I joined La Ceiba as a junior in college. Every assumption I held about charity and development until then was action oriented. Help by building a house. Help by volunteering. Help by doing something, anything.
It wasn’t until I was challenged by my own projects, and by lessons from developments past, that I began to question my efforts.
My first project in La Ceiba was to develop the Constant Client Contact (CCC) program. The goal was to gather information that could be applied to loan design and impact evaluation. I was convinced that the project would work. Success meant successful help for the client and vindicated good intentions.
After developing the logistical framework and the goal of the program, it was time to roll it out. The program used phone conversations as the method to gather information. We developed well researched survey questions, a set of questions for clients whose loans were in good standing, another set for clients in arrears, and a third set for clients who left the loan program. I was confident in my research and the questions I developed.
My first call was to a client named Suyapa. I was so nervous that I felt like vomiting. My stomach was in a knot, I couldn’t think straight, and my hands were shaking.
I dialed Suyapa’s number and listened while the phone rang. “Hello?” She answered. “Helllyyyo ah, yes. It’s me Santiago. Is err, Suyapa? Sorry, I am calling from…” Oh my goodness. I was stuttering, none of my sentences made any sense, this was a disaster! We have a discussion guide that is supposed to help me through the conversation. I developed it! But even so, that first call ended poorly and so did many after that.
It was around this time that we read a controversial speech that criticized good intentions. It asserts that the act of helping is more about the person giving the help instead of the person receiving it, that a desire to be pure and virtuous is driving our actions and not the needs and wants of the less fortunate.
I thought about my project differently after reading this. Maybe the project was about us and not the client. Perhaps the project was meant to impress my professor. Perhaps the project was meant to make me feel a sense of achievement and strengthen my self-worth. Perhaps my good intentions weren’t enough to help the client.
It was true. I felt good about myself because of those efforts. I wanted to impress Dr. H, I was afraid of what my older and wiser colleague would think of me if I didn’t work hard, I caught myself bragging about my project to my friends, and yet I had no evidence that the CCC improved client well being.
There was a second goal to the project. In addition to gathering information, the program is meant to open channels of communication between clients and ourselves. It sounds more formal than it is. Really it was meant to be a conversation. We realized that we can’t just ask clients our questions and get what we want out of the conversation. We need to listen more and we need to give clients the opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about.
There is one question in the survey that reads, “if you were mayor and had the power to do anything you want, what is the one thing you would change to improve your community?” The question doesn’t serve any immediate practical purpose. It doesn’t tell us anything about our loan program. But the answers are meaningful. Clients expressed a desire to implement a drainage system to curtail flooding, others said they needed a greater police presence, some said they simply wanted job opportunities. The question allows the client to express their goals and aspirations, for themselves and their community. And it allows us to learn about what the client thinks should be and can be made better.
By the time I moved on from the CCC project, I thought about the program not so much as a tool to advance client well being, but as a way to better understand our clients. This path to understanding starts with humility and empathy. And by listening to each other while working together, we can begin to make a difference.
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