The Culture of Credit

For weeks I was bothered by a question. It started after a conversation with an elder family member. She suggested that my involvement in La Ceiba meant I was idealistic and naïve, and that I have a shallow understanding of what I am doing. It occurred to me recently that these are the same assertions that Ivan Illich makes in his speech, “To Hell With Good Intentions.”

I am not sure what Illich would think about La Ceiba if he were alive today. I can only presume that Illich, like my family, would point out that we aren’t experienced professionals, we depend on SHH for infrastructure, our business model is unsustainable, we are outsiders, and we don’t know Honduran culture or history. Its true, the longer we carry on with the project, the clearer it becomes that we are powerless.

If La Ceiba’s primary goal is to alleviate poverty, we should stop what we are doing right now. The evidence of our effectiveness in empowering women and increasing income is inconclusive. Further, La Ceiba staff and students benefit far more from their investment in the project than clients do. We have the privilege of leaving Honduras whenever we want, students earn academic credits for taking part; I get a prestigious title and resume builder. Meanwhile, clients get a $25 loan.

We fail over and over. More than once, I misinterpreted my role in the community, we made unfair assumptions about clients, we patronized and offended, we were yelled at, rejected and pushed around. Many of our policies and products caused unintended consequences of which some in the community are still dealing with today.

Illich is right in his conviction that North American “do gooders” can cause harm to those they seek to help. He is right to imply that our culture and shallow understanding contributes to a cycle of patronization, of subjugation, of victimhood and guilt. What’s also true, however, is that we can change our culture and improve understanding.

I wonder if the mere act of admitting our limitations, privileges and failures empowers us to respond in a way where we can pursue a more just and fair purpose. Perhaps now, after admitting defeat and failure, we can say that we know that good intentions are not enough.

Since its inception, La Ceiba students and members undertook a painfully difficult evolution. We criticized ourselves, our intentions, our motivations, and we came to realize that we are broken. We know now that we can’t presume to stand for change if we don’t first change ourselves. In employing self-doubt, in challenging our assumptions and convictions, we refine what it is we believe in. What I initially took as a college economics class was in fact a space underlined by themes of justice and equality.

Out of the fog of uncertainty and fear, we were able to reach important conclusions. We recognize that our very involvement in development could cause more harm than good. We are ready to accept doing nothing as a course of action. We act in accordance with the old rule that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.

Despite our limitations, and our view of ourselves, we cannot ignore injustice. I’ve seen how financial institutions use fear to motivate repayment, how they’ve threatened clients implicitly and explicitly, how they are verbally and physically aggressive, how they intimidate, and how they set unfair terms based on the premise that the client cant be trusted.

In this instance, we have the tools to create fairness in an unfair system. I am not talking about what Illich referred to as our “sacrifice” or “help.” This isn’t help. We want to change an industry; we want to prove a point. It’s the attitude that the client can take control of her life, that she knows best how to manage her finances, that she has aspirations and dreams that are just as worthy as ours, that defeat Illich. We aren’t providing charity; we are providing a partnership, an opportunity to seek justice together. This act, of working together and learning together, reinforces an element of equality.

Many people will read this and dismiss me as another young idealist with a false sense of reality: an Illich do gooder. You don’t have to believe me. I don’t expect you to. But, don’t confuse my idealism and hope for passivity.

When we decide to go house by house, to sit down with every client who has a question, to give clients the benefit of the doubt, to document every success and failure, to write about nuance and complexity, to offer an honest and fair interest rate, to share an honest repayment rate with the world, to change the way we think about the poor, we can inspire those around us and make a dent in our industry. In the end this isn’t just a function of changing business models, it’s a function of changing the culture of an industry.

Santiago Sueiro

La Ceiba MFI

Program Director

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