Those Among Us

There is a small group among us. When these people speak up, they are judged. When these people say something wrong, they are punished. When these people step out of line, they are questioned. Not from without, but from within. This group doesn’t know what they are feeling inside. They are different in that way.

These people are misunderstood. These people are underdogs.

Its overwhelming to feel like you shouldn’t be doing something all the time, to go out in the street and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, to feel the gaze of a stranger pierce through your chest, to sit in public and feel the spotlight on you, to show up to work and wonder if your colleagues respect you, to order a coffee and sense the annoyance of the cashier, to tensely scurry by those who are older and more powerful and wonder what they think of you.

Every moment, every detail, every step is filled with doubt. That is what being an underdog is.

Imagine your default state: you wake up every day and you find yourself in a hole. But the day doesn’t have to be about that. You can fight your way through the day, slug your way through self-doubt, and inch towards a sense of belonging. It requires everything. It initiates a raging battle inside. You muster everything you have, your pride, your confidence, and your integrity, by any means necessary. You write in your journal, you read about other underdogs, you create rituals; you remind yourself what is meaningful in your life. And even after all of these efforts, it’s still not enough. At some point in the day you lose focus. On good days it happens just once or twice for an hour or two. By the end of it, you are exhausted. You come home thinking about that position you took, that suggestion you made, that moment of vulnerability, and you wonder whether you did right.

Walking alone in the world with this burden can break the strongest among us. It will happen not with a thud, but with silent compliance. It happens when we stop speaking up, when we realize that our questions fall on deaf ears, when we succumb to the pressure to conform, when the expectations of your peers is too much to bear, when the voices of our better angels are shouted down by our demons. During these moments we lose sight of our purpose and capitulate. And everyday we wonder if its time to drift into quiet anguish.

But underdogs don’t have to walk alone. We can find each other and support each other, not through superficial positivity, but through vulnerability. We can find a common cause, one that connects us and brings out the best in us. We can pick each other up when we think we have had enough, we can make each other understand that we are not alone, we can challenge each other, and above all, we can be honest with each other.

This is what La Ceiba means to me. It is the cause that inspires meaning. It is the place where we form our ranks and get to work. It is the group of people I trust most.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Step Into Chaos

La Ceiba forces you outside of your comfort zone and makes you choose: you can go back and be safe, where research papers and professors define the struggle, or you can face some hard truths about yourself and the world.

This reality is full of chaos.

Chaos can be jarring and raucous at first, but out of chaos arises beauty, a natural occurrence of serendipity and depth in human interaction.

Something curious happens when you step into the chaos. You don’t have the benefit of your system, that system that taught us why our world is the way it is. That world doesn’t exist in the chaos. How do we behave in this space? How do we make sense of things we don’t understand?

It starts with humility.

To be humble is to be honest about what you are and to consider how we affect those around us. When we step into the chaos we don’t understand what is around us, at first, but we can understand what we are.

I am a male from Washington, DC. My mother is a Peruvian immigrant; my father is of Spanish decedents. I am a college graduate. I went to a private school for middle and high school. My family doesn’t have wealth or status, but they gave me everything I needed to be healthy and happy. It’s because I was given those opportunities that I have a degree of privilege that clients don’t.

To understand requires honest, sometimes uncomfortable, discussion about our circumstances.

  • It’s uncomfortable to ask why a grown woman, mother of three, never finished 2nd grade.
  • It’s uncomfortable to talk about my home feeling that the client wished she were there instead of Honduras.
  • It’s uncomfortable to feel the anger and frustration of clients emanating from their stifled goals.
  • It’s uncomfortable to communicate my mistake in assuming the client was something that she isn’t.

When I think about chaos I envision a dark room. I envision a person standing in the middle of this room and objects of all shapes and sizes whizzing by at random speeds and from every direction. I like to think that if you stood there long enough and stared into the space in front of you, eventually out of that randomness, patterns emerge. Eventually you see the same object more than once. Eventually those movements, those objects, and that room become familiar. Eventually you start to appreciate that chaos. Eventually you find beauty.

When I started my work in Honduras, I was a boss, a director, and a savior.

By the time I left, I became an equal.

I know this because I stopped receiving preferential treatment. When I did something to upset someone, I heard about it. That is the act of an equal.

Clients weren’t clients anymore, they were neighbors, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, feisty, shy, religious, indifferent, angry, generous, petty, honorable… they are complicated and whole individuals.

If my work were just about Microfinance, I would not be the person I am today and I would not have found meaning in my work. La Ceiba is more than microfinance. It’s about something else:

 

Creation by disruption with question

Struggle for meaning against fear, the tribe as my ally

Listen with empathy to understand

 

Let’s move away from the idea that we are here to help and that microfinance will eradicate poverty. Let’s define a new role. One where our purpose is to learn, listen, and take our cues from the people we serve.

We are here to get yelled at when needed, to receive hugs when needed, to be present through thick and thin, to understand each other, to love each other, to walk through the world together and stumble upon beauty in the midst of chaos.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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From Stuttering to Listening

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.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Arguing to Understand

Soccer always played an important role in my life. I grew up with soccer. I played in High School and a year in college. It taught me valuable lessons, it challenged me, and it introduced me to my best friends. I was excited then, to live in Honduras where soccer is also an important part of life.

Soccer is everything in Honduras. Every town and neighborhood has a soccer field. It’s an outlet from struggles of daily life and lends meaning to life simultaneously. It’s a measure of manhood and a rite of passage. A typical Sunday in Honduras has three things: Church, Soccer, and tajadas. I was lucky enough to be invited to the men’s team for the Villa Soleada town, where most of La Ceiba clients live.

The Villa team consists of an odd mix of players. One or two ex pats from the local NGO’s play consistently. Five or six players from Villa form the core of the team. The rest come and go: family members visiting from out of town, a friend of a friend who happened to have the day off, or a friend from a nearby community who we dragooned away from his own team.

Juan Carlos runs the Villa team. He is stocky with dark hair, dark skin, and a gut. Juan Ca likes to exchange jeers and jokes with friends in his familiar shrill voice. On game day, it’s not unusual to arrive at Juan Ca’s house to find him pacing in his yard, nervously calling players who are late, barking orders at his daughter to put together the team’s kit, and frantically scan the length of the field to find someone to referee.

One of my first games with the team was against a nearby town called La Sarrosa. It was a big event. The team asked to borrow a bus from SHH and they charged 100 LPS per person to travel with the team.

I was told that La Sarrosa was a strong team to be respected. “We have to play with everything we have,” was the motto of the week. The hype surrounding the game was real. Our game would be the main event: a 7pm start under the lights. When we arrived, it looked as though all of Sarrosa was there, and with many of our own fans making the trip, the edges of the field were packed with spectators.

I was new to the team, unfamiliar with their style of play and still learning everyone’s name. I was careful to listen to my teammates and had low expectations for myself. As we stretched and warmed up, Juan Carlos gave a talk: he would not play that night and instead be in charge of substitutions, “Santi will be our captain, because of his knowledge and experience.”

I was confused. Why was I made captain if I was new to the team? How did they know that I had knowledge or experience worthy of a captainship? I didn’t have much time to think about it or even speak up. As Juan Carlos finished his talk, the whistle blew and the game started.

We lost that game 2-1 in a hard fought battle. But the question still lingered.

In a sport that I knew was nearly a matter of life and death to Hondurans, for a game on which a lot was riding, against a stout opponent, for some reason Juan Ca, with silent approval from the rest of the team, selected me to be captain. How was that possible?

Two years later I was in another high stakes game: “Good fucking job Santi. Nice pass to the other team!” Juan Ca’s sarcastic yell could be heard above all others.

Juan Carlos and I sparred frequently in the month previous. We worked together to organize a soccer tournament with 10 teams, each from a different town. We had miscommunications that led him to blame me for “mistakes” in the schedule.

The tension between us culminated on that day. Juan Carlos didn’t start me this time and much less make me captain. Before the game he told me I was in bad form.

A few plays later I received the ball again. I was on the right side, I beat one defender, cut inside and put a cross in that our forward headed wide of the goal. A good play, I thought. “WHY DON’T YOU YELL ABOUT THAT JUAN CA?!” I shocked even myself at how loud I had yelled. The field went silent. I heard someone on the sideline say, “whoa, what was that?”

We lost that game. Afterwards, Juan Carlos scolded the team saying that we didn’t play with enough heart and toughness. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I got into an argument with him in front of everyone and told him to shut up.

Strangely, when I look back at that memory, I feel proud. I like to believe that I broke through a barrier. Juan Ca and the team treated me better than I deserved at La Sarrosa. But in the two years between these two games something changed. Juan Ca yelling at me was more meaningful than being named captain. It is a sign of an underlying trust, that he can be honest without fear of jeopardizing our friendship and my support.

Juan Ca and I talked later. He explained to me why he was so critical. Juan Ca wants to win because soccer is more than a respite to him. Winning means gaining the other teams respect, winning is gaining status for a day, and winning swells your pride in your team and your town. I respect that.

I don’t mind being benched or getting yelled at. I mind him giving me respect I haven’t earned. I mind him curbing his ambition to please me or anyone else. Now I know he isn’t trying to be mean, now I know I will have to earn his respect and play with everything I have to honor his ambition and his team.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Working Towards Rejection

She was pissed. Chilo recounted all the curse words used and how dramatically she reacted to the news. She wouldn’t receive a 4,000 LPS loan like she wanted. Instead we approved her for a 3,000 LPS loan.

Sandy is in her late 20’s. She is skinny with light skin and large facial features. She usually has a stern look about her. She has a husband and an infant son. She works as a cashier at a pharmacy and her husband works full-time. They bought their land and built their home themselves. Sandy’s situation is significantly different from that of a majority of clients.

Sandy is the client who asks the most questions, who scrutinizes our loan program, and me, the most. When I told Sandy about our loan ladder and the three repetitions, she scoffed. “Are you serious!? That seems like a lot to me.”

When a new client wants a loan, we sit down with them to review our Customer Information Packet. In this initial meeting, the goal is to review our loan program, the risks of a loan, and the goals of the client. Most new clients are relatively new to loans. I normally have to make an effort to make the client feel comfortable and at ease. I will disclose my intentions and the purpose of my visit right from the start. I tell clients that I am not there to interrogate or judge them but instead to provide them with information and have a discussion.

None of that was necessary with Sandy. She interrupted me to ask a question after every point on the Information Packet. She asked why we offered such small loans, why we charged such low interest rates, how our interest rate is calculated, where we get our capital, how we could afford our service… she had questions about everything.

Sandy wanted a 4,000 LPS loan as quickly as possible. I was concerned when I asked Sandy what goal she had for a large loan; she didn’t have anything in mind. When Sandy became eligible for a larger loan, we offered her a 3,000 LPS loan instead of the maximum 4,000 LPS loan. When Chilo told Sandy of our decision, she was livid. She rejected the 3,000 LPS loan and stopped communicating with us.

I was impressed at Sandy’s ability to tell us what is on her mind, to call us out when our service or product isn’t good enough, to scrutinize and question without fear, and to be able to walk away from the table. Sandy is an intense, edgy, outspoken woman. She was approaching me from firm ground and a place of confidence. Other clients are easily intimidated, passive, and have trouble speaking up.

Perhaps it was Sandy’s financial situation. She had more education, opportunity, and overall wealth than many other clients. Or perhaps it was innate in her character. I wondered too why this was a virtue, it wasn’t just that Sandy had wealth, it was that she felt free of my expectations, she had power in choosing to work with me or not.

There is an unspoken goal for us: we want to become obsolete. Aid and development exist to serve people in poverty. Our goal should be to accept a day when those are no longer necessary. While this may not happen soon, keeping that goal on the horizon affects the way we approach our work. It reminds us that microfinance isn’t about us; it’s about the client. We should work towards the day when clients find a loan unnecessary not just because they already have the wealth and opportunity they need, but because they have the confidence to be able to tell us that they don’t need us.

In December, a few months after our fall out, I finally reached out to Sandy. I went to the pharmacy where she works. I felt nervous and was worried that she would yell at me or curse at me like she did with Chilo.

We spoke briefly and I apologized for how things ended between us. Calmly, she accepted my apology. I offered her the 4,000 LPS. She declined but said she would think about it.

“I’ll give you a call when I’m ready. Just so you know, I deleted your number but I’ll get it from a neighbor.”

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Common Struggles

Why am I doing this? Should I be here? I’m not good enough. I’m not qualified. I am causing more harm than good. Students think I am doing a bad job, clients aren’t happy with my work. I thought I could do it but I am just naïve.  

These thoughts are always with me. When I am feeling most sensitive they practically control me.

It’s not just the job; I’m a sensitive person. But It’s true that our insecurities are amplified when we are doing something that is important and new to us.

I’m skeptical of people who say that they “just do it” when they are in a bind and feeling down. I don’t know how everyone doesn’t feel some measure of insecurity and self-doubt when they are doing something important yet scary.

But self-doubt is good. Self-doubt allows us to connect with others, it makes empathy possible, and it deepens the meaning of a relationship.

There’s a client, Norma, who I can tell when she is feeling vulnerable, she has a tendency to say insulting things.

“I don’t want to go to your stupid classes. Why would I want to do that? They are a waste of time.” Norma yelled this at me after I asked her if she wanted to come to our financial literacy classes. I walked away and we didn’t talk to each other for a week.

I understood Norma’s outburst had nothing to do with the classes or me. I know that Norma gets judged a lot by her neighbors. Part of Norma’s charm is her quirky, absent-minded sense of humor. She is self-deprecating and often plays dumb to get a good laugh. Sometimes people will take her humor to mean that she must be unintelligent. When the joke is over, people don’t take Norma seriously. I’ve heard neighbors and clients smile when Norma’s name comes up and dismiss her as another old crank.

When I was in school I had a tendency to play the class clown. I would play dumb or do outrageous things to get attention. I felt the frustration of not being taken seriously. My peers didn’t come to me for help on schoolwork or ask for my opinion on interesting topics and they were surprised when I made intelligent observations and comments.

My frustration expressed itself quietly and critically. I had a hard time understanding why I wasn’t taken more seriously and I would beat myself up. I would sulk and shrink away from friends. I would ignore my academics and fail to participate in class. I would sabotage my own efforts to change my situation.

I can’t pretend to understand Norma’s situation, and its not fair to look at her troubles as if they were the same as mine; they’re not. But we can connect with each other by tapping into those vulnerabilities to find common themes in our struggles.

I don’t have answers for Norma, or a way of making her feel better. I thought it best to treat her the same way that I would want to be treated, with respect and seriousness. Because next week I could be the one who is feeling insecure and frustrated with the world around me.

In the end we are all still searching for salvation, and while no one else can save us, we can walk down the path together. A wise woman said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The next week Norma showed up to the first day of class. She walked through the entrance of the complex where the class was held. “Over here Norma!” I yelled for her to come to class. She slowly walked towards me. I walked out to meet her. As she approached I extended my hand to shake hers. We shook hands silently and smiled. Norma went to class and I went back to work.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Breakfast

“Damn this printer!”

I had to make 80 copies of the invitation and the printer jammed after 40.

Chilo looked over at me, smirked, and shook his head.

“I told you it would jam.” He said.

A mild desperation started to build inside.

“Lets get the document on the USB and head over to the print shop.”

Pablo the printer guy attended to us when we got to the shop. We usually made small talk or told jokes, but I wasn’t in any mood for jokes.

“Hey Pablo. Forty copies please.”

I was feeling the pressure. We were planning a breakfast for clients. It was the last event of the year before the student trip. We wanted to organize something nice where we could communicate our appreciation for clients.

The next day I got to Villa at 8:00am. That hour from 8 to 9 was agonizing.

The breakfast was a mistake. No one will enjoy this and I just spent $75. What was I thinking? Is this really what a Program Director should be doing?

At 9:15am the first person showed up. Carmen walked in and sat down. We served her coffee and made small talk. It was 9:25 and still only 5 people had shown up.

A few minutes later something happened. The La Ceiba ladies showed up. They were all impressed by the set up, they all gave us hugs and thanked us for inviting them. Guillermina gave me a Christmas present: a pen, a notepad, and gum. She said it wasn’t much but she wanted to give me something.

Inside clients were striking up conversations with one another. Ladies from Villa were talking to ladies from Monte de los Olivos, Carmen who was previously silent was laughing at Selma’s jokes, and more ladies were showing up.

We had planned for 30 people to show up. In the end 38 ladies showed up.

Before we served breakfast, I gathered everyone’s attention and asked Chilo to say a few words.

“I just wanted to say that I like working with you and I appreciate the kindness and respect you have shown me.” Everyone clapped.

Some of the women who came had loans that were in arrears and previously felt too ashamed to talk to me. However, one woman pulled me aside during the breakfast. She was a year behind on her payments. She explained to me that shortly after she received her last loan her husband left in dramatic fashion and now she was alone to care for her three children. There was nothing I could do except listen.

I wondered why so many women came to the breakfast, and why that one woman in particular felt the need to be so open with me. I didn’t think they wanted breakfast that badly, they know that we cant force anyone to come, and the one woman had no reason to explain her situation (she could have just kept quiet and there would have been no consequence).

It’s in the relationship, with Chilo, with students, and with myself, where clients find meaning. The common thread among all of our relationships is mutual respect. Despite difficult moments, moments where I give bad news and moments where clients articulate their displeasure with me, through successes and failures and my own moments of despair, we always treat each other with respect and empathy. We try to understand each other and forgive each other for our failures.

At the end of breakfast I asked everyone if we could take a group photo together. We gathered in front of the bilingual school and called the guard over to take the picture. As we posed together awkwardly there was a long pause. “Did he take it yet?” “What is he doing?”

Finally the guard blurted, “how does this damn thing work?” Everyone burst out laughing.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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A Team Struggle

There was a sharp pain in my lower back, my feet were sore from standing all day, and my stomach felt woozy from too much caffeine and not enough food. “Let’s put these tables over in the library.” James and Sepehr were lugging tables around with me. We were preparing the space for our closing ceremony. It was 2:30pm and the ceremony was supposed to start at 3:30. I was worried that we wouldn’t get it done in time.

The closing ceremony was the culmination of the La Ceiba student trip. It is where Kristen and Aashna, of the Education Team, would celebrate the participation of clients in financial literacy classes. We had invited over 20 clients and their families in addition to 15 colleagues from Student Helping Honduras.

“Ok tables are done what’s next.” Sepehr began to organize the plastic chairs in a specific sequence while James, Jessica, and a few others collected more chairs from the library and around the school.

When the trip started and the group arrived, things didn’t go as planned. The challenges we faced included a missed flight, delays during breakfast, a door that wouldn’t open, a sick teammate, and a broken printer. No one got upset, no one lost their patience, no one blamed me or bad planning, we simply took on the challenge and kept working.

“What is that squiggly line called?” Sepehr and I were finishing the programs for the ceremony. Sepehr had stayed up with the Education Team until midnight on the night before to get a start on the program. In the late hours of the night we all felt loopy from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Jokingly, we would remind Sepehr to do his job. “I’m doing this for you guys as a favor. I hope you understand that.” Sepehr would respond. The next day I couldn’t help but remember what he said. Finding the “enye” sign was probably the least efficient thing Sepehr did all day but he was determined to find it. I thought about how capable and talented he was, and yet he was willing to do this unflattering, and unexciting task.

With 30 minutes left before the ceremony was set to start, I began to worry. We hadn’t printed enough programs, we didn’t have enough chairs, the food table wasn’t in the right place, and the Education Team was missing. But as I looked around I noticed James was in the computer lab printing more programs, Courtney was putting up string to cordon off the reserved section, Sepehr continued to organize the chairs, Jeff was setting up his go pro, and everyone was doing something or was offering to do something to help. When Education Team showed up, I understood that they had their own preparations to finish. Their gifts for clients were organized, they changed into business casual attire, and they had speeches prepared.

It could have gone differently. We could have succumbed to our anxieties and insecurities; we could have done exactly what was asked of us, we could have worked to impress Dr. H instead of working toward a collective goal. Instead, everyone took ownership of the ceremony and of their task, no one waited to be told what to do, everyone went beyond what was expected and we all supported each other.

Underlying our efforts is a commitment and belief in our ability to change things. It’s the idea of client-centeredness. And, while at times it can be difficult to define what client-centered really means, on that day we all agreed that the ceremony formed part of that purpose. It served as a reminder of the power of La Ceiba: we put aside our individual needs and devoted ourselves to a collective goal.

That moment in the library, when my back hurt most and my feet felt like cramping, watching Sepehr and James go about their work reminded me that we were a team, that they had my back and I theirs. Like a basketball player after a sweet bucket, I quietly pumped my fist and got back to work.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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A Quick Cameo

Microfinance isn’t what I thought it was. My understanding was based off of a simple narrative: give a poor person a loan, they use that loan to start their own business, and they lift themselves out of poverty. Embedded is the assumption that loans are positive, and that they should be extended to as many marginalized people as possible.

Over the last two years I’ve changed my expectations, not because I wanted to but because I had to. In the course of my job, I found that several of my assumptions, my expectations for Microfinance, and my ability to change things, were off.

Loans are inadequate in fighting poverty and can lead to negative outcomes. Progress against poverty requires all type of tools and strategies, not just a loan, because poverty is not a simple condition, it affects many segments of ones life from health care, to education, to civil rights… loans are only one of many tools that can be employed.

Loans can cause harm. If a client doesn’t understand the product, if institutional incentives are distorted, if a loan is not applied carefully, it can lead to negative consequences. Missing payments and accumulating debt causes anxiety and loss of self-worth. Clients feel personally indebted to the loan officer and worry about their judgment. Where client protections aren’t enforced, an institution can employ harsh repayment policies that can further impoverish clients.

Loans aren’t for everyone. Many aren’t interested in a loan and don’t need one. Some don’t see the benefit of taking on more debt. Others don’t trust financial institutions. Sometimes a client wants a loan where an alternative would have worked better.

I am not as powerful as I thought. Changing things isn’t naïve if you know what it takes to do so. I was naïve because I didn’t know enough. I thought I could change things if I just worked hard and believed in myself. The reality is much more complicated. The culture and history of Honduras deeply affects attitudes towards credit and foreign intervention.

Hondurans embrace of Americans is cynical. The community never questioned my presence and it was assumed that I had the means to “help.” Association with an American is a sign of prestige. My idea for relationship collateral suffered because I misinterpreted my role and relationship with clients.

I discovered significant forces working against me: lack of economic opportunity, lack of quality and affordable health care, lack of quality education, unsafe streets, an unresponsive government. These are systemic problems whose challenges are not easily met. Many clients fall behind on repayments because of those forces: a fatal illness, high medical expenses, a robbery, large debts to other providers, lack of access to insurance, or poor administrative skills.

My knowledge about the context and culture of clients is incomplete. Categorizing the conditions of poverty, and conducting surveys, cannot sufficiently capture what it means to be a Honduran living in Villa Soleada. That is why it is important to approach MF with skepticism and development work with humility. No matter how much we research MF or immerse ourselves in local culture, we wont know what the best solution is for clients.

Poverty is not emotional. It doesn’t go away if we pity it, it doesn’t disappear when we show it love, it doesn’t care if you give it affection especially from a foreigner. Progress against poverty requires real tangible results. My good intentions are useless if I can’t apply it to something meaningful and impactful. The poor don’t need a friend or a caretaker, they need self-determination, they want the means to decide for themselves, they want to pursue their goals, they want to take care of their own family, and they deserve the means to do so.

Our actions, no matter how small and narrow, lead to unintended consequences. We live in a web of social connection. When we give to some but not all, those on the fringes of the web notice. The people who didn’t receive that dollar or donation, they ask themselves why. They wonder what they have to do to get the same and they change their behavior. And, government institutions feel less accountable because the foreigner is claiming responsibility over their constituents.

It’s difficult to establish honest relationships when the local perception and expectations for your presence don’t match your goals and parameters. Especially when our service consists of giving, we invite a relationship based on what we have and what we can give instead of who we are and what we can learn from each other.

Despite those limitations, I believe that my presence and the tool I chose to offer can lead to change. To do so I’ve had to challenge my expectations and the expectations of those I work with. Change is possible but not in the fashion we imagine. A loan can work if it is designed and applied carefully, but it’s not for everyone, and when it works, don’t expect it to be the silver bullet we were told it could be. It’s on the margins where we find our role. Not as the protagonist, but as the friendly adviser with a short cameo.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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