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 (
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“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 (

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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 (

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