Friday, September 4, 2009

Bringing ideas to the developing world

Hola todos –

I hope you’re all doing fine. I am finally back in Seattle and it’s so nice to be home! I’ve only been home for a little bit, but I had a few more thoughts to put up as I begin decompressing from my summer abroad. The photos you see above are some beautiful shots from the last weekend trip I took in Samana. That waterfall was absolutely gorgeous - it's called the Salto de Limon.

This post is about a subject which nearly all of my development classes at UW have touched. To what extent should “the West” – white people – approach development as bringing solutions to the poor, and to what extent should it be us listening to the poor about what they need and letting them determine what we bring them? I’ve had some UW classes emphasize that we need to err (or even depend solely) on the poor to determine what they need and what solutions to bring. After my summer in the Dominican, I’m starting to think that sometimes, there truly are ideas and thoughts (and technology) which haven’t reached the backcountry of the developing world which will provide solutions the poor haven’t come across – and may be a better solution than what the poor themselves would come up with.

Let me clarify first of all, that this will be different in each country, and even each region of a country. These critical specifics will affect what solutions may be introduced, and what options are already known by those living there. It is vitally important that this be done or aided by people who are extremely experienced/grew up in the country or region. I cannot say how important experience is. How do you expect to know what to do if you haven’t been somewhere very long?

Given this, I’m going to apply what I have learned in the Dominican (over only a short period of two months) to this principle and show why we shouldn’t necessarily be scared to bring in and share some of these ideas, thoughts and technology. I know this directly contradicts what I put above – but we were starting to see trends emerging which would (or maybe will) lead to changes in how Esperanza works in the Dominican. At the least it provides evidence that if you live somewhere long enough, you can start to think of solutions which are applicable to the people there.

So, what exactly do I mean by “solutions”? That’s quite a general word, but let me try to give some examples so you know what I might be thinking about.

Remember that post I had a few weeks ago about microfinance? That’s the first type of help that can come. It can be:

Helping someone to think of new business opportunities

Technical training to get new skills

Advertising training

Customer relations training

Help with goal setting

On a slightly different line of thinking, one of the other interns in the Dominican had a fantastic thought she brought up with us. What if we were able to do a trade show for various successful small business owners in an area who could come together, share various ideas on how to achieve such a success? The solution wouldn’t stop here – these leaders would then be charged with going into their communities and teaching others of how to make their businesses more successful.

A similar twist on this would be for workers who have contact with many associates to pool together “stories of success” and make them into a format shareable to other borrowers in the field. For instance, the branch office I worked at in SamanĂ¡ could put together a couple sheets of paper which could be read aloud to the illiterate borrowers about different business strategies which have created success where usually there is stagnancy. This would be much easier to put together than a trade show – but it highlights what I think is one of the most critical elements necessary for those in the Dominican to create better businesses: information and ideas sharing/communication. I feel like if people were given more ideas of how they could run their business in a way which would help them feed their family and improve their living situation, they wouldn’t take the advice lightly for the most part (though of course, some would).

Another type of help which could come to those in the Dominican would be help with is money management. This is most obviously present when at the meeting directly previous to a new loan dispersal. The loan officers will typically ask an associate “how much money do you earn monthly as a household?” This question is usually met by blank stares, and then a guess which is usually taken out of thin air. They then are asked to guess their expenditures, which is again guessed. The thing is - many times they guess expenditures which are several times over their income. This doesn’t suggest anything other than the fact that many have very little idea what their money flow is.

This has several obvious and major implications, such as unknowingly running out of money or food, having no savings, not being able to support the business, not paying back their loans and more. The simple fact is that there could be many benefits to giving some money management training to associates. These include stability, future planning, better business growth, and more money available for the family.

These examples are just a few thoughts that support that there are some thoughts and ideas which would benefit those in the developing world. They need to be introduced in a humble, sensitive manner and by people who have lived in the country or have worked there for a long time. It must be done intelligently, compassionately and lovingly. It cannot be done with pride or a sense of superiority, but rather with a servant’s heart. I think this passage in Philippians 2:5-8 sums up what I’m trying to say the best:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

That’s the description of what mindset a development worker should have.