Microfinance Goggles

We all remember the shape shifting appearance of things through drunk goggles. It was a fantastic way to show us high school kids just how deformed the world appeared to our inebriated senses. What I have learned beyond the walls of academia is there are many goggles we don’t even know we’re wearing.

They can be fashioned after our profession, our taste, or our socioeconomic status. We can believe things are so tangibly real – like road markings – and yet they only appear that way because the goggles filter them so.
Sometimes it depends on where we are.

Here in Honduras, for example, I wear gringo goggles. Just yesterday I saw a client walk out of the complex we were in, followed closely by two military guards on staff. The gringo goggles kicked in: I had heard rumors of bad people disagreeing with this client. Were the guards accompanying her to protect her? Was the area less safe than I thought? Had there really been a spike in gang activity lately?

The client returned to the seat next to me and I asked her a pinch of these questions. She laughed and replied,

“They needed to charge their phones. I had some extra chords in my house.” For a moment, I was a naive American, blundering around in Honduras again.

This got me thinking and eventually I had an idea.

I propose that those who dawn their armor to do battle with poverty also put on the goggles of their chosen method. Whether missionaries, volunteers, teachers, or health care workers – we are all wearing goggles and microfinance work is no different.

In the community of Villa Soleada there are six convenience stores (pulperias) most of which are within 100 feet of a fixed point. They all sell the same things and from an economist’s point of view, this makes no sense; close and plentiful competition force prices to go down and since no one is specializing in a product they can never attract a steady flow of customers. Why would I buy rice here if I can go next door and haggle for the same thing at a cheaper price?

I saw these things through my MFI goggles. I cooked up a brilliant scheme to convince storeowners to sell only one of the six main products and bring in a more steady revenue. Drunk on microenterprise, I stumbled around Villa talking to the owners to ask them what they thought of my idea. This was the best thing I could have done, because it sobered me.

The more I talked to the people of Villa the more I came to understand that western theories were skewing my assumptions of reality. As it turned out, clients don’t view their convenience stores as primary business ventures. Instead, they are seen as catch basins and spider webs – things that bring in money without you having to focus on them.

The MFI goggles began to fall off. When both husband and wife are without work, their store can bring in a little revenue during the lull. If the mother needs to stay at home to watch their infant, they can run the store from the house. If both parents are out working, a teenager can run the store and make a little extra while the breadwinners are away.

In fact, my brilliant scheme went against the grain of the very definition of ‘pulperia.’ I was asking them to turn their secondary business venture into their primary one, a plan B into a plan A.

I had no right.

This was not a smooth transition. The world was bright and confusing once outside of the impairing tint of the goggles. I had to adjust to a different way of thinking.

All that being said, I still believe even a backup income could be improved by specialization. We could widen the catch basin and thicken the spider web. Experience has taught me, however, that these images of success could in fact be wrong, because I see them through my MFI goggles. Now, when I have an idea, I have to rub my eyes a little. I try to identify where things may be misaligned on the way to a favorable outcome.

Intoxicated, how do we view poverty? What goggles do you wear?

 

Jeff Paddock
Program Director – Honduras

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