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Archive for August, 2008

As a nine week intern in India, time is short and work is hectic. Although, I have limited time here, I was still able (with the support of the FSD site team and my co-workers) to implement and obtain funding for a project. The Institute for Local Self-Governance and Responsible Citizenship, my host organization, conducts bi-weekly, trainings for members of panchayati raj (India’s village government and representative system). The Institute does not have any substantial data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of its trainings. This lack of evidence has started to become problematic for the NGO because donors and future investors want proof of the trainings’ positive impact.

In an attempt to help the Institute evaluate its trainings, get funding, and improve the quality of the training itself, my co-workers and I designed an interactive evaluation game entitled the “Rainbow Game”. This game is color coordinated by training categories. The rules and questions are simple. The game will be played by participants at the end of all six-day trainings. By recording the amount of incorrectly and correctly answered questions for each category, the institute will be able to document the amount of training information retained by representatives. In addition, the game will be fun, colorful, and easy to follow, especially since the majority of trainees are illiterate.

In the picture: From Left to Right: Ms. Varsha Jhanwar and Mr. Pratapmal Devpura edit the questions and answers section of “Rainbow Game”.

As a foreigner, who does not speak a word of Hindi, it was very difficult to design and develop a project. The work and living environment has been nothing less than challenging. However, it has been a positive and humbling experience. Since this is my first time out of my home country, it was hard to admit my vulnerability and deal with the fact that I am a burden to my host family and especially my host organization. Before the internship, I knew that I would be a drain on my organization’s resources, but I could have never prepared myself for the task of embracing my limitations while discovering which skills (that I possess) could be used to the Institute’s benefit.

My creativity, my determination, my adaptability, my pride, my previous conceptions about Indian culture, and especially my patience have all been challenged during my stay in Udaipur. Yes, the Indian work culture is at times frustratingly slow, but in order to make any difference I learned to adapt, embrace, enjoy, and respect this different way of life. Random power outages, six chai (tea) breaks a day, office gossiping, and the hierarchical work system can be wearisome at times. However, the atmosphere at the Institute has been by far the most enjoyable office environment. At work there is always an endless supply of jokes, laughter, invitations to homes and celebrations, curiosity, respect, challenges to video game competitions, and offers for rides home. It has truly been my honor and privilege to work at the Institute for Local Self-Governance and experience the good, the bad, and the quirky facets of India’s work culture.

In the picture: Taken from the rooftop restaurant Mehwar Haveli, this is one of many breathtaking views of Udaipur. It reminds me of something my co-worker and friend, Ms. Varsha Jhanawar, said to me when I was frustrated, “Ashley, you need to stop stressing, go take rest, and watch the sunset”.

Although I have felt uncomfortable, lost, and frustrated, the experience of working in Udaipur has been empowering in its own way. My project is nearing completion and will be implemented next week at a monthly training session on women’s empowerment for elected representatives of several wards (local districts). Despite the obstacles (such as language barriers, cultural differences, limited time, and disagreements over the development of the “Rainbow Game”), it will be used and played. To have left something not only beneficial, but sustainable has been acutely rewarding and significantly outweighs all of the negative experiences.

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I learned about the concept of microfinance about a year and a half ago, and the idea instantly captured my attention. Reading about Muhammad Yunus’ experience starting and building the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh gave me visions of leaving for an exotic faraway land where I would trudge through sweltering jungles to meet with loan groups in secluded villages, handing out funds and beaming as each proud entrepreneur in turn stood and ceremoniously handed me the coins she had toiled for that week, repaying her loan a few pennies at a time, and watching with amazement as they were able to achieve a level of stability previously impossible.

Every street is lined with small-scale entrepreneurs – clients and potential clients of Faulu Kenya

Being stationed in Mombasa, a city of upwards of one million people, my experience has, needless to say, differed quite significantly from that fantasy. Nevertheless, upon landing in Mombasa, it was immediately clear why microfinance is so critical in developing countries, and what the enormous gap between ‘developed economy’ and ‘developing economy’ looks like. In the absence of a Western-style job market, the economy here seems to be comprised, in the vast majority, of small-scale entrepreneurs selling all manners of consumer goods: peanuts, fruit, Safaricom cell phone credit, Coca Cola, beaded jewelry, secondhand clothes, each of them making his or her living on sales of less than a dollar. The prospects of those growing those businesses are bleak without the access to small amounts of capital that microfinance institutions like Faulu provide.

I imagined the typical microfinance office to be a couple of bare, dingy rooms with flickering computer screens and a small vault for the operating funds. Instead, I work in what could be easily mistaken to be a small, professional, American bank. Employees wear corporate polos and a row of tellers take deposits from behind a thick pane of glass. Operations are smooth and systematic, though they make do with a fraction of the technological equipment found in a Western bank. Attending meetings with loan groups, it was immediately clear that the system is well-polished. Faulu Kenya has, after all, been at it for more than 15 years. After my first few days, seeing how well everything is put together, I began wondering what I, as a foreigner and a mere student, could contribute to such a well-oiled operation. I couldn’t even understand much of the loan group meetings, only catching the words in my limited Kiswahili vocabulary and those sentences where the speaker would slip, as Kenyans so often do, into English.

Members of each group meet to repay their loans each week

Luckily, that contribution emerged and is now my project for the nine weeks of my internship. My supervisor, the area manager for the coastal offices of Faulu, asked me to look into the possibility of starting a welfare association for clients. Burial expenses are high and often very difficult to come up with, especially on short notice, and informal welfare associations are often frustratingly troublesome and unreliable. After researching similar ‘microinsurance’ programs started by microfinance institutions throughout the developing world, we have begun the mammoth task of surveying as many of the branch’s 15,000 clients as we can to request their input in the creation of such a program. The early signs are extremely positive; nearly 80% of those responding so far have indicated that they would participate when Faulu’s welfare association is launched. Faulu’s tagline is ‘Your Bridge to Success,’ and the new welfare association will help to ensure that those working their way across our bridge are not derailed by a tragedy along the way. Though my time in Mombasa will be done before the program is fully up and running, it is a truly amazing feeling to know my work is laying the foundation for an extension of Faulu’s services that will benefit clients immensely.

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“Promocionar y desarrollar integralmente al hombre, generando igualdad de accesos y oportunidades.” This is the central mission of Fundación Pro Humanae Vitae, a group of dedicated volunteers tied together by overpowering belief in the equal development of the human person in every sense of the word – economic, social, cultural, political, moral. Founded by Sra. Graciela Sánchez in 1995, the Fundación supports numerous community development programs in the La Plata- Buenos Aires locale, working alongside universities, businesses, and municipal-provincial governments to develop and realize public initiatives. Within my first few days as a member of the FPHV family, I came to the realization of how ample the field of human rights work truly is. FPHV is not an organization that focuses solely on the well-being of one particular demographic, in one particular place or time. It is, rather, an institution dedicated to serve the needs of the community, whether in the form of organizing conferences for university students, workshops for small-business owners, Christmas recitals for children, outdoor programs for incarcerated persons, or exhibition fairs for local artisans. Even after 6 weeks at the Fundación, I still do not fully grasp the immense community reach of this great organization and its university, business, and governmental counterparts.

During my second week at FPHV, I traveled with my supervisor Rafael Velázquez and my co-worker Marcelo Fernández to Santa Maria Magdalena, a neighborhood comedor located on the outskirts of the city. There we met with the director of the comedor, a woman by the name of Graciela de Cabañas. Graciela told us of the constant struggle to meet with the demands of the neighborhood, balancing the everyday nutritional and social schedules of some 100 children with limited resources. Together, we decided to undertake the construction and realization of a sewing workshop in the backyard of the comedor so as to achieve some measure of self-sufficiency. With such an undertaking, as I was told by Graciela Sánchez, “the comedor would not have to be so dependent on government donations. The people are poor because the government dependence keeps them poor. They need change. They need something sustainable.”

To this effect, I am currently working my co-workers to organize a benefit tea, the proceeds from which will go to the construction of the Maria Magdalena clothing workshop and the purchase of sewing machines. With the help of local businesses and government entities including Universitas, a group of culinary students, and the Commercial Center of La Plata, as well as with the charity of all those invited, we hope to raise sufficient funds to help our friends at the comedor achieve some level of self-realization. During my most recent visit to the comedor, Graciela de Cabañas related to me the story of five local boys, abandoned by the state after their mother was taken to jail to complete her sentence. These boys have no guidance, no direction in their life. They subsist only on the nourishment provided by the comedor. I am hoping, through FPHV’s charity drive, to indirectly touch upon the lives of these boys. By providing more for the comedor in terms of self-sufficiency, we give each community member who benefits from the comedor something more as well.

In addition to my work with the benefit tea, I attend weekly meetings with the other FPHV volunteers to discuss the organization’s grandest undertaking, the renovation of an abandoned community building into a new cultural, social, and educational center. The realization of this large project, rightfully called Vitae Polis, will be the paradigm of the Fundación’s mission, the exemplar of its focused efforts. With the help and support of other institutions, FPHV will continue in its goal of providing for others the access and opportunities they deserve as fellow brothers and sisters. And it will do so in an organized, unified, dedicated, modest fashion. As Graciela Sánchez once told me, “La improvisación es solamente para las mentes bien preparadas.”

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Living in the United States we are constantly wired—communicating with our friends via instant messenger, using the wealth of information that Wikipedia provides to research some unknown person, event, or place, or even reading articles from newspapers and magazines across the globe—all tools readily available with basic internet. Technology plays such an important role in our lives now that most of us cannot imagine a day during which we don’t check our email at least once, and we cringe at the thought of denial to such access. In a society with such a high rate of digital literacy, we often take for granted the conveniences that technology provides—complaining if a website loads too slowly or of the difficulty of formatting a document in Microsoft Word. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the marvel of the internet, or, even on a more basic level, of word processing programs.


For the past month, I have been working in the heart of La Plata, Argentina at a comedor called Asociación Civil El Roble. El Roble is a non-profit after-school program that supports thirty-five children living below the national poverty line by teaching important social development skills and offering supplementary educational programs. Although I assist in many different daily activities, my main responsibility has been as the computer teacher for the youth there. The Argentine public education system is drastically underfunded, and, as such, these children do not have access to computer technology at school, much less at home.

Recently, however, El Roble won a grant to purchase two new computers and also received several donations of used computers from friends of the organization. I have been working to get all of the computers up and running, and now El Roble has a working computer lab with five functioning computers. It is a true joy to see the genuine excitement and enthusiasm the children have about their new computer lab. Every day, after arriving at El Roble, the first thing they want to know is who will comprise the initial group to be in the computer lab that day. One boy, Marcelo, even tries to arrive as soon as the center opens—as early as possible in order to be able to use the computers before anyone else is here.

Before this experience, I would not have considered myself particularly skilled with computers (I still wouldn’t now, but my expertise has increased dramatically); however, for this reason, I have enjoyed the opportunity to learn more. So far, we have only been working on basic skills, trying to achieve a general familiarity with the mouse, keyboard, and essential programs like Microsoft Paint, Word, and PowerPoint. Nevertheless, the children have such an eagerness and interest in learning such programs, that I have been reminded of the same wonder I had towards computers when I was younger, just learning to use the mouse and type.

Because many of the children have never been exposed to computer technology before, during the first classes all the information I offered was completely new for them—how to save a file, how to delete text, how to double click. However, due to their subsequent experimentation with these basic programs, they have learned tricks even I didn’t know before. For example, now, thanks to the help of Ernesto, I can now make an eraser in Paint the size of the entire screen. It’s something small, but still exciting—it reflects their independent thinking and desire to share knowledge. We are hoping to install internet in the coming weeks to introduce them to the infinite wonder of the web.

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