Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a glass half empty? a look at microfinance.

The first time I encountered the idea of microfinance was at a church conference, and one of the interviewees was a co-founder of Kiva. "This. Is. Amazing," I thought. So simple! So effective! And above all, not paternalistic in the least, pointing toward long-term development that is actually effective. I was definitely smitten.

For the uninitiated: microfinance is the idea of making small loans to people in developing countries (either through community groups or a bank established for this purpose) to help them start a small business or endeavour of a similar sort. This is meant to help people to gain workable skills and establish themselves in a sustainable manner.

Microfinance has made great gains in popularity lately, and certainly seems to have a lot of the answers that people are looking for in terms of addressing poverty in a meaningful and effective way. The idea of mere financial aid is one that is often met with a healthy amount of cynicism; people are disillusioned from seeing money go to developing countries only to be mismanaged, get lost in inefficient government systems, or to go to something that doesn't actually benefit a community in the long run. The more we learn about poverty it seems that the obstacles are that much greater, and it seems like there is not that much that can be significantly accomplished.

Microfinance takes a different approach, and there are a lot of good ideas here: dignity of the poor, cultural sensitivity, the whole "teaching a man to fish," thing, and it inspires a reciprocal relationship between the donor and the receiver, rather than dependence on handouts and encouraging the weird power balance that so often accompanies aid. I think though, that microfinance is more complicated than it initially seems - it is certainly not the messiah of the developing world, as it is so often esteemed. Some of these cracks in the surface are starting to show, such as violence and shame surrounding pressure to repay loans. Impatience with faulty development strategies might hasten someone's dismissal of microfinance, but this should not be the case. By looking critically at the benefits and drawbacks of microfinance we can better assess how to apply it, and how to avoid these pitfalls.

Food for thought and related reading:

"How Microfinance Changes the Lives of Millions," Shweta S. Banerjee. Foreign Policy. October 26, 2009.

"India's Looming Microcredit Crisis." Sanjay Kumar. The Diplomat. October 30, 2011.

Microfinance and its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh, Lamia Karim

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Where Have All the Mothers Gone? By Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese

This book is amazing. It kind of ties together my last two posts by telling the stories of women and what they have to deal with in childbirth. The stories are just...staggering. It's written by an obstetrician gynecologist, Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese who has worked primarily in Uganda and Yemen. This book shows so many different sides of the obstacles that women in developing countries face to have a child. It shows the forces of social pressure to have natural childbirths, when medical help would be available. It also depicts the difficulties of getting to that medical help - hours long crowded bus rides that can barely be afforded; lifelong incontinence due to either negligent or unavailable medical care.

These stories broke my heart. Among them, there are stories of hope, of overcoming adversity. What is most striking of each of these accounts is how very avoidable they are, from our perspective. For more information, see Save the Mothers.

Friday, November 4, 2011


Typically when we think of poverty we think the greatest misfortune of those affected is the lack of material possessions. Although this is crippling in its own way, one of the greatest needs of the poor that is often overlooked is their need for a voice. This is in part a driving force behind this blog - to shed light on the stories of those that cannot speak for themselves.

At the turn of the century the World Bank put together an initiative called Voices of the Poor. This collection gathers quotes from the poor on their views on what poverty means to them. They address issues from gender equality to evaluations of NGOs. So far I've only read the excerpts available on the website, but I am looking forward to making these books a part of my collection. Here is a taste of what is there:
  •  "For a poor person everything is terrible - illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are         afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of." — a blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova
  • "Everyday I am afraid of the next" — Russia
  • "Nobody is able to communicate our problems. Who represents us? Nobody." — discussion group in Foua, Egypt
  • "We keep hearing about monies that the government allocates for projects, and nothing happens on the ground." — South Africa
  • "No one helps, not anyone. I would gladly help someone, but how when I am in need of help myself. This is misery (jad). Our souls, our psyches are dead." — Vares, Bosnia and Herzegovina   (source)

By seeing things from their eyes we treating the poor with dignity. We can understand where they are coming from. By taking the time to know those who we are trying to help and to know their needs and specific situations there is a greater chance we can help, rather than simply waste time and resources.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

these girls.

I traveled to East Africa this past May as a first step out into seeing where I might want to go with my career. I took some courses in international development and business, and I think one of my uses for this blog will be unpacking my time there. My all-time favourite moment was talking with the young women pictured above. We spent a few days in Muhanda, which is a village in Western Kenya. We were doing research on some of the development project that were started by the profs we were with (their organization is Hands-On Development Initiatives International Society). I was privileged (and SO excited) to take part in talking with grade 7 and 8 girls about AFRIpads. A year prior they had been given some cloth pads to use during menstruation and we were doing a check-in to see how they were working and if the girls liked them and were still using them.

I was a bit daunted with the task of getting information from these girls. Cultural barriers aside, I was asking them to open up to me about a very private aspect of their life! I looked into these shy faces waiting for me to ask them questions. I had no idea what they thought of me, and felt rather intrusive; I was the one that was supposed to know what to say, apparently. I'll admit, our session began rather awkwardly and ended only slightly less awkward, but the honesty and openness of these girls blew me away. I leaned close to hear their answers to questions as they spoke to me softly and politely. They whispered about me and laughed as well, but who can blame them...I was clearly out of my element. When I asked if they liked using the cloth pads the girls broke out into a huge grin. I asked them what they had used before receiving the pads, and most of them used pieces of old mattress or straw to manage their period... I cannot even wrap my mind around that! There are already so many uncomfortable things about having a period, without having to "wear" a piece of a mattress. Many of them would have to miss school, but since using the Afripads they assured me they did not miss a single day. As they told me this information I was truly humbled and all of my frustrations with having a period were quickly put into perspective.

We talked about how to clean the pads, whether they were still in good condition, and whether their sisters or friends wanted them. There are a few obstacles to fully implementing them, as there is no way to clean them if  they are away from home. I was pleasantly surprised that they also began asking me questions about their periods, about what to do if your period is irregular, how much bleeding is too much, and what is available in terms of managing pain. I was caught off-guard, not expecting this conversation, and apparently my girls were the only ones asking this. I was simultaneously terrified and bursting with excitement. My only qualifications were extensive forum reading, as women's sexual health is one of my past-times. I felt like a big sister trying to carefully explain all they needed to know to take care of themselves, and strongly encouraged them to be open with their questions with their mothers and teachers. It was pretty awesome.

There is a strength in these girls that I will never know. I was amazed at their tenacity and dreams for the future, facing circumstances that I would never ever deal with, just because I was born here and not there. The awkwardly-intimate half hour I spent with them is one of my most treasured memories. But while I sit here, feeling warm and fuzzy about our chat, they are still living their lives day in day out. I was only privy to the smallest of glimpses into their lives and don't really know all it is that they go through, what is good in their lives and what is challenging. The best way I can think to pay respect to these women is to recognize how very blessed I am, and to do something with my privileges. Not everyone has the education I have. Not everyone has the supportive family I have. Not everyone has access to a sanitary pad (which provides more obstacles than you might initially think). I hope that in my efforts to be a good steward of the resources I have been blessed with, I can become half the woman I saw in these girls.

(Photo Credit: Last three - Dr. Ruth Anaya)

Monday, October 31, 2011

A glass half empty?

Unfortunately, one of the things that I am best at is seeing the negative side of a situation. I used to chalk it up to 'critical thinking' but I do have a certain bent toward defeatism. This has been something that I have struggled with in learning more about development and poverty alleviation. The more I read, and especially when I traveled to East Africa, I was bombarded with hopeless sentiments - does anything we do actually make a difference? What say do I even have to try and change the way someone lives? Thoughts of cultural barriers, language barriers, corruption in policy and government swirled around my head. How could anyone do anything to make a real change, much less me? My first instinct was to throw up my hands - it is easy enough to numb oneself to the realities of the world in middle class North America - but as I interacted more with people and saw more of what was being done in the few organizations we visited, hope stirred in me. I still feel cripplingly helpless in the face of certain obstacles and defeatist thoughts creep into my mind often enough...but I stubbornly hold onto the idea that we can't not do now what?

There seems to be a lot of cynicism surrounding poverty alleviation, much of it well-earned. Television commercials are saturated with commercials asking for donations, depicting the poorest of the poor, their dignity forgotten. The United Nations is known for its thick red tape, and perceived as largely ineffectual. We hear rumours of inefficient or unaccountable relief organizations. There is even skepticism surrounding the effectiveness and intentions of the previously untouchable Mother Teresa. It seems that no matter what avenue is taken that the causes of poverty run so deep than any effort is thwarted, or at least a staggering step forward.

The problem with addressing poverty is that since it is often very complex and requires a great deal of long-term investment, without a holistic approach the efforts that fall short of this are often more harmful than if nothing had been done. This idea is fleshed out in When Helping Hurts, a book that emphasizes the importance of long-term development, enabling communities with good stewardship skills, and most importantly the dignity of the poor and mutual respect and cooperation. The model that is laid out in this book reveals poverty alleviation to be a long and arduous process. The goal here is not material results (improving crop outputs, building number of schools) but restoring relationships. This takes personal investment and involving the poor with the work. This of course is an incredibly arduous task. Even for myself, thinking of what actually has to be done to work effectively with communities fills me with dread.

I am going to endeavor to explore different ways in which poverty is wrongly addressed, why harm is done, and if there is anything worth redeeming from these ideas. Just because a task is daunting, seemingly insurmountable, and those defeatist thoughts seem to be all there is, just means we're going to be that much more creative, that much more understanding of where people are coming from, and learn that much more about our abilities. Not to mention all that is to be learned from those in the majority world. In taking time to learn from those we are trying to help we also greatly enrich our own lives. Once we realize the richness of the mutual benefits that are possible, why would we want to go about it any other way?