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Archive for May, 2008

I arrived in Rajasthan in September ready to learn about microfinance. I was dissatisfied with my previous life in the corporate world, and was yearning to do something meaningful and deeply fulfilling with my life over the next 8 months. Seven months later, my mind has begun to discover the intricately multifaceted nature of development work and my heart has found a life-long passion for alleviating poverty.

Rajasthan, IndiaI have been working with ACCESS Development Services, an Indian non profit company, which has a presence in several Indian states. ACCESS partners with local Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to upgrade the livelihoods of India’s poorest and develop local financial services that can support their income generating activities. I’ve been working with a microfinance consultant, a livelihoods consultant, an administrative assistant and our fearless team leader. I have been involved with various projects, but I will focus on my involvement with the Microfinance Insititution (MFI) incubation project.

I have learned about the steps involved in incubating MFIs by helping the team incubate the first 8 MFIs in the region. So, what have I actually been doing? I have participated in Institutional Capacity Assessment Tests; written Business Development Plans, funding proposals and operations manuals; organized workshops; participated in exposure visits, developed management information systems (MIS); and trained MFI staff on various financial, human resource and microfinance concepts. At the Towards Sustainable MFIs workshop that I was asked to organize, we spent 2 days walking the participants through critical concepts that they must master to become self sustaining organizations.

In order to reinforce some of the concepts shared through workshops, we organized an exposure visit to a well established MFI, the Maha Shakti Fountation (MSF), on the other side of the country. It was a long train ride! Below, on the left, the partners are learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MIS. On the right we are visiting a family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF. This exposure visit made a world of difference as vague theoretical concepts became concrete action plans in participants’ minds. Listening to MSF’s history gave participants the confidence to move forward. If they could do it, so can we!

Learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MISA family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF.

While group learning is very helpful, an important part of my role has been visiting partner organizations to give their microfinance staff one-on-one support as they gain confidence with some of the concepts shared in workshops. We have spent a lot of time with microfinance program directors such as Jayesh from PROGRESS (pictured below in red). One year ago Jayesh didn’t even know the meaning of the acronym MFI. At this point he is an empowered manager with ambitious expansion plans. On the left, I was enjoying some chai, while reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh. On the right, Jayesh is appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program. These 11 women are an example of the poor people that microfinance aims to help by providing contextualized savings, credit and insurance products that can support their livelihoods.

Reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh.Jayesh appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program.

As a team, our efforts over the past 7 months have enabled our partner NGOs to disburse an additional USD 125,000, giving over 1000 men and women in Southern Rajasthan access to a microloan. I am thrilled to have been a part of transforming the lives of those people! By interacting with consultants, managers, bankers, funding agencies, government officials and clients I have learned that microfinance is a small part of a larger package of solutions that must be delivered together in order to make a lasting impact. I am grateful to ACCESS because the experience that I have gained in India has prepared me for my next role as a research assistant in microfinance and livelihoods in Peru. Thank you FSD for putting me in touch with such a great organization!

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Some of the young women practice beadworking at the vocational schoolI am volunteering in Jinja, Uganda, with the Phoebe Educational Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO). Part of my work involves administering a vocational school that PEFO established in December 2007 in order to help young women who had had to leave school early because they could not afford the school fees.

There are 12 students at the school, all between the ages of 16 and 23. Many of their parents died of AIDS, and they are being cared for by their grandmothers. In addition, about half of the young women are mothers themselves, and struggle to provide for the many dependents in their families. The opportunity to learn a marketable skill—in this case, tailoring—is a potentially life-changing one for them.

I was startled one night a couple months ago to receive a phone call from one of the young women at the PEFO vocational center. The reason they don’t have cell phones or the ability to make frequent pay phone calls is more or less the reason they’re in this program: they’re extremely poor.

But there was one of my brightest students, “Sarah,” 23, on the other end of the line one evening. I greeted her with pleasant surprise.

“Madam, I can’t come to class tomorrow,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the static of the pay phone line.

“Oh…well that’s okay, Sarah. It’s no problem. Thanks for telling me, though.” As an afterthought: “Is everything all right?”

She paused. “Madam, our family is visiting tomorrow for my son. Last week he fell sick, and he was lost.”

That couldn’t be right. Sarah has a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, and they are the joys of her life—especially since her husband left the family a year ago for another woman, which she talks about with lingering bitterness and pain.

“He is lost? What do you mean?”

Her voice seemed to grow fainter. “He was sick very suddenly, and we took him to the hospital, and on the way…he lost his life.” She added: “So I will not be at the school tomorrow.”

I was suddenly overflowing with condolences, offers to help, profound apologies—all of which sounded empty and clichéd as I uttered them. And just then, her phone credit ran out and the line went dead.

I spent the rest of the night alternating between attempting to call her back and fighting back my own tears. Child mortality rates in developing countries are shocking by Western standards, but they’re still little more than numbers on a page until one of the most intelligent, prepossessing young women you meet in one of those countries has the light abruptly sucked out of her life.

Rebecca at Sarah’s home a few weeks after her initial visitThe next day, another PEFO staffer and I drove into her village, down bumpy, red-dirt roads lined with banana trees and mud huts in front of which children shrieked and played. Each one must have been a reminder to Sarah of what she had lost.

She was waiting for us on the side of the road, at a neighbor’s house. She smiled the same smile I saw every day at the vocational school, as if nothing were wrong. I got out of the car and gave her our gifts of bread, tea and sugar. Then, not knowing what else to do, I put my arms around her and told her I was sorry.

And then she began sobbing quietly. “Madam—I have lost all my hope.” She shook her head as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I miss my child.”

We spent the rest of the day back at her house, chatting with her neighbors and family members, playing with her little daughter (who Sarah kept obsessively by her side the whole day), and walking out to see the fields where she cultivates corn, beans, cassava and potatoes.

One of the neighbors pulled out a photo album at one point, and showed me Sarah’s late son. He was, by any measure, a beautiful child. He had his older sister’s same shy smile and his mother’s large, bright-alive eyes. At that point, after doing her best to talk and laugh with her visitors throughout the day, Sarah began brushing away tears. The neighbor quietly put away the album.

Soon after that day, the vocational project really took off; we began making deals with local schools to buy school uniforms en masse from our young vocational tailors, ensuring a potentially enormous, sustainable market for this class and all future classes. Every day I visited the school, the girls had made new skirt and shirt designs and hung them proudly on the walls. And I was starting to see a new confidence in the way the girls carried themselves—a new spark in their eyes.

Sarah continued as she always had—energetic, inquisitive and determined. She made no reference to her dead son, never faltered when other students brought their young children to the school with them for the day. But I continually wondered and worried about her state of mind.

A couple months after my visit to the village, we learned about a two-day finance and bookkeeping workshop being held in Jinja. Since the young women would be starting their own tailoring business together after graduating the vocational school, it was critical that some of them have a sophisticated grasp of accounting. (We hold periodic “Entrepreneurship” lessons at the school, but we only cover the basics.)

PEFO could only manage to pay for one young woman to attend the workshop. I thought back to all those “Entrepreneurship” classes, to the hand that was raised the most frequently, to the person who asked all those questions I often struggled to answer, to the young woman who listed seven subjects—including accounts and commerce—when asked what her favorite classes in school had been.

Sarah and her five-year-old daughter at the vocational schoolI met Sarah on the morning of the workshop and guided her to the hotel conference room where the lectures were being held. She was easily the youngest person there, and her simple attire stood in stark contrast to the business suits and tailored dresses of the other participants in the room.

“Now, don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I told her (though I could imagine no such thing), “and think about how this will apply to your business. You will have to use this knowledge in just a few weeks!”

She nodded, oddly quiet, and I realized she was quite nervous. “You’ll do great!” I added, and then left her to the workshop. Well, I thought, at least she’ll get some good food.

The rest of that week at PEFO, we rushed to solidify plans for the vocational students’ graduation: we picked out a place for them in their local village to set up their business, we signed up more schools to buy uniforms by the hundreds, and we began recruiting the second class in what (I hope) will be a long line of groups to have their quality of life improved significantly by acquiring the means and skills to earn a decent living for their families.

The next week, I dropped by the school and learned of all the progress the girls had been making recently. But I was especially eager to hear how Sarah had fared in her workshop.

“I will show you,” she said. She took out a notebook and opened it to a page of complex tables and figures. “This is the [incomprehensible term to me] method of accounting,” she began. And then she flipped to the next page, and the next—countless pages of meticulous notes—explaining everything she had learned in the workshop.

“At the end of the class, we had an exam on everything they taught us,” she said. “And they awarded certificates to those who passed.” At this point, she pulled out a glossy, laminated certificate with her name on it and showed it to me. “Only 18 passed.”

“How many were in the class?” I asked.

“Forty-two.”

Suddenly I felt tears spring to my eyes. I picked up her certificate and stared at it. “Oh my God! That is…oh my God!”

I had the feeling then that the project was going to be a success, that the tailoring business would be in good hands when I left, that inside all of these young women were countless untapped talents that just maybe stood a better chance now of finding expression.

I know life won’t always be easy for these women. Already, many have overcome more difficulty than most people in the Western world will know in their lifetime. But all I wish for them is what I began to see happening during their time at the vocational school: pride in their abilities and confidence in their way forward. And for some of them—to find hope again after losing it along the way.

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RavinePetroglyphsWithin walking distance of the center of Chagüitillo, Nicaragua, is a beautiful ravine with a trickling stream, a plethora of wildlife, and intriguing petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the ravine is also extremely contaminated. Both local residents and residents from a nearby town bath and launder their clothes in the natural wells formed by the stream. Cows from the local farms not only drink the contaminated water, but the subsequent feces they leave behind make the ravine un-usable. Because of the contamination, the Pre-Columbian museum is unable to lead tours through the ravine, not only limiting the museum’s financial resources, but also depriving any visitors from viewing the petroglyphs.

Working in the ravineI worked closely with the Asociación para el Desarrollo de Chagüitillo (ADCH), or the Association for the Development of Chagüitillo, and with the Chagüitillo community to preserve the petroglyphs and the water from the stream by helping to construct a water trough at the entrance to the ravine which simultaneously prevents the cows from entering the ravine and provides them with clean water. A control box was also constructed to facilitate the distribution of water and allow for future expansion of the project. A local resident who provided generous support to the project, Natasha Robinson, described its impact on her: “I thought I could just pay for this project to be done. I thought I could be home right now drinking coffee, I didn’t think I would have to be out here working in the quebrada. But here I am working and loving it.”

When I arrived in Nicaragua and met my host family, I tried helping prepare dinner my first night there. After insisting for several minutes, they let me take plates to the table. That was it. The next night I asked again and they insisted that I sit down and start eating. I am not sure about other families, but all work and chores were dealt with in a similar manner. I would ask to help or say that they didn’t need to do something for me and they would insist and do it anyway. I never got used to people washing and ironing my clothes for me. Perhaps out of a great desire to make sure their guest was happy or they were genuinely full of kindness; whatever their motivation, my host family made certain they were doing all they could to make my stay with them comfortable.

Local childNonetheless, what I found surprising about my stay in Nicaragua was how quickly I became integrated into their daily culture. In just a few days I was living and working as most Nicaraguans in that rural part of the country did. Waking early, visiting farms, working on projects and returning for lunch with the family became the routine and life hardly varied from this. The afternoons were spent working on my second project and the evenings were filled with studying, watching novellas, or working with my host father on one of our many side projects. My thoughts and wishes quickly became intertwined with the dreams and wishes of my family. Most of my projects had an agriculture focus and so much of Nicaraguan agriculture depends on the fickle weather. I found myself waking with excitement each morning with the hope of overnight rain and a quite gloom when I realized we had gone another day without it. I began hoping for a black bean harvest full of primary class beans. In September, I remember hearing with great dismay that the rain is now actually ruining the crops because the black beans could not properly dry out. Talking with individuals from the area I learned the significance of growing seasons, the grave dependence on rain water, and the dire consequences of underemployment / unemployment.

I also worked with ADCH’s small organic farm. Growing fruits and vegetables to make and sell jellies and spreads, the farm of ADCH employs 10-25 people. The farm also supports the community through donating 15% of proceeds to the local preschool, supporting university studies, and promoting ecotourism. However, all of the crops withered and the community supporting activities ended when the neighboring farm supplying ADCH with irrigation water was sold and its new owners refused to continue selling its water. The farm’s manager wants to develop a model farm which will be used to demonstrate and educate the economic and environmental benefits of solar power, low-volume irrigation systems, and organic farming to other local producers. As a second project, I began investigating the resources and support needed to install a proper well, powered with solar panels, on the farm’s property. An efficient irrigation system for the farm was developed by the engineers at Durman Esquibel and the bureaucratic process to perforate the well has begun; the project still needs financial support before it can continue with the construction of its well and irrigation system though.

VicenteVicente, the farm’s manager, thinks everything is possible if enough brain power is applied. He has a vision of a future Nicaragua that most would describe as implausible, but he convinced me over a few sessions of cigarettes and coffee that he could change the world if he had the support. Believing deeply in the power of communal cooperation, Vicente convincingly speaks of socialism in a personalized, but global way. With personal action on a micro level, he explains, we can change everything.

Children by the wheelToward the end of my internship, I reflect on my stay in Nicaragua. Working with so many wonderful people really was the most rewarding part of my experience in Nicaragua. As part of the organic farm project I traveled all over the country meeting people who had information on farming, wells, and solar panels. I visited rural communities where people had no city supplied running water, but used a solar powered pump to distribute drinking water. Grant work is still ongoing for our solar powered pump, but the farm lacks any funding for the equipment. Unfortunately, the recent flooding has just now diverted international aid away from any non-critical farming projects. The work in the ravine went well after a rough start. I organized several local soccer teams to help with the project and this provided great buy-in and support from the community. A water trough and watering system were built for the cows and plans to build a washing area are still in the works. The projects would not have been as successful without the great help from dozens of wonderful people. I am honored to have worked in such a truly great country.

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Soft Power Health ClinicShannon Harney recently returned from Jinja, Uganda. In Uganda, she worked with Soft Power Health, a local health clinic, to expand HIV education and testing in four rural secondary schools–via an educational HIV seminar for teachers, an on-campus HIV seminar for students that included free on-site voluntary testing and post-test counseling, and the creation of a savings account to generate funds for 2 Soft Power Health staff members to become HIV post-test counselor certified. The following is a selection of posts from the blog she kept in-country describing various stages of her experiences.

September 25, 2007
beautiful beautiful kawa...coffee bean I live in an agrarian jungle; a banana plantation right outside our back door, coffee plant volunteers seeding everywhere, each home equipped with its own durable sweet potato field and as I look to the west to watch the sun set from the main road I look past an ocean of sugar cane.

My mother, Rose, is dark and strong, with speckled honeycomb eyes and hands the size and texture of a baseball mit. My older sister, Silvia, is small and waif-like, and yet incredible durable and grounded; she gets stuck in quick sand Christianity too often for me, but her intentions are good. And the last of our humble abode is Edith, she is 10 and has boyish facial features, from what I can tell she has 1 dress, 1 skirt and 1 shirt…all beyond repair. Her status in the family seems to be dangerously close to house servant and she is so soft spoken I’ve all but given up trying to hear her quiet obeys; I found out just this morning that her constant hacking cough is because she has malaria…there is a sever lack of communication in my house.

The 25 or so children that reside on my street alone are priceless. The day I moved in, I had an audience of about 10, just peering curiously into my window for hours…they didn’t want to chat or beg, they just wanted to see my things…things are a rare commodity out here.

October 12, 2007
Last week my supervisor wanted to demonstrate how our HIV test kits in the clinic work. He carelessly grabbed a blood sample from the dozens of test tubes perched on the counter and dropped a blot on a tiny receptor strip. Ten minutes later we went to check it out and it had read positive. The random lab sample, the older women in the hall who’d complained of dizziness was living unknowingly with HIV. We couldn’t inform her I was told, as its illegal to test for HIV without consent. So I sat and stared at the test for a few minutes until the doctor came and threw it in the rubbish bin. I bid the woman a safe journey and refilled my water bottle. Those are things I don’t know what to do with.

So. I’m here for 3 months (1 of which is gone with the wind). I’m not going to eliminate AIDS from rural Ugandan communities. But I’d like to think I could take a stab at educating, informing and testing my district, my community; with the hopes and idealistic longing that my efforts will propagate themselves elsewhere in the country. With the money I raised at home, the money that was donated so generously to this project by my dear friends, family and even distant acquaintances; I’ll be implementing a pilot project for Soft Power Health.

October 26, 2007
Teacher\'s workshop Monday night I facilitated my HIV education seminar for the secondary school teachers. I had assumed that we would start at about 7:30, after all, I’d told them to show up at 6:30, its called African Time. When I got to the hotel at 5:30 I’d set out to practice, set up, calm my nerves and my newly arrived bout of nausea…what do you know? All the teachers were there, sitting, waiting patiently. That blew my mind. I was really impressed, impressed by the honoring of their commitment to come, their timeliness, their motivation…it was really inspiring, it made me feel like perhaps I’d gotten this one right, perhaps I’d tapped into something that they really wanted, that they felt could help them make a difference. I’d asked the hotel to provide refreshments on my bill… you know, coffee, tea, sodas… so when I saw all the teachers kickin’ back with cold beers I knew the communication barrier had once again gotten the upper hand. I paid nearly three times more than I’d budgeted for, but the heated post-seminar roundtable discussion on teaching techniques was a lot more fiery thanks to the happy glowing buzz the teachers were feeling. Everything happens for a reason?

I spent that night throwing up (beers were not involved in this I assure you) and wasn’t able to go to work on Tuesday thanks to a number of GI issues. All I wanted was sleep, the temperature in my solar oven house to drop below 90 and my host-mom to please stop offering me fried macaroni… and then down the path to my house comes trotting a whole band of cohorts. My clinic was worried about ‘the sickness’ and so they all decided to abandon their health profession posts for the afternoon and come visit me; needless to say it was the first sick-in-bed day I’ve ever spent surrounded by a doctor, two nurses, a lab tech and a cook…just in case.

November 22, 2007
The logistical swamp bucket that presents itself when trying to coordinate three autonomous bodies is thick and it is fierce. After much pleading, rationalizing and exhausted compromises each school finally confirmed a date [for a school seminar and testing] that worked for both Soft Power Health (i.e. me…that wasn’t too difficult) and AIDS Information Centre Jinja.

East Secondary School- November 5th at 10:30 am
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the Headmaster’s back as he was lounging under a mango tree eating jackfruit when I arrived in my long-skirted American “I heart efficiency” guise. We lumbered into a concrete classroom with dirt floors and twiddled fingers as the students scuffled in. The presentation went nicely, my favorite moment was when a cocky 18 year old raised his hand to say, “You said that condoms they should be thrown in the pit latrine. But me, I fuck in the bush, so what then?” The AIC HIV counselor was kind enough to take that question for me; I cowered backwards and resisted the urge to kick him in the mouth. We tested 70 students.

Workshop at Lubani Secondari SchoolLubani Secondary School- November 8th at 1pm
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the teacher’s backs as they were lounging under a grove of pine trees, “We have just released the students for lunch. You wait for some 40 minutes.” So we began the presentation at around 4 pm, at which time I was introduced by one of the younger teachers as his wife. This set the students into such a fit it took canes and cursing of all sorts to quell them. This particular teacher, my husband, has taken to text messaging me late at night to tell me he misses me, that he needs my personality or to ask me “ware you b?” I gave the presentation to just under one thousand students. Outside. Without a microphone. These are times when I thank my theatre career… projection, annunciation…pause, punch and attitude…you got it! We tested 97 students before we ran out of vacutainer needles and the sun went down. This was the most chaotic group of all the students, I sustained several minor injuries that evening as well as coming to the conclusion that I don’t ever, ever want to be a schoolteacher. The electricity at the campus was shifty at best and we realized about thirty minutes before dark that the special hire car we were riding in had no headlights. Henry, the driver, and I had a friendly little chat where all I could think about was that he had a huge problem of misusing the word “generally”, ‘Well, generally, I have no lights. Oh, yes, generally I will go get another car.” This was not the end of the “Henry screwing me up” saga.

Trinity College- November 12th 1pm
By this point I’d like to think I’d worked out most of the hitches. I told the AIC people to arrive four hours before the program began and this time we were only about 20 minutes late. I educated the students in a really beautiful shaded arbor; pine trees, eucalyptus and palm all collected in a strange kind of partnership to provide a cool and calm space in which to talk about viral infections and condoms. We were able to test 100 children and make it home before dark. I felt good, I felt really proud driving home around dusk, the pink sky burning into the sugar cane plantations, the amueze rising as a fingernail in the sky.

Shannon with schoolchildrenSt. Stephen’s Secondary School- November 14th 10:30 am
I almost don’t want to talk about it. But this, as much any of the pitfalls and obstacles, was part of my experience, part of the reality of getting things done or not so done here. I received a text message from the HM from St. Stephens at about 10 am the day of the program, something along the lines of, “Please cancel your visit. We are too busy. Thank you.” Keeping in mind please, that this is after two months of planning, of confirming and reconfirming of sticking to a date and time that he suggested. And so I kindly asked him to reconsider based on the fact that the program had already been paid for, the counselors had been hired etc etc. His response was, “Our position is final and unchangeable. Your program is not as important as our students learning. Thank you.” The story concludes with me rolling up to the school in a heated fury and laying in on the administrative staff, using my big English words and all.
Over, done with, unfortunate. Thus the lackluster aspect of this whole sha-bang.

But now I have about a month to learn this place. Learn the ebbs and flows of her land and people, the things I’ve been biking past too fast to notice. The weather has been peach, plum, pear perfect lately; cloudy sunshine days, breezy, beautiful. The living here is easy and I’m gonna take an HIV load off and enjoy it while I can. Christmas is coming in fast this year.

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