Director’s Corner follows Oikocredit USA National Director Sharlene Brown as she reflects on her work and her travels to investors and supportive communities in the US.
Last weekend I attended Rotary’s Symposium to Eliminate Poverty Sustainably (STEPS) and was blown away at the commitment to service of Rotarians around the world. This symposium gave me the opportunity to hear about the projects Rotarians have supported in Peru, Indonesia, Haiti, and Afghanistan.
Marilyn Fitzgerald, author of If I had a Water Buffalo: Sustainability and Life Lessons, is a member of Rotary’s Action Group for Microcredit (RAGM) who gave a fascinating presentation to this large group of engaged and well-intentioned Rotarians. Marilyn reminded the audience to think carefully about who knows best in a community where we as outsiders are going in to achieve development, and warned against the trap of seeing problems from our Western perspectives and failing to ask the community to identify their own needs and challenges. She urged us to remember that even the most well-intentioned development worker can cause harm if the beneficiaries are not stakeholders in all stages of a project. From her field stories, Marilyn has clearly had the opportunity to evaluate a variety of development projects and, in her experience, microfinance projects were the most successful as they give people an opportunity to improve their situations in life with pride and dignity. She shared two notable stories:
The first: Marilyn and her Rotary Club decided to support school expenses for children in a village in Indonesia. Each year, she went to her club to raise the $72,000 it would take to cover the educational expenses for the children and each year she would go back to visit to see how things were moving along. On one of her trips, a villager named Nyoman asked if she would instead buy him a water buffalo which would allow him to triple his rice production and cover the costs of his three children’s education. Initially, Marilyn declined – she was not in the water buffalo business and the project was focused on education not agriculture. But upon learning the cost of a water buffalo was $250, she requested the gift from her family that Christmas. Her family gave her the $250 for the water buffalo and the funds were sent to Nyoman. A year later, she went back to see a very excited Nyoman, his thriving rice field, and the water buffalo – named “Marilyn” in her honor. Subsequent to this, two other requests came – one from the women in the village for piglets they could raise to earn income; the other from the children for baby chickens they could take care of and sell the eggs. Both the women and children would use part of the earnings to cover the costs of education. Three years later, the villagers could cover the cost of educating their children.Marilyn reflected on the fact that $650 put toward income generating activities had attained a goal (providing education for the village’s children) and had eliminated the need to raise $72,000 annually. Imagine how much money could have been saved had the villagers been asked early on how they could be assisted in building futures for themselves?!
Her second story: On a trip to Guatemala to visit Rotary support projects, Marilyn was taken to see several local entrepreneurs including a woman who made and sold tortillas. On such trips, it is often customary for funder-representatives like Marilyn to be given the 5-star treatment and to be showered with gratitude by the beneficiaries of the funds. Upon arriving at this vendor’s stand, the translator presented Marilyn and told her, “This is Marilyn from the United States! She gave you the loan to start your tortilla stand!” The woman, unfazed, looked Marilyn directly in the eyes and replied, “And I paid you back!” Marilyn reflected on how we in the US would react if a loan officer from our bank showed up at our place of business expecting such fanfare.
Hearing these stories reinforced for me the power of Oikocredit’s focus: Investing in People! Our staff, investors, and volunteers are prepared to share what they have, and recognize that development must be done with respect and in cooperation with those who benefit from our investments.