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Archive for October, 2008

I came to Jinja, Uganda with the excitement that I would learn a tremendous amount about subjects such as Uganda history, economics, politics, and social and cultural practices by interacting with my host organization, host family, fellow FSD interns and co-workers, and locals whom I would come across.

I also eagerly anticipated working in an unfamiliar business line (micro-finance and micro-lending), and employment in a full-time capacity that contradicts my New York City rat-race, Wall Street-driven, high-tech software consultant career: Philanthropy.

My assignment is a short one – 2 weeks, including FSD orientation training. “How much can I accomplish?”, and “how effectively can I be utilized?” are questions on my mind, as well as my FSD Project Director, Margaret.

I’m fascinated by current world events, and alert to recent rebel skirmishes in eastern DRC just west of Uganda, violent political incidents in Kenya to the east, the incessant carnage and tragedy in Sudan to the north, the recent historical genocide during the ‘90s in Rwanda to the south-west, and Uganda’s own chronicle of tyrannous rulers and vicious turmoil of the 70’s and 80’s. And with all of these conflicts come human displacement, rampant disease, and suffering.

Fortunately, it seems the political and economic landscapes have stabilized in Uganda over the last decade, allowing the micro-finance industry – an overwhelmingly successful tool for empowering disadvantaged women around the world – to take root.

To get started, I received a number of FSD preparatory materials, including the final report of a previous intern whose project on the above subject I was targeted to continue, in advance of the trip for my absorption.

The project is a straight-forward concept: Carry on the work of preparing, through basic business skills training, a local, economically disadvantaged women’s group, the Walukuba Maama Development Association, to receive micro-financing loans to fund their own businesses, and make a website used to solicit external donations more visible and effective for raising capital for these members.

This is accomplished by working with my host organization, Jinja Cooperative Savings and Credit Society (SACCO), who oversee the loan management and business preparedness of these women’s groups, along with paying visits to the Maama Groups to get their input on current needs and challenges.

Meeting these women was inspiring, to say the least. When greeted with a chorus of “You are most welcome!” and bestowed the title of “honored guest”, I could only respond with how humbled I was to be introduced to them. I was moved by the way they supported each other, worked as a team, and shared their personal experiences and struggles.

And to speak of the wonderful and unique craftsmanship in their handmade products – I explained that in the U.S., their work would be highly valued, especially considering how bland and uninspired today’s mass-produced goods are, and as compared to the brilliant colors, artistry, and precision they diligently put into their personalized crafts.

It is this point exactly which prompted appeals from many of the women to get assistance with expanding the marketing and advertising of their products. They had been trained in these business concepts, but could not reconcile how to formulate a strategy, nor develop partnerships with others who could assist them in a sustainable way.

As my time in Jinja is brief (and quickly coming to a close), I’ve focused on developing action plans and initiatives, along with documenting solution methods of my own into project proposals, so that the goals and objectives can be easily handed over to future FSD interns to follow through with.

I made a return visit to the Walukuba Maama group which produces beads and baskets and brainstormed the ideas I had developed, to get their feedback. They enthusiastically took to several suggestions, and were even more thrilled when I bought many strands of beads to take back to NYC and perform, what I called, an “experiment” – see what the price point and sales potential is for their product in that overseas market.

I promised to follow up with them in the near future to let them know how my experiment goes, provide further guidance on their marketing and advertising initiatives, and work on raising the traffic on the current website seeking donations for their businesses.

I extended my proposal writing to concentrate on the operations of Jinja SACCO as well, and developed some inventiveness around how they could scale their business to serve more underprivileged members of their community.

That they, like most businesses in the area, lack internet access and skills stands out to me as an opportunity to differentiate their team and accelerate on this advantage in developing new partnerships with large organizations for further philanthropic work. Once implemented (although not a simple task to get adopted, and one that comes with a considerable price), the internet will serve to expedite any research they perform, enable easier and more widely distributed communication amongst its partners and clients, and give them access to online tools for small businesses in order to replace a number of paper systems they currently use.

In other words, it will have a radical, positive impact on them, and the community they serve, in a sustainable way.

Volunteer work aside, another major highlight of my stay here in Jinja is the chance to live with my remarkable and welcoming host family, the Kintus.

To my delight, my host dad shares the same spirit as I do in understanding the world, seeking the truth, and challenging leadership and authority when their principles and values appear to be lost. We’ve had hours (maybe days’ worth!) of conversations and I’ve gained tremendous knowledge from him about a range of subjects that only an encyclopedia could encompass.

My host mom is the embodiment of poise and warmth, and graciously offers to help make me feel at home at all times. She is a fabulous cook, and keeps me VERY well fed with the local cuisine, sometimes trying to sneak even more food onto my plate! I’m not sure how I’ll wean myself off the delicious carbohydrate-overload I’ve enjoyed here, but I can guarantee you’ll see me in my local gym working out upon my return home.

The house also buzzes with their adult children and grandchildren coming and going, which is always a source of entertainment. They offer me a chance to practice my limited Luganda (the local language), which I think provides a source of amusement for them!

Living with the Kintus has been a sheer pleasure, and I feel as though I have a second family that I’ve connected closely with, despite coming from worlds apart.

Lastly, forging new relationships with the FSD staff and my fellow interns has been rewarding and important in that we’re sharing the same momentous journey and fulfilling an adventure that will provide a lifetime of memories. This experience impacts not only us, but people we’re here to work with and for, who are as hopeful about living a happy, meaningful life as any person with passion and dreams would want.

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India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else?

After my first two and a half weeks trying to find my place in the charming chaos of India I can confidently say that the sight of a traffic jam caused by a 52 sheep pile up, the shameless stares of complete strangers on the streets and the new function of my hands as dinner utensils is quickly become routine. The 6 Udaipur interns, including myself, are all stuffed with stories (and chipatis) and are enjoying a friendly competition for the most compelling chai rendezvous, most bizarre host family member and best Indian fashion sense. I could stand to learn a lot when it comes to the fashion sense.

On a more professional note, we are all gradually coming into our own development projects at our respective NGOS. I am working with the Sahayata Organization with a group of cheerful and motivated young professionals and a delightful supervisor nicknamed Babuji. The Sahayata Organization is as an emerging urban micro Finance and Livelihood initiative in Rajasthan. It was started by a team of professionals who were aware of the large gap that exists between traditional means of finance and the economically marginalized sector of society. Sahayata has successfully established itself as a revenue-based service provider in order to achieve the dual objectives of social and economic empowerment of the community as well as the sustainability of this intervention. Now Sahayata is in the process of expanding the organization to include a non-profit financial literacy program.

Not only will the financial literacy program be advantageous to the women of Rajasthan, but it will be one small step towards a more financial savvy India. India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else? In the last fiscal year the GDP growth rate was 9.1% and India’s economy established itself as the twelfth largest economy in the world and the second fastest growing economy, after China. However, despite the new boomtowns of Bangalore and Mumbai, most of the Indian population is still hovering below the poverty line, untouched by the rising national wealth. According to the new financial inclusion index, India is doing very poorly when it comes to the rate at which people use banking products and make investments. The financial inclusion index “is a measure of the availability and usage of banking services in key nations of the world, and is based on indicators like the number of bank accounts per 1,000 adults, numbers of ATMS, and amount of bank credit and deposits” (The Economic Times, 24/7/2008). In order for the majority of Indians to benefit from their profitable economy, financial inclusion must be the key priority for the NGOs, the government and banking institutions in the upcoming decade. Through our financial literacy program, Sahayata hopes to be a catalyst in the push towards a larger middle class and a healthy India.

Currently I am doing a needs assessment survey with our loan clients to evaluate their level of financial literacy and find out if they would be interested in a money management tutorial. The response from the clients has been overwhelmingly positive.

We have already recruited a great teacher from the nearby college who is well-versed in economic policy and financial management and we hope to begin the pilot project in two weeks. The pilot project will consist of three groups of women. One group will be familiar with basic financial terminology such as Budget, Risk, and interest. This group will consist of women that have bank accounts. The second group of women will have some idea of the basic financial terms but no substantial knowledge and approximately fifty percent of these women will have bank accounts and the other fifty percent will keep their savings in their homes. The third group of women will have little to no knowledge of financial management and will consist of women that do not use banking institutions. Our teacher will meet with each group twice a week for a period of eight weeks. After which each group will have a final examination so we can evaluate and monitor the success of the pilot program for each group.

I would have to say that the largest obstacle in the way of my success in this internship will most likely be the language barrier. However, with the help of our language teacher Retchna, we are speedily becoming acquainted with Hindi and in the interim, big smiles seem to be the best way of building a good rapport with new friends.

Namashkar,

Nina Robbins

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