Microcredit, Perspectives and Inspirations - "Change ONE life, change the world ENTIRE."
After two weeks in Belize and just one week in the Dominican Republic (DR), the students, staff, Professor Shaughnessey, and the 6 guests (long-time Social Enterprise Institute supporters who joined us for a week in the DR to see the Field Study in action), all gathered on the terrace of our hotel for a special reflection session. We all offered our personal reactions on the impact that the trip has already had on us, and even how it has changed some of our future goals and aspirations. Thinking about everyone’s comments and piecing it all together in this post has really enabled me to process what I have seen, accomplished and learned, and will hopefully give you all some second-hand insight into what we have experienced.
We are learning about Microcredit and seeing it in Action.
Dahlia told us all that growing up living next to poverty in Guatemala, she saw many non-profit organizations fail, and it is refreshing to see the hope and success that Esperanza’s microcredit program is bringing to so many in the DR. Interviewing countless borrowers and hearing how their loans have impacted their lives, how much they love Esperanza, and the solidarity and support they have gained from their bank groups really has proven to us the viability of microcredit to help the poorest of the poor.
One topic mentioned in class became clear to us in the field very quickly - poor does not equal stupid. All the borrowers have been extremely smart and resourceful - helping us realize that they are not poor because they are not smart, but rather because they lack opportunity, which Esperanza is working to change. Sam talked about how microcredit’s fame for empowering people to use their own intellect along with business to bring themselves out of poverty was coming to life more and more each day in the Dominican Republic.
Not only are the Belizean and Dominicans we have talked to in the field intelligent and savvy business-people, but also they are incredibly warm-hearted and generous. Although this was not a surprise, Gwen relayed how she was so impressed and humbled by the overwhelming kindness of everyone we met, despite their race, class or poverty levels. They did not shun us as being stereotypical “rich Americans.” We were always welcomed with a chair for each and every person, usually a cold beverage, and constant warm smiles, despite our interruption of their day.
Jen reminded us about one of our biggest lessons gained from Muhammad Yunus, “the Father of Microfinance,” who endeavored to flip banking upside down when he began lending to the poor who did not have collateral. She emphasized that we need to remember Yunus’s determination to not accept the way things are, to look for innovation, and to take risks with new ideas to solve problems. Microcredit would not exits if Yunus did not do just this.
Ryan notably admitted, with many heads nodding in agreement, that one day in the field was for him a learning experience that is equivalent to, if not better than, 1000 days of class work and lectures. This program has proved to all of us the common belief that 90% of learning is listening, observing, discussing, and later performing, and we are so lucky to be getting a first-hand peek into so many aspects of microcredit in the developing world.
We are growing as leaders and expanding our perspectives.
John emphasized that the sense of leadership all of us have displayed has enhanced everyone’s learning – whether it be in small interviewing groups translating Spanish, or stepping up to head the organization of a service project. Ryan echoed this by stating how he has seen cooperation and teamwork result in real impact– by the borrowers in their bank groups and by all of us throughout our service work and project preparation.
Dan described how seeing so many people's different perspectives on life has really opened his eyes to how much more there is for him to learn about the world. Most of us could relate to Dan's belief that this trip has been more than an inspiration, and how lucky we are to have the opportunity to experience these other perspectives and apply them to everything we are learning at Northeastern.
We studied extensively in class about the importance of metrics and measuring impact, as it enables an organization to confirm for themselves and their supporters that they are doing what they say they are (i.e. reducing poverty and creating jobs). However, when in the field, we noticed that not all levels of impact were necessarily measurable, such as a women’s sense of empowerment upon opening a business.
Tim, who is currently researching social impact at his Co-op, stressed, “I had become so used to seeing impact academically in numbers, that I didn't appreciate the intangible impacts that no metric can prove, like the confidence a woman gains from a loan.”
Building off Dan’s comment, Tim went on to describe the amazing feeling that comes from connecting perspectives, whether he was dancing with a borrower outside her store or talking to kids about baseball in a Haitian sugar cane batey. Interacting with the people in these simple ways actually had phenomenal results – enabling many of us to better imagine us all belonging to an interconnected “global community,” where we depend on each other.
We are constantly inspired and filled with hope.
Gretchen said that all the stories she has heard from borrowers continuously reinforces the hope and inspiration that she thought a microcredit organization like Esperanza could bring to those living in extreme poverty.
Jeremy talked about how he has been inspired to put more effort into spreading awareness about the conditions of the poor. Yet, he does not only want to tell people about what we are doing here with microcredit, but also recognized that he himself wants to change his character and way of life on a day to day basis. He wants to remember everything he has learned this month, including being humble and appreciative of everything we have.
Andrew has been motivated by the passion we are seeing everyday in the borrowers and Esperanza staff, and said how much he appreciates the power of choice most of us have. Using this power to help others is where he hopes to take this motivation.
Shelagh has been inspired by the instinctive and natural way in which all the borrowers are so quick to share any small amount of wealth they may have with each other. One thing we noticed throughout our interviews was that no borrower said they had competition, because they all just help each other stay afloat. This was an eye opening perspective for many business students who are drilled marketing skills and taught to outsmart the competition as a vital business strategy.
Stephanie surprised us all as she described her new goal to go home and raise money to build a school for the many children in need that she has met in her Mother's home country, the Dominican Republic.
Sarah H. told us all that one completely unexpected outcome of this trip for her is that after understanding the influence of development work on children, she now knows she has to work with kids in whatever life path she chooses.
Ulysses, who just graduated with an International Affairs major, admitted that this experience has altered his thinking completely. He is now motivated to get an MBA to deepen his business knowledge and apply it to helping the poor.
Shilpi told us that this program and Professor Shaughnessey’s mentorship have been an inspiration for what she can and should be doing - dedicating time to assisting the poor. After talking to Professor and realizing that he spreads his knowledge and time in so many different directions (teaching, legal counsel, coaching basketball, the SEI, family, etc), she was reminded that we should not make excuses or undermine what we are capable of. She then recited a quote to help us remember that we do have enough hours in the day to help others: "Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein" -- H. Jackson Brown
We are preparing to extend our reach, spread the word, and live in a more socially-minded way
Many of us may not dedicate the rest of our lives to microcredit or directly to advocating for the poor. However, one of the main results of this field study is that a seed will be planted in each of our minds so that no matter what we choose for our careers, we will incorporate social impact and serving the less fortunate into our lives.
Jackie G. talked about how sometimes its just simple awareness that people in our country are lacking. After she told her parents about KIVA.org and that they could lend money for a poor person in the Dominican Republic or another country to start a business, they were so excited and signed up right away.
Lia went further with this, and challenged us all to reach out and tell our friends and family about what we are doing here with Esperanza. To go beyond saying that it was just a school trip working with the poor, but to actually explain what microcredit is and how it is really helping the poorest of the poor. Lia has virtually kept her Mom involved with everything we've done through daily Skype phone calls. Now her Mom, a non-profit organization consultant, is inspired to learn more about Esperanza and dig deeper into microcredit. She hopes to eventually bring microcredit to the poor sectors of her home country, Argentina.
One of our guests, Tom Spittle, threw out a homework assignment – to embrace the ever-growing world of social media with our own awareness campaigns, and to write one email about our experience. By posting our first-hand knowledge of microcredit on blogs and facebook and sending one email out to our many friends and family, he assured us that the people who care about us will automatically take an interest in the things we care about. Consequently, we will be an important part of extending microcredit’s reach past the small margin it is now touching.
One of the last to speak was Lucas, who conveyed to us his thoughts while incorporating our prominent historical surroundings. He said that the famous explorers and conquerors Fransisco Pizzaro, Hernando Cortez, and Christopher Columbus bridged the new and old worlds, changing our lives today in ways so fundamental we cannot even begin to understand what our world would be like without them. All three of them lived only a couple blocks from our hotel in the Dominican Republic. Lucas said he believes that there may be three people in this group right here today who will have just as great an impact on alleviating global poverty.
From there, another one of our guests, Denise Discenso, talked about how impressed she has been by our performance and dedication throughout the week, and how she does believe there are more than 3 people in our group who will have an enormous impact on the world. By supporting the Social Enterprise Institute, “I am investing in you, not a program. You are the hope,” she said. She reflected on our worlds’ history being over 4 billion years old, and how we are such a small piece. For this reason, it is out duty to not only do good in our lifetimes, but also, to set the direction for good to be continued in the future.
Personally, each day of this program has pressed me to test my limits, build my business acumen, and strengthen my leadership, so that I can be a powerful agent of social change.
As the field study in Belize and the Dominican Republic comes to and end, it is clear that the Social Enterprise Institute is fulfilling its mission within all of us, creating a next generation of globally aware business leaders.
Although we will all take something different away from the program, no one leaves without being changed in a profound way. As the SEI strives to accomplish, we have all been opened up to a new perspective on life, while at the same time gaining responsible business knowledge. Now, we are ready to continue learning how to use all of this in a sustainable way, to truly build our interconnected and social-minded global community, and to grow the movement to eliminate poverty.
Reflecting on the Terrace
Story from the Field - Candelaria, a Social Entrepreneur
One of the most savvy, passionate and empowering women I met in the field was Candelaria - a strong and natural entrepreneur. A mom and grandmother at age 63, she proudly told us that she left her husband because what she wanted most was to succeed and having him around was just in the way.
Officially trained as a nurse, Candelaria now sells and administers birth control products from the company Profamilia. With her loan from Esperanza, she buys sets of medicines and contraceptives from Profamilia every few months, and then people come to her house to buy whatever they may need. She even allows men to come late at night in case they are too embarrassed to buy contraceptives during the day.
And even beyond this big job, she finds herself collecting glass bottles to sell and cooking food to sell to neighborhood construction workers. She supports herself and her kids, all on her own, while at the same time helping those who need access to birth control. Although she lives in a very poor neighborhood and described herself as having very little before she started her own businesses, she is now thriving with many thanks to microcredit and Esperanza.
Candelaria and her Business SignCandelaria, Students and Loan Officer
More stories and updates still coming :)
"Peace is not the absence of Violence, rather it is the presence of Justice"
.... and Microcredit is one of the routes to justice? This is the idea that most of us came into this field study with, and the challenge is to see it at work and make our own conclusions on the power of microcredit and how it can be improved in the Dominican Republic and the world.
We have had the unique chance to see Microcredit and Village Banking in "real life" and how the microfinance organization (MFI) Esperanza facilitates it throughout several regions of the Dominican Republic. Esperanza is doing a phenomenal job coordinating our groups with all the different communities so we can all experience each setting (rural, urban, Haitian communities) and interview as many borrowers as possible to evaluate how their businesses are running and how effective their training was.
Interviewing a borrower in a Haitian batey
A happy borrower and son in front of her store
Summing up 4 days in the field in a concise and complete manner is just not possible - please check out the photos to get a real picture of what we've been doing.
So far in 4 days, I've visited a community center built by Red Sox alum Pedro Martinez, gone to three Bank of Hope group meetings in different communities and interviewed over 16 borrowers, saw a school that Northeastern students worked on over Spring Break, had children crawling all over me several times, and spent time in a Haitian immigrant sugar cane batey community - what I believe was "the poorest of the poor."
Interviewing in a Haitian batey
Our days usually start at 630am so that we can make it to the beginning of a Bank of Hope meeting in one of the communities, which are anywhere from 1 - 2.5 hours away from our hotel. Bank of Hope meetings happen twice per month and consist of 2 or more borrower groups which have 5 women in each. All the people in the Bank of Hope act as social collateral for each other. If you are new to Village Banking - then it is important to recognize that when giving out loans to the poor, Esperanza does not ask for regular collateral. Rather, there is a social collateral that is guaranteed from all those in the borrower groups and Bank of Hope - meaning that if one week someone cannot pay, then the other people in the Bank or group have to cover their payment for them, and cannot leave the meeting until this is done. The community solidarity and social pressure that is instilled through these group meetings encourage borrowers to be responsible with their repayments.
Each of these meetings opens and closes in prayer. Though at first skeptical of this because of our customary secular practices in the USA, we quickly found out how important the Christian-based aspect of Esperanza is for the borrowers. The culture of the Dominicans is extremely religious and so many people we interviewed emphasized their appreciation for their groups bringing them closer to God.
After attending the beginning of the meeting, we split up into groups of 3-4 (with at least one Spanish speaker to translate) and go with one borrower to interview them and see their businesses. We found people selling everything from natural juices, to birth control, to peanut butter sandwiches to panties and bras. Others provided services like hair washing and nail painting. Their use of the loans was impressive and their love for Esperanza was also overwhelming.
However, in the poorest of the poor communities, there were other themes that emerged. Although the loans did help, opportunity or a market to sell to was not always apparent. For example, in one community, a women usually gave pedicures and cleaned feet, but in the rain season no one would pay for this service.
And then we seemingly stepped back in time and went to the Haitian sugar cane Bateyes - where, at first glance, this rural shanty spot did not seem like anything more than an abandoned camp ground. However, diving deeper and talking to community members gave us a better vision of how they all band together and also how microcredit has helped and could continue to inch them slowly away from extreme poverty .
Stay tuned for more detailed stories from the field.
In the batey
First Day in La Republica Dominicana
Last Night we arrived in the Dominican Republic! Although we were exhausted from traveling, we woke up early this morning and ready to begin our next project. The day started with transporting all 33 of us students and additional advisers to INTEC (Instituto Tecnolgico de Santo Domingo) our partnering university here in Santo Domingo. 15 INTEC students joined us for our field work with Esperanza the microfinance organization we will be working with for the next two weeks.
We began our day by introducing each other once again not only to the new students joining us from INTEC, but also to our special guests (SEI supporters) who have joined us for this week. After that Professor Shaughnessy gave a lecture on social entrepreneurship and microfinance which was a helpful review for many of us and an essential way to put everyone on the same page. He started off by explaining the framework that we usually follow when analyzing a social enterprise and also continued with a discussion on Performance vs. Impact.
After the first lecture we were very fortunate to have Carlos Pimentel, the CEO of Esperanza International come and speak to us. He enlightened us about Microcredit Plus and how Esperanza uses this specific model to carry out their loans. The microcredit plus model means that Esperanza includes other components additional to the microcredit such as health care and education. Mr. Pimental gave an excellent overview of how the Esperanza microcredit works by “reaching out to the bottom pool without giving out handouts.” This statement gave us all a clear view of what Esperanza was about and what could be expected of them when we would be out in the field interviewing the borrowers. He also stressed how their main motivation was their love for humanity and other people which indicated that Esperanza’s sincere purpose is to help others which adds value to their mission statement “to free children and their families from poverty through initiatives that generate income, education and health, restoring self-worth and dignity to those who have lost hope.”
Mr. Pimental carried on with giving us a detailed overview of Esperanza as an organization and how many of their services such as health care and education are carried out. The health and dental care services consist of:
· Preventative medical screenings
· HIV/AIDS testing education and counseling
· Affordable access to local health clinics
· Complimentary dental care
Other Programs included the educational and vocational training, and Social development.
Everybody agreed that the lecture was very insightful and led us to have a firm grasp of who Esperanza was as an organization.
Although we were in class all day today, it was talks such as Mr. Pimental’s and extra quality/getting to know you time with the INTEC students that made it all worthwhile. At the end of the day, we had reorganized new groups to carry out the surveys, reorganized the surveys, got to know most of the INTEC students we would be working with, had a good Idea of what our goals were, and ready to go into the field tomorrow and apply our skills!
CEO of Esperanza
Get to Know You Games!
Presentation Day in Belize!
We started off today with 30-minutes extra to sleep, to which we were all grateful for after a tiring two days of technical assistance and a late night of project development. Today we went to the San Ignacio Hotel to present our recommendations and findings to BEST. After an
hour to make final touches to our final presentation, our five selected presenters, Shelagh, Lucas, Shilpi, Samantha and Kerry, stood up in front of several BEST employees, Galen and Northeastern students and faculty and outstandingly delivered the work that we had compiled from our 2 weeks of field work.
After analyzing the survey data that we collected from a total of 64 borrowers, we compiled information that could help BEST run their operations and acquire a better understanding of who their borrowers were and the businesses that they developed with their loans from BEST. In summary, taxi services and shops/grocery stores were the most popular businesses that the borrowers we surveyed owned. Most of the borrowers had a previous job before starting their businesses with the BEST loans; however, they decided to start their businesses
in order to earn a steady income. With the loan from BEST, a large portion of the borrowers improved their businesses with the purchase of equipment and stock and improved their households by purchasing kitchen appliances and beds. We learned that while many of the
borrowers said that they kept records or knew how to keep records, many of them did not have the knowledge to do so and therefore they could not give accurate responses when asked what their present incomes or sales were.
As we were determining what our recommendations would be for BEST, we had to remind ourselves that we were not the ones running the operations of BEST and only had 2 weeks of exposure here. We needed to provide substantial recommendations that BEST could adopt in the near future at very or little no cost to them as well as not requiring extra staff.
Our first recommendation to help them with their low-staffing issue was to continue using interns to come to BEST. We felt that interns or co-ops could be most beneficial to BEST in developing a business training that would be mandatory for their borrowers. A few
suggestions for the business training would be to develop a video that would introduce business topics to the borrower that could later be discussed with the loan officers during the application process. We felt like a video would be the most efficient training as it would be
a one-time cost to produce and purchase equipment to show the video and would only take our a small portion of time from the borrower and the BEST staff would not be needed in this training, aside from the end discussion/quiz.
We also recommended that to measure both the performance of BEST and the social impact that they were creating, they would need to track the metrics by administering an initial quality of life at the beginning of the borrowers first loan and do another survey annually or at the initiation of each new loan.
The final recommendation that we came up with was to reflect upon the community efforts that BEST has established and create a peer-to-peer mentoring program. We met many borrowers that were already on their 4th or 5th loans and had successfully paid each loan off. These borrowers mentioned that the one thing standing in their way to continuing borrowing from BEST was that they could not get larger loans than BZ $5000 (US $2500). We thought that if BEST would loan to these borrowers with a larger loan amount, it would be an incentive
for these borrowers to help administer the training programs as well as mentor new borrowers on how to be successful within their businesses.
The entire group was very surprised on how we were able to successfully survey, compile all the data and somehow not go crazy trying to work all together as a huge group of 33 strong-minded, determined students. We were also very proud of the team that took the time to stay at Galen while others were outside building houses and chicken coops for the technical assistance days and those who stayed up until 2am the last night to finalize our presentation.
Though we have been extremely critical of BEST's model which differs from the Village Banking, Grameen Bank model that we study in class, it was eye-opening to see how an individual loan and grant organization works and have high hopes for their ability to continue assisting those in need in Belize. I enjoyed working with BEST tremendously and it was definitely a learning experience for the students from both Galen and Northeastern. We recognize how lucky we are to be able to take our knowledge of a small non-profit MFI and be able to compare it to the work Esperanza does in the DR with group lending.
This weekend we will be traveling to the Ambergris Caye to stay on an island called San Pedro. The relaxing weekend ahead will be a much needed and appreciated step-back, a perfect way to reenergize for a fresh start in the Dominican Republic portion of our field study.
Quick Update - Service Days and Presentation Preparation
It's midnight and about 12 of us are powering through the aching muscles and high-heat, wrapping up our powerpoint for our presentation to BEST tomorrow on what we have accomplished and learned the past two weeks. Perfect time for a break and quick round-up and reflection on our last week in Belize.
To explain the aching muscles, the most exciting thing for most of this week was getting to do some physical labor.
While we were interviewing in the field, people were looking for borrowers that could benefit from two half days of technical assistance that we would do this last week. With our fundraising money, we were able to purchase materials and complete three different projects.
One group built Ms. Joyce's Sweet Shop, a candy and food store in front of a woman's house that she will use to grow her business which before was just a small stand in her living room. Another group helped cement floors, build a bridge, and finish construction on a restaurant called M&M's. The last group built an entire new chicken coop for Kevin and Ms. Doris. There are great photos of the before and afters of these projects posted here.
After an extremely thought-provoking lecture where we were reminded that "Change one life, change the world entire," seeing our projects finished at the end of the day today was just a reminder that this quote's meaning holds true for us.
Time to get back to work, more updates on the project results and our last days in Belize coming tomorrow :)
May 28th - Sharon Matola: Environmentalist, Extreme Animal Advocate, and Enemy of the State
"I'm named an enemy of the state, that's kinda cool." This was one of my favorite quotes we heard from the eccentric Sharon Matola, who described to us her experiences becoming a vibrant activist in Belize, fighting the Belizean government and multinational companies Duke Energy and Fortris to stop the construction of the Chalilo Dam. Her personality and good nature was captivating and her dedication to environmental education and preservation was clear.
She may have a mushroom that is named after her because she has proven to be just like the newly discovered fungi which was "so out there it just and doesn't belong," but that does not mean we were not able to take many lessons away from our special guest lecturer, environmentalist, activist and Belize Zoo founder Sharon Matola.
We have already mentioned our visits to the Chalilo dam and the Belize Zoo, that brought to life one of our required readings, The Last Flight of the Scarlett Macaw, in which the life of Sharon Matola and her fight against the dam is portrayed. After finishing the book, most of us had a new-found appreciation for environmental preservation and what is means for small countries like Belize, along with a strong admiration for Sharon and her determination. Having the chance to hear her speak and meet her was an enormous surprise and honor. Although her fight, supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC, represented by Cameron Diaz and Harrison Ford), ultimately was defeated by 1 vote in England's high Privy Council, it is obvious that her brave nature keeps her heart set on preserving the environment and defending endangered species in Belize, and she describes herself as having the best possible life.
But enough of my telling you - watch this video instead!
It is a perfect example of Sharon's inspiring life - an compassionate and hilarious story Sharon told us about her experience when she realized that her zoo in Belize actually was a good idea and an important decision for Belize.
Stay tuned for updates from our second week in the field. Adios!
Sharon Matola signing books
Students and Sharon in the Middle
Reflecting on the first few days of interviewing and looking forward
It is hard to believe that in the next 5 days, we will have completed our research and interviews in Belize and be presenting on our ideas for BEST. It has been a more relaxed weekend where we all had a chance to re-energize and I’ve had the opportunity to look back on what we have been doing during our first week of the field study and what we have to look forward to. We have spent 3 full days in the field, each with different experiences and outlook on how BEST runs and the people that they lend to. As explained in the last entry, we spent the first day interviewing micro-grant recipients (those who are not yet eligible to borrow a loan and have received a special grant from a partnership program between BEST and the EU). On Thursday we began interviewing borrowers. My group did not know what to expect and were almost more nervous than the day before as the group became a lot smaller and we would be able to have more intimate conversations with the people we were interviewing.
We walked into Anthony’s house, a borrower that has started a landscaping business. All 5 of us sat don in his living room and began discussing the loan that he took out to start his landscaping business. We learned that he took out a $1300 loan (Belizean dollars, 2:1 exchange rate to the US dollar) and only has $100 left to pay off in the next month. He seemed to have done very well and has a constant group of clients and has been able to provide income to support his 2 sisters, their sons, his father and himself. I slowly began to look around and noticed that he had a stove, refrigerator, T.V. and stereo set. I began to think about how this man was not the poorest of the poor and seemed to have just as many amenities that a Northeastern student has in their own apartment. I think that our interview went so well with Anthony because he began to realize that we were there to learn from him and that even we were nervous and he knew that this was one of our first interviews.
As the next 2 days of interviewing went on, the Northeastern/Galen group began to realize that BEST was possibly not loaning to the typical group of microfinance borrowers. But, we also quickly began to realize that we should not be quick to judge and we are here for a learning experience as well as to provide BEST with constructive recommendations for their future as an organization.
A borrower story that I will leave you with is the story of one of BEST’s “best borrower”. Althia began taking out a loan in 2008 to start her family store. It began with just a corn mill for tortillas in back of their trailer and now it is a large store connected to their new house that has food, drinks and other various items. Before her loan, her husband’s job at a travel company was the only source of income for their family, and now their store provides more stable income to their whole family. Althia has even started granting credit access for some of her customers that cannot pay immediately. Her business success enables her to help those in her community as well.
I just finished one of our required readings for the Dominican Republic and I could not be more excited to get there and be immersed in the culture. The book, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is the story of the four Mirabel sisters and their courage and sisterhood during the time of the rise of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters, known as “Las Mariposas”, or “the butterflies” in their revolutionary underground group to overthrow the dictatorship, were ambushed and assassinated after visiting their jailed husbands and are now known as heroines to this time.
The work that we will be doing in the DR will have many similarities and differences to the work that we are currently doing in Belize. I am looking forward to another 3 days of interviewing the borrowers and coming up with our deliverables and recommendations for BEST; however, I am eager to see another culture and work with another microfinance group. We are so lucky as a group to be able to experience two different cultures and countries as well as see how microfinance works in the two areas.
In the Classroom + In the Field
The first day of class lectures and field work was an introduction to Belize history and demographics and our first experience working in the communities. Here are some photos from two of the people we interviewed this day to evaluate a microgrant program run by BEST. The women, Mrs. Rivas, was a microgrant recipient who used her grant to start her chicken rearing and selling business. Her flooded street, front yard and area all surrounding her house was daunting. We also talked to a man we met by chance named Mr. Fidos, who is not a borrower with BEST, but has the potential to be to help expand his business selling used car parts and aluminum.
Our first three days were packed with travel, orienting ourselves, constantly examining the new surroundings, and of course playing with children in the zoo. Come Tuesday, it was time for a whole day of class. We heard from 2 different lecturers from Belize about the country's history and environmental issues. The first speaker introduced us to the societal and cultural complexity of the Belizean, with its population including the 3 groups of Maya (Yucatec, Ketchi, and Mopan), the Garifuna tribe, Menonites, expatriots, Mestizo, and Creoles. He emphasized that their country has been shaped by two inescapable themes - colonialism and immigration. We found out that although the official language of Belize is English, the language most spoken most "in the street" is Creole, and many speak Spanish and Maya dialects as well. We learned from other lectures about the many internal and international issues facing Belize, including their reported 44% poverty rate, their tourism industry (which brings in 40% of the GDP), and their 1.2 billion deficit.
Professor Shaughnessey began right away by asking our Belizean peers what their preconceived notions about Americans. The students' answers were unfiltered, and reminded us that just because we were here with the honorable intention to save the world from global poverty, we had to be ever cognizant of our culture's reputation.
He then introduced the concept of Social Enterprise and Microfinance to our new Belizean peers, and lead discussions on its impact around the world and possible application in Belize. He detailed how profit can have a positive impact on the world if you use it right and used examples such as Aravind Eyecare and Grameen Bank. Although most of us signed on to this program because of our belief of the power of microfinance, it was a very new concept for most of the Belizeans. The movie we watched on Muhammed Yunus and his revolutionary Village Banking idea got them thinking about who Yunus was able to "create some panic in this unjust system" with his microcredit scheme.
We also heard from representatives from Belize Enterprise for Sustainable Technology, or BEST, who would be our microfinance partner in the field. Though their organization and methods were quite different than the Grameen Village Banking model, we were able to learn exactly how they worked and hear more about our project with them.
With only a less than two stay in Belize, it made sense that our second day of class, we were brought "into the field" to interview microgrant recipients for BEST in the afternoon. It was hectic, to say the least, for the coordinators and BEST to organize the large groups to go on several buses to different locations. But we all just had to keep in mind our trips theme, be flexible and TIB (This is Belize! Meaning, things are different and often slower in the developing world).
When we stopped at the first house, none of us actually believing that beyond the swamp on the side of the road and behind a fence was a women who lived in the shack-like house in the background. She came out to greet us, traipsing slowly through the knee-deep rainwater surrounding her house and yard. Some of us went inside to complete the interview and see her chicken coup, which she bought with her microgrant. We heard her account of how her life has changed from the chickens she can now raise and sell. Although her house was essentially flooded, her attitude was great and she seemed happy, even if we couldn't stop talking about the experience of wading through her swamp and how this could be fixed.
While we were waiting for the rest of the group to interview the second person we found home who had received a grant, we spotted an older man sitting by himself under a tree. Three of us decided to walk over and talk to him. His name was Fidos. He was half Mexican and half Honduran. He was willing to let us take his picture and answer any questions we had. In the beginning he was speaking to us in English, but once I found out that he was more comfortable speaking in Spanish, we continued our conversation in that language. He talked about his six children and how one of them still lives with him. His house was small and built on the common stilts you so often see in Belize. He said he was happy that he could still work and continue to provide for his family. He sold car parts for a living. Sometimes he would buy an entire old, used car and take the pieces off and sell them. Other times he would drive south to a neighboring town to find car parts to sell. He said he usually sold them at a lower price than everyone else to attract more customers.
I continued to ask him more questions about his business and he mentioned that business usually got slow during the rainy season. I asked him why he thought that the rain caused business to be slow; he laughed and pointed at the swampy hill leading out into the main road. He said “My car needs to get up that hill for me to get on the road. When it’s too wet it’s impossible for my car to get out.” I asked him if he considered covering it with gravel. Fidos shook his head and rubbed his fingers together to indicate that he had no money for such an investment. I asked if he thought a microloan would help and if he would consider taking one. He said he would.
Talking with people like Fidos, not only provided good practice of approaching people and starting conversation, but also insight into what the people of Belize do, and what type of things are needed in the country. Not much is written on the tiny country tucked into the northern-most part of Central America. The only way to get to know the culture, people, needs, and problems is to talk to the people, spend time with them and try to comprehend their situation.
- Michaela + Dahlia
King's Children Home and the Belize Zoo
Today, we drove to Belmopan, Belize’s capital city, to meet the children at an orphanage called King’s Children Home. The plan for the day was to take the children that live at King’s Children Home to a restaurant for lunch and then to the Belize Zoo. I was lucky enough to sit in the front of our van and learn about the capital from our driver, Felipe. Belmopan has a population of about 14,000 and became Belize’s capital in 1961 after a major hurricane. Belize City used to be Belize’s capital but its location needed to be more inland because of the hurricanes. Now, most of the people that live in Belmopan are there because of their jobs for the government; however, many of the ministries and other officials commute along the newly paved highway from Belize City.
After a quick driving tour of Belmopan and its National Assembly, we arrived at King’s Children Home. King’s provides care for children that are no longer able to care for themselves or need to be taken out of their current homes. King’s Children Home provides residential care to 50 children by providing them with secure housing, medical attention, a nutritious diet, complete education, clothing and opportunities to grow. It began to instantly rain when we got to the home and most of the Northeastern students’ spirits dropped because we were afraid this would ruin our plans to visit the zoo as planned. The children did not seem to mind as they all ran out of their house and onto their school bus to start the day.
The bus of children was lively and the Northeastern students were almost literally thrown onto the bus in the midst of the chaos of 50 children. I sat next to a shy 9-year old girl who refused to tell me her name (I later found out that it was Laquisha) and another 9-year old boy, Edgar, took hold of my camera and began snapping pictures of every person on the bus. As we were driving along the road on the way to the restaurant for lunch, the children started to get really excited and kept saying that they wanted the driver to stop the bus. We soon found out that we would be passing the land that King’s new home is being built on. King’s has been building a new home to create a more comfortable living space for the children because at their current home many of the children sleep in a room with 6-10 other children.
We arrived at the restaurant and the Northeastern students worked together to entertain the kids and take drink and lunch orders in the most efficient way possible, which isn’t easy in a restaurant with over 80 people. Lunch was delicious and everyone enjoyed getting to know the kids that we would be spending the rest of the afternoon with. We ended the meal with cake and singing “happy birthday” to Angel, one of the kids who turned 10 years old that day.
Arriving at the zoo was also significant to the Northeastern students, as we had just finished reading the book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw which was described in an earlier post. The book is about the woman, Sharon Matola, that started the Belize Zoo and describes her fight to stop the construction of the Chalillo Dam in Belize. We learned a lot about Sharon’s passion for the zoo and it was so great to be able to visit it and see what she created. My favorite part of the zoo was the beautiful jaguar sleeping on a tree branch and the tapirs. Tapirs are the national animal of Brazil and look like a mix between a rhino and an anteater.
We ended the day visiting the land and house that King’s will be moving into upon the completion of its construction. King’s was one of the service projects that the Northeastern students fundraised for and it was very meaningful to see the home that the children will soon be moving into a more comfortable environment to be able to grow and flourish.
Tomorrow we will be going to Galen University to start the first day of classes. We’ll be sitting in on lectures about Belize’s culture, environmental responsibility, social entrepreneurship and a final presentation from BEST, the microfinance institute that we will be working with in the field during our time in Belize. I’m looking forward to learning more about the organization that we will be working with and the work in which they’ve asked us to help.
A deeper look into the Mayan culture
On Sunday May 23, 2010, we all woke up at the crack of dawn to get an early start on our trip to Guatemala to enhance our understanding of the Maya. At 7:30 AM all the Northeastern students crowded into a large bus that would take us to the Border of Belize and Guatemala. The border was only about 30 minutes away. After we got there we crowded into the small immigration office and waited about 40 minutes for one single person at the immigration desk to check our passports and record them in a notebook. Once we were in Guatemala, Hugo (also told us we could call him Juice) our Guatemalan tour guide was waiting for us with two other vans.
We drove another two hours until we reached Tikal, one of Guatemala’s most treasured national parks. Besides containing a large sub-tropic rainforest and a variety of endangered species, Tikal is mainly known for the ruins or temples that the Maya left behind around 950 AD. The Northeastern crowd was separated into four groups and each led by a different guide. Our guide’s name was Nixon, named after Nixon Garcia a famous Guatemalan soccer goalie during the 70’s. Nixon delineated the trail that we would follow and places that we would see, and then we began our journey into the Mayan world.
One of the temples we saw was temple four. It is the tallest of all temples in Tikal and the highest in all pre-Columbian structures in the Americas. We walked up a set of wooden stairs that led us to the top of the structure. Looking from the top of the structure felt like being on top of the world. The temple rose above the entire rainforest. We could see for miles all around us and we could also see the rest of the temples in the park. It was hard to believe that such an ancient civilization was able to create such a magnanimous construction.
After we had seen most of the temples and explored many paths into the rainforest we sat at the top of one of the structures and listened to Nixon as he explained the significance of the temples. The Maya were astronomers, mathematicians, and agriculturalists. Each temple is located in a certain spot in order to have a direct correlation to the sun. During the summer and winter solstice the sun will appear on different sides of the temples. The Maya also created calendar, one that records time in cycles and is known to be extremely accurate. Lastly, they were agriculturalists; much attention was also placed in growing food particularly maize.
After our long expedition we met up with the rest of the group to have a traditional Guatemalan lunch consisting of chicken, rice, guisquil, and of course fresh, corn tortillas. As we were all eating we were also discussing our amazement at the advancement and knowledge that the Maya possessed all before they even discovered the wheel. This was an eye opening adventure. It not only served to inform us Northeastern students about the background of many of the people we will be working with, but it also raised a new sense of appreciation and respect for who they were and what they could become if given the opportunity.
Meet Galen University and the Chalilo Dam
A trend throughout this trip/blog will be getting up early... I don't think there will be anytime we leave after 9am. Take advantage of every second here, right? That said, the first day was no exception. We all met at 8am to travel the more than bumpy 8 mile road out of the jungle lodge and towards the town of San Ignacio for orientation at our host institution, Galen University. I quickly realized just how different it is from NEU - with only 240 enrolled students situated outside of town.
The program coordinator from Galen, Rhondine, had neatly lined each desk with named folders, and we all scurried to find our seats, eager to hear from our Belizean hosts. Only two of the Galen students we'd be working with were able to join us this day, but I was able to meet Janeli and Sergio, who would be in my field work group during the next 12 days.
We had a brief presentation on safety and cultural adjustment, where I thankfully learned that coconut water and lime are great secret ways to stay hydrated. Then, we were graced with a special appearance from a cultural group which perform a traditional dance for us. Children as young as age 4 wore Mayan costumes as they depicted their revered practice of harvesting corn through a dance routine.
The second half of the day was spent traveling to the controversial Chalilo Dam. It was about a 2.5 hour drive of mostly dirt, bumpy roads, and to make this even more exciting, we experienced our very first torrential jungle down pour! The rain stopped just in time for us to get a special insider tour of the dam from one of its technical managers, David Russell.
We were told that getting a tour of the dam was extremely rare and special permission had to be granted to allow us to enter. Talking to Mr. Russell who showed us around was extremely enlightening, as the reading we had done about it was from the perspective of the conservationists in opposition to the Dam.
This was an important visit for us not only because one of the books we were required to read, The Last Flight of the Scarlett Macaw, revolved around the building (or not) of the Chalilo Dam, but also because the controversial nature of it reveals a great deal about the Belizean culture and politics. The book detailed to us the pervasive struggle between preserving the natural beauty and ecosystems of the rainforest and obtaining more energy sustainability and independence as well as supposed lower electricity costs - and the answer for many in the country was hydro-power. Obviously, those in favor of the dam succeeded despite the efforts of the Belize Zoo founder and environmentalist Sharon Matola and her network of global environmental organizations. Yet, from talking to those Belizeans we have met so far, prices have not dropped and the country still depends on Mexico to fulfill its power needs. Mr. Russell's defense to this was that many people were not able to recognize the advantages of the Dam because at the same time that it was built and began running, all other markets around the world experienced an increase in price of electricity while Belize prices remained the same. If they had not built Chalilo, he said, their prices would have sky-rocketed as well. He claimed it was an invisible gain, but I am still investigating opinions on this issue, stay tuned.
He also assured us that the beautiful Scarlet Macaw, which was one of the main reasons for this opposition due to the destruction of its habitat from the dam, was absolutely fine and living now just as it was before. He detailed to us the many instances in which poachers attempt and succeed at catching the Macaws and selling them for around $10,000 in the United States. Their endangered species status became more understandable the more we talked to him and we added this to the many arguments and campaigns for and against the Chalilo Dam. Getting a peek at the situation from him enabled us to really feel the controversy up close.
Finishing off the day with a long ride home again and dinner at our almost home at Duplooy's Jungle Lodge, we geared up for our long trek ahead - tomorrow, to Tikal, an ancient Mayan archaeological site (ruins) in Guatemala!
Prepartion, Travel and Arrival to the Jungle
The first Latin American Field Study Program (LAFSP) technically started on May 18th, 2010, when we had our first day of orientation at Northeastern. Our group of 34 students, 4 staff assistants and 1 professor met together for orientation at Northeastern in Boston before departing for Central America.
My name is Michaela D'Amico and I'm going to be one of the 3 bloggers for SEI. After this summer I will have completed a degree in International Affairs with minors in Spanish, Sociology and Social Entrepreneurship. I knew I had to go on this program because the field study I participated in last year with the SEI to Cape Town, South Africa introduced me to the real effects of microfinance and entrepreneurship and ignited my desire to get more hands-on experience working in developing countries to alleviate poverty. This shared blog will be a way for me to share and spread the lessons, experiences, and people our group encounters throughout the 5 week program.
During orientation, we spent three days talking about our two pre-departure required reading books (The Bottom Billion and Banker to the Poor), brushing up on microfinance and intense planning for our 4 weeks in Belize and the Dominican Republic. Students had to research and present on microfinance institutions such as Hand-in-Hand and Fonkoze, to learn and reteach to the class how and why some organizations have been successful. We also had two enlightening guest speakers from Root Cause who got us prepared to think about one of our tasks - designing an impact measurement tool for the microfinance institution we'd be working with in Belize.
The last day of orientation in Boston, we got together with our groups that we'd be working with in Belize and the Dominican Republic and started planning for the two projects that the microfinance institutions had asked us to work on:
In Belize, we will be working with the microfinance organization BEST
- Belize Enterprise for Sustainable Technology. They have asked us to work on 3 tasks - to complete borrower surveys for a report, to create an impact measurement tool for them to use, and to assist new borrowers in starting their new businesses.
Dominican Republic (DR):
In the DR, we will be working with the microfinance organization Esperanza International
. They are excited to have us on board to help them improve their borrower training program by interviewing current borrowers and then compiling and analyzing the results in order to propose changes to the program.
When we left on Friday, May 21st and finally arrived at Duplooy's Jungle Lodge
- it was clear that our 4 weeks in Latin America would be incredibly real in all senses. We'd be living in a place so far from Boston in so many ways, from the jungle climate, to the incessant poverty we'd be surrounded by to the many local people and cultures we would interact with in the two developing countries. Stepping out of the buses after hours of driving, our jungle lodge gave us a huge wake up call - with an 8 mile jagged dirt road to reach its secluded premises, every kind of bug/fly imaginable, miniature salamanders, inviting hammocks, wooden bungalows, and humid 100-degree heat. Gathering for our first dinner, we devoured it and all the while wondered if the jet lag would be enough to get us to sleep in the midst of the heat. Tomorrow - meeting our hosts at Galen University and visiting the country's largest and newest dam located 2.5 hours from our lodge.
- Michaela :)