Sunday, October 4, 2009

Project Update

A lot of development organizations work in the Nicaraguan countryside. Most of the time, they come through with tangible things to give out to people – a new latrine, materials for a garden, a pregnant cow, water barrels, even houses (e.g. the house I live in). The Peace Corps does not give out anything. We come with just our experience, our time, and our willingness to work. More than anything else, we are community organizers. Our job is to help the community get organized so that it can take on projects without outside assistance. I believe in the Peace Corps’s philosophy. But when every other gringo who comes through is handing out goodies, it makes my job pretty tough.

For example, I want to continue the sewing group that the last volunteer started. There are about twelve women who received sewing classes. However, there are only two machines between the twelve of them on which to practice. I am trying to get the group to pool its resources – maybe start a small savings bank, or hold bake sales, or whatever – to raise the money for more machines. It’s been hard to get anyone to commit to working on this project, though. Most of the women in the group are convinced that the only way to continue with the sewing is for the mayor’s office to give each woman a sewing machine. I’m not buying it. But everything must go at a Nicaraguan pace, which is to say, slowly. So for the time being, the group is going just meeting every week or so to do something – next week we’re making orange marmalade – with whoever happens to show up that day. I’m hoping that over time a committed group will emerge and that one of these little projects will turn into a small business proposition which we can use to raise money for the machines.

Another example: several weeks ago the mayor’s office asked that all the communities affiliated with this municipality make a list of community priorities. Two of the items on the list my community made were loans for women and financing for farmers. Great, I thought, here’s something I can really help out with. Part of my training was on how to start up a small community bank. Basically, each person brings a certain amount of money each week (the amount is determined by the group), and then that money is made available for small loans for a period of time and at an interest rate also determined by the group. At the end of the loan cycle – usually six months to a year – the money is divided up evenly or reinvested in a community project. It’s a great way to foster a culture of saving, which is decidedly absent in the Nicaraguan countryside.

My idea was that we could form two banks in the community - one for women and one for producers. The producers’ bank could ultimately turn into a seed bank. By next planting season we would have enough money to invest in disease-resistant seeds, which the farmers could take as loans and repay in kind at harvest time. When I held a meeting to discuss the idea, some people seemed interested. Mostly what they said, though, was that the mayor’s office or an NGO really should be giving the women interest-free loans. The federal government should be giving the seeds to farmers. Some people reluctantly agreed to come to a second meeting to form a bank, but on the day of the meeting no one showed up. Supposedly we’re going to try again this Friday, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’ve never been a super gung-ho capitalist, and I believe in the duty of a society to take care of its poorest members. Still, the longer I am here the more aware I become of my American capitalistic values, my entrepreneurial spirit. Everywhere I look I see a small business opportunity. Rotting tomatoes? Looks like a ketchup project. Cow poop? Looks like an organic fertilizer business. I also believe in being frugal and saving money. When the community members told me they didn’t have a dollar a week to put into a savings bank, my first thought was, “Okay, but you do have money for popsicles and chips?” I know people are buying them because the wrappers are all over the ground.

Volunteers who have been here longer all say that it takes a good six months to a year to get any bigger projects up and running. I’m trying to be patient. In the meantime, there’s my garden to take care of, my chicken coop to clean out and find chicks for, and lots and lots of books to read.

Into It:
Making super-spicy hot sauce with my neighbor
Eating fresh greens from my garden every day
Going to bed at 7:30pm and sleeping for a luxurious 9 and a half hours a night

Over It:
The heat of the mid-day sun at 12 degrees north latitude
A wasp colony hell-bent on having a home near mine
Cat-calls from the road crew that is currently working outside my front door (but soon there will be a paved road, meaning much shorter bus trips into town. Yay!)


Alexis said...

Hi Laurie! It's Alexis, your "replacement." I read your blog when I go on Ashley's computer, because she has a bookmark for it. I love to hear how you are doing! Sounds fascinating! You really have me thinking about my plastic usage...I can't believe how much I use. It seems like every single product I buy, down to foods such as brownies from the Soy Cafe, are wrapped in plastic. How unnecessary! But one couldn't POSSIBLY try to avoid buying products wrapped in plastic, because everrrryyyythhhing is wrapped in it. Anyway, good food for thought! Glad you are doing well! Keep updating!

Anonymous said...

Enjoy reding your blog Laurie. It is very interesting to this business volunteer!
Betty Miller

Kate Lovelady said...

Hi Laurie--

Your blog continues to be terrific. I was just reading a book on sanitation projects in India, and it made the same points. Give people latrines and they don't get used or maintained; convince people that they want to buy or build their own and they do. But if people think they can just wait to be given a free latrine, they don't do anything. I never considered myself a market capitalist either and am suspicious of arguments that "handouts make people lazy"--yet in some situations there does seem to be some truth that charity can be demotivating. But it's not just poor people, it's a universal psychological thing--like those studies that if you pay a student to do homework, they lose motivation to do it without getting paid.

Your situation sounds extremely frustrating. I'm curious if you can talk directly with the people there about what you see and the issue of motivation.