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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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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Poverty Is and Poverty is Not

Working in microfinance, aid, and development more broadly, obviously requires talk about poverty and change. Too often though, we set out to find answers to poverty without actually knowing what it is. Gaining a clear view of reality, of what it means to be poor and what our role is as partners in the struggle for advancement, is the first step towards changing things for the better. It’s a dynamic process, a constant evolution that requires patience and understanding.

So here is my attempt at understanding what poverty really is:

Poverty is not an unpaved road. Poverty is the business that has to spend extra money to fix their truck because the roads aren’t fixed.

Poverty is not hot weather. Poverty is not having anything to fall back on when drought withers away your harvest.

Poverty is not frequent power outages. Poverty is the business that grinds to a halt and loses its customers because of the outage.

Poverty is not a room without furniture. Poverty is living on land that’s not yours, not knowing for how long you’ll be able to stay.

Poverty is not trash-strewn streets. Poverty is a lack of garbage pickup and a faulty sanitation system.

Poverty is not a choice or a lifestyle. Poverty is feeling trapped by a shortage of jobs and opportunity.

Poverty is not an open-air classroom. Poverty is a mother who is unhappy with her child’s school, unable to put her child in another. Poverty is a failing school system that doesn’t give teachers the resources they need to succeed and the teacher who hits his students instead of talking to them.

Poverty is not a shortage of family values or love at home. Poverty is a single mom whose parents weren’t around when she was young and has to learn, on her own, what it means to be a parent.

Poverty is not a tourist attraction or an act of solidarity. Poverty is the lawyer who gets shot for representing the underprivileged in the face of powerful interests.

Poverty has nothing to do with the look of the place. Poverty is feeling unsafe in your home because of a robbery that occurred down the street the other day knowing that the police never showed up. Poverty is petitioning your local government for a police presence only to get turned away.

Poverty is not a business opportunity. Poverty is choosing between funding your home business (which pays for everything else) or sending your child to school for a year.

Poverty does not define the poor. Poverty is just one part of a poor person’s life. That poor person is also a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a soccer player, a musician, a jokester, a card player, a dancer, and so much more.

Poverty is not just about income and material needs. Poverty is a generation who loses their culture and traditions because they look up to the foreigner, and his way of life, instead of learning about their fathers and forefathers from their past.

Poverty cant be neatly defined on a website or encapsulated in a picture. This post doesn’t even come close to defining what poverty really is. What we can do is understand that there’s nothing we can read, see, or experience that can give us accurate insight into the problems of poverty. This understanding serves to challenge our assumptions and put our relationship with poverty into perspective. The complexities of poverty make it impossible for an outsider to fully understand the problems of a community. Maybe outsiders do in fact have a role to play, but it’s not the part of “hero”. The heroes of this story are the poor.

I am still learning about what it means to be poor, what it means to be Honduran, and where I fit into that narrative. I do know that it’s not up to me to fix things. Its up to the poor to understand their condition and advance their cause. And if in the meantime they ask me to stand with them, I’ll be ready to help.

 

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

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Smiling and Simplifying

Guillermina has a winning smile. Her enduring kindness makes those around her feel comfortable and at ease. She has a jolly and convivial disposition but she doesn’t thirst for attention. She’s like the witty aunt who takes part in banter from her chair in the corner. Despite her age (40’s) and a 4th grade level of education, Guillermina makes a point of advancing her education. Guillermina has showed up to every financial literacy class La Ceiba has offered. Further, Guillermina is enrolled in an adult education program with the Honduras public school system. Every Saturday, for three and a half hours, she receives classes and tutoring from high school students. They give her lessons and individual attention that complements thick study packets for homework.

Guillermina isn’t a typical microfinance client. She doesn’t own a business and doesn’t have any aspirations to do so. She is responsible for one minor, her daughter. They live together in Monte de los Olivos, a tiny and new community in El Progreso. Monte is poor. It lacks basic infrastructure like a sewage system, running water, paved roads, electricity and law enforcement. Her daughter Sulma has an unusual health condition that requires monthly visits to the hospital for check ups and, if required, shots and tests. The costs are tough to cover all at once. Guillermina is only able to pay the fees in parts, an agreement her doctor and health providers have agreed to… for now. Guillermina takes advantage of La Ceiba’s hands off policy by investing her loan in medical expenses.

Guillermina has interesting repayment habits. She likes to pay her installments in bunches and large sums. A couple of months ago, Guillermina requested a new, bigger loan but was rebuffed. Her repayment was poor, reflected in her credit score, and she would have to repeat the loan amount.

I met with Guillermina to tell her the news. We sat around a table in her living room. I explained her situation and the decision not to extend a larger loan but she didn’t quite understand. Between the language barrier and the technical vocabulary inherent with financial products, the explanation of why she couldn’t receive a larger loan was not very clear. She later admitted that she didn’t understand much of what I said. The message she was hearing was that her performance was poor and that is why she couldn’t receive a larger loan.

When she heard this message she bore a disgruntled look on her face. In a dramatic change, her face morphed from her content smile, to a displeased smirk and squinted eyes. Her brows were furrowed and she was motionless. Her stare was locked on my face, I felt as though she was shooting daggers out of her eyes.

I kept trying to rephrase my explanation. I used different vocabulary words, analogies she could understand, and visual aids. I felt it necessary, out of my own discomfort, to keep reassuring her that she should not worry or be upset. After about a half hour of back and forth it was clear that I had done as much as I could. I told her flatly that her next loan would be the same amount as the last and to call with any further questions. We shook hands and wished each other a curt farewell.

A month later Guillermina called me. “I’d like to talk to you Santiago,” she said. We held the meeting at her house again, in her back yard this time. As I sat down I didn’t really know what to expect. Some part of me thought she was going to voice displeasure at my service or the product. She initiated conversation, “I’ve been thinking, I want one installment paid in six months.” I was surprised.

She wanted a one lump sum. I had never offered or given a loan with a one lump sum over that period of time but I saw no reason why it wasn’t possible. I told her the interest might be higher than if she paid in weekly installments. She said she didn’t mind. She found that keeping track of many installments was too much work and our credit score too complicated for her to try and calculate herself. She was simplifying. She wanted one payment in 6 months when she saved up enough to pay it. If she could pay it earlier, that option was open to her too.

I realized I had made a mistake. I dismissed my first conversation with her as a complete communication failure. I assumed that she didn’t understand anything what I was saying. She understood a lot more than I thought. And, she was able to analyze her situation astutely so as to ask for a schedule that fit her needs best. It’s this ability to understand your own situation that I was overlooking. She turned her weakness from her previous loan, paying many installments on the same date, into a strength by paying her entire loan in one installment.

 

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

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Relationship Collateral

Seven months ago I was appointed Program Director of Honduras Operations for La Ceiba. I am living in El Progreso as the first full-time employee in La Ceiba’s history. Yet, for a long time after accepting the job, I had no idea what Program Director was supposed to do. I wasn’t sure what my role was within the organization and I worried that my presence would cause an imbalance. The experiences I had as a student could not have been the same if there were a full-time Program Director in Honduras.

While I wrestled with this tension, I did the only thing I was sure I was supposed to be doing: I visited our clients one by one. We made small talk until the question occurred to me, “what do you think of La Ceiba?”

The answers to this question led me to believe that our service and product could improve immensely. The more questions I asked, the more involved and active clients seemed to get. I asked further questions.

  • What would clients like La Ceiba to improve upon?
  • What do they think of our requirements, our interest rates, and our policies?

Something unexpected happened during this time. Since the 20th of August:

  • La Ceiba’s Portfolio at Risk fell from 33%, to 8%.
  • Our gross loan portfolio went from 50,000 lempiras ($2,500) to 69,277 lempiras ($3,464).
  • We added 24 clients to our program including our first male client.
  • The disbursed principle over the last three months is 104,300 lempiras ($5,215) compared to 144,000 lempiras ($7,200) disbursed over the entire 2012 fiscal year.

I wonder whether we stumbled upon a powerful idea: did we replace collateral with a relationship? We’ve mitigated our risk despite rejecting collateral requirements, high interest rates, and the plethora of aggressive practices that are justified by our industry. Instead, we built trust through repeated interactions, constant and open communications, clear and explicit terms, and by adopting the attitude that the client can fulfill their obligations without an outsider telling them how. Clients understand our product as a mutual agreement: we won’t pressure you to pay, we’ll charge a fair price, and we won’t engage in aggressive practices. In exchange, the client makes herself responsible for her loan in the way she knows how. The only way we can make this work is if the client trusts us not to take advantage of her and we trust that she will do whatever is in her power to pay her loan.

In the last few weeks, La Ceiba students have met with Ana and I to discuss and develop policy. Together we made adjustments and reached breakthroughs. The meetings served to continue the process of questioning our policies and ourselves, but added a new perspective to the debate. It’s a further opportunity to develop the best product possible where it injects local knowledge and the clients voice into the process. And yet, it is a trade off.

Looking forward we encounter several questions.

  • Are we working towards financial sustainability?
  • Should we pursue legal recognition in Honduras?
  • Can relationships replace collateral?
  • What balance can we strike between a student-centered and a client-centered definition?

As we work towards perfecting our operations and roles, our mission and our focus, I am certain that we will do so together as a tribe, and, as we’ve always done, we wont fail to question our every step of the way.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on November 24th, 2013)