learning hello, goodbye and thank you in the native language.  It is a small token of effort and understanding that is overwhelmingly appreciated by every local population I’ve encountered thus far.  When Haitians learn I’ve read a few Danticat books they take me more seriously, and raise the intensity level of the conversation.  While I’m not in expert in the languages, history and culture of Hispaniola, at least I’m making a good faith effort.  I love that in this group, we named our traveling parrot Tousaint (l’Ouverture) and no one has to ask why.  When Junior references “the election thief” in Wao, no one is unsure about whom he is speaking.  We are better travelers, better students, and better…helpers? because of the reading we’ve done.

Beyond that, it is invaluable to my education.  Our discussions are more enriching, due in part to the books as well as to the overall attitude of this group.  I’ve mentioned before that we have a large proportion of freshmen (1 in 4 students on the trip) but that has only been an asset.  On the whole, the group mixes well and frequently, and is full of people who are dedicated to and excited by social business.  People are practical and enthusiastic, and have their head in the game.  Drinking hasn’t been an issue, no one complains about our long or fruitless bus rides, and everyone has taken the workload in stride.

I was a little nervous after our spring break Capstone trip, because there were a lot of areas for improvement.  I enjoyed myself, but I had various concerns and often felt like an outsider.  It turns out that the issues worrying me also bothered the SEI leadership, and are simply not present on this trip.  The readings were required before and during the trip, the intentions of our trip have been clear since the beginning, and everyone in this group is amazing.  On the whole, this is one of the best run trips pf which I have ever had the pleasure to be a part.

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.

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.