Coming in to the whole microfinance industry, my main thought was that the mission was to provide disadvantaged people with the opportunities the need in order to develop and prosper on their own. Until working at Pro Mujer Perú, a microfinance institution, it never really sank in that not only do the problems of the impoverished include a lack of economic opportunities, but also the added mental and emotional hurdles that come from generational cycles of abuse. Having come from a fortunate background with all of the opportunities I needed to succeed, I’m glad I spent some time both supporting the efforts of this organization and gaining a new perspective on how luck plays a very big role in how our lives ultimately play out.
Introduction to Microfinance
An idea pioneered by Professor Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh in 1976, microfinance started out as a mission to fill one of the unmet needs of the world’s poorest aspiring entrepreneurs – access to capital – by providing small loans with which one could grow a business. Previously, this demographic was shut out of the market for traditional bank loans due to income and credit history requirements. By providing these people with small loans, they then have the capital needed to grow and maintain their businesses, and also build a credit history as a means of entry into the more formal banking sector. Since 1976, microfinance has evolved into a multi-service industry providing the World’s poorest people with a multitude of financial services such as loans, insurance and savings as well as education and health services.
One of the things that drew me to volunteering in microfinance is the idea of localized self-sustainability that lies at the heart of the theory; if you support an impoverished individual in becoming an enterprising individual, they will add economic value to their community which will in turn benefit others. It also seemed like the best fit for me as far as volunteering experiences go given my educational background. Thus I was very pleased to have set up a two month internship with Pro Mujer Perú so that I could both fulfill what I feel is my duty to help out those less fortunate than me as well as to increase my understanding of the microfinance field.
Theories in Practice
Having volunteered in a developing country before, I knew coming into this assignment that all would not flow smoothly and that seeing microfinance in practice would reveal some significant gaps from the theories of microfinance that I had studied. This I understood and accepted as one of the challenges that many charity organizations of all flavors struggled with. What I didn’t expect to observe was how trying to improve the lives of those stuck in a cycle of poverty was hampered by more than mere organizational shortcomings. In providing economic opportunities to the impoverished, the majority of which are women, there are also the challenges that come with an epidemic of domestic violence and living in a society that doesn’t empower women. Working specifically with Pro Mujer, I saw this painfully dark shadow to the realities of providing
In the office, I was working on my projects sitting alongside the health services interns who were working on their own projects, some of which included interactions with our clients to discuss their health needs. Their stories didn’t simply follow the course that they didn’t have enough money to feed their children, but were much more troubling. The one story that affected me the most was of a woman who asked the doctor to lie on her Pap smear test to say that she was in fact sick. She was in essence asking for a Doctor’s Note so that her husband would stop forcing her to have sex with him. She continued on to describe how bad he treats her and that she feared for the well-being of her two daughters. It was deeply troubling to know that this woman felt her only recourse for freedom from this abuse was a Doctor’s Note. My main thoughts after reading about this were that I couldn’t imagine being where I am now if I had to grow up in these circumstances, and how difficult it must be for someone to overcome these circumstances to make a better life with help, let alone without help.
What we can all stand to do
None of us can say with any degree of certainty that had we been in less fortunate circumstances, we would still have the mental and emotional wherewithal to pick ourselves up out of despair and become the same successful people we are today. The truth is, no matter how hard you think you worked to earn your success, luck has played a huge part in the person you are today and the benefits you reap from life. This experience at Pro Mujer hasn’t convinced me that everyone should run out and become aid workers in developing countries, but rather that we all could stand to show some humility when we reflect on how great our lives our and show more compassion for those in less fortunate circumstances. I see the fortunate ones as having a few duties to our fellow man: lead by inspiration, speak with self-awareness and act out compassion.
Inspiration – I certainly think it would be ridiculous and counterproductive for everyone to walk around depressed and ashamed of their successes. There have to be great stories of wealth and happiness or why would anyone be motivated to do anything at all with their lives? We can do a lot for humanity simply by living our lives to the fullest without stepping on the toes of others.
Self-Awareness – I think this duty goes hand in hand with inspiration and deals with inspiring others in a responsible way. The arrogant attitude that is often conveyed with the “I worked hard to earn my success” sentiment does nothing to solve any of the problems we, as a society, face, shows a lack of prospective, and alienates the people we should be trying to help.
Compassion – This is quite simply doing something, anything, to help out a fellow human being. Often we think of this as donating to charity or volunteering our time to a worthy cause, but it can also be as simple as taking a moment to try to understand another person’s plight before adding to the pot of misery. No one person is ever going to eradicate the world of all of its problems, but if we all we our small bit to help or even not do something to add to the pile of problems, we can eventually move closer to a better world for all.