During this last week, I had the chance to meet Jan Felix, the President of Eagle Condor. He was in Piura primarily to work with the university on some medical related things that Eagle Condor helps with as part of their programs, but the program facilitators and I got to spend some time with him.
|Half of my desert|
The first thing we did was enjoy some lunch on him. Unfortunately, I had just eaten, and those of you that have eaten with me know that I am simply incapable of eating very much at one time (I’ll expound on that in a later post about the food here.) So I got a desert :).
Here, I had the fun of translating everything since the facilitators here don’t speak English, and Jan doesn’t speak Spanish. I was surprised that I was able to do it fairly easily, except for the frequent instances where I would start to talk to the Spanish speakers in English or to Jan in Spanish.
I learned a good bit more about Eagle Condor with the conversation. My work has been focused on the self-reliance training program with a dash of their micro-credit program, so I hadn’t taken sufficient time to look in to the other things Eagle Condor has going on. It turns out they do quite a bit of medical related stuff, both in providing materials (ambulances, nails for spines in spinal surgery) as well as bringing in doctors to help out.
At the end of lunch, another employee, Brian, came and joined us. He had to spend the lunch time struggling with logistical difficulties caused, unsurprisingly, by the regional government. He hadn’t been able to resolve the issues, but we had to get going to the Ciudad de Noé (City of Noah.)
I’m not sure if that’s how it’s spelled, but that’s what the Spanish word sounds like: “Convi.” Convi’s are just vans that work like buses. A driver goes to a station, people that need to ride the Convi hop on board, and when the Convi is mostly full, it heads out to the destination. We often stop to pick people up as well. Not at “convi stops,” just people waiting on the side of the road. The most interesting thing about these is how many people you can pack in them. Just when you think that there’s absolutely no way we could get another person in, we pull over to defy the white-man’s assumptions about space packing limits.
The Ciudad de Noé is a little village about 20 minutes from Piura, and that’s where Eagle Condor currently does its work teaching the self-reliance classes. The only way to get there is by Convi. We managed to get a convi to ourselves, and Jan spent the trip talking with the facilitators about some of the challenges and success with the program (with me translating.)
One of the biggest challenges is just having the proper materials. Jan wasn’t happy to hear that materials are a problem because the regional government promised to provide most of the materials mentioned, but 3 months later still hasn’t delivered. Nice.
Another difficulty out in the Ciudad de Noé is the fact that many people can’t read. Quite a few have never been to school. We have been extra aware of this fact during the last few weeks as we’ve begun to teach about keeping records of incomes and expenditures and creating Profit and Loss sheets. I’ve been surprised with how well they understand it regardless of this disadvantage.
Beyond literacy, one thing I’ve noticed is just how much schooling shapes our thinking and perception of everything. I’m currently doing short interviews with all the participants, and people that haven’t had schooling answer in different ways than those that have. Not necessarily in less smart ways, but there’s a different structure to their thinking. Perhaps after some more interviews I’ll be able to nail down what it is and do another post on that. We’ll see. Or if any of you are anthropologists or psychologists or what not that might be able to expound on what goes on, I’d be down to listen.
Saturation. Jan and I chatted about a few of the business difficulties out here as well. The Ciudad de Noé is a pretty small village, only about 1,000 people in its borders and probably only about 1,000 more in the neighboring village. I’m finding more and more that just about everyone raises animals to sell, and makes and sells “Chicha,” a slightly alcoholic drink made from corn.
If the town acts in isolation, than we may run into some troubles when it comes to giving micro-loans. If everyone that gets a loan makes Chicha, and uses the loan to make more Chicha, either there won’t be enough demand for it and few if any will be able to make money, or everyone will be stone drunk. The same goes for increasing everyone’s capacity to raise turkeys and chickens (except for the drunk part.)
Seeing this issue of saturation early helps us avoid causing trouble. We can find ways to get their products sold in other locations so that the city doesn’t act in isolation, as well as help foster other business ideas. The only hang-up there is that not everyone is cut out to make a new business idea happen, and I’m not sure that even those with the skills necessarily want to. Many of the people out there are simply looking for a simple way to supplement their husband’s income to help make sure the kids can keep going to school.
Poverty Pyramid. We talked about a “poverty pyramid,” where there are “entrepreneurial poor” on the top (I presume that the width of the pyramid section corresponds with the amount of people that qualify for the designation), “laboring poor” in the middle, and “vulnerable poor” on the bottom (he couldn’t remember the “self-employed poor” at the time.)
The “vulnerable poor” are people just living day-to-day, where any little hiccup could really disrupt them. As it turns out, these people may not be the greatest candidates for micro-loans. We all would love to find ways to help the poorest of the poor, but not all of the tools we have work for them. Loans have to be paid back, and the “vulnerable poor” often run into severe difficulty when the extra cost of paying back a loan gets put on their shoulders. As such, we’re looking for solid “laboring poor” that will be able to handle a loan and pull out of poverty. He didn’t explain why we don’t target the “entrepreneurial poor,” it wasn’t important in our chat.
Entrepreneurship. As it turns out, it can be hard to find the right type of person, even the right type of “laboring poor” that can take a loan and run with it. People talked about how the poor are natural entrepreneurs for a while, but the book Poor Economics points out that the reason so many people in poverty are entrepreneurs is probably simply because they have to be. They can’t get hired, so the only way to live is to start their own thing. They aren’t necessarily better at it because they’re poor, they just don’t have a lot of other options.
If we assume that poor people are basically like rich people and middle class people and such, we can probably guess that the same proportion of poor people are going to be really effective entrepreneurs as the proportion of the rest of the world. You might notice that not a lot of people do a great job with, or even want to have, their own company. It turns out the poor aren’t necessarily different.
Regardless, there have been a few ideas that I think will probably be really good from a few people that I think will be able to make it happen. Micro-loans aren’t coming for a while, so who knows what will happen when all is said and done.
A Grand Gathering
We knew as early as last week that Mr. Felix was going to come, but we never really knew what he wanted to do while he was with us. So, we decided to cancel the normal Thursday lesson, and invite all of the participants to come to a meeting with the president. I don’t think that the president was expecting that, but it went well anyway (which is quite fortunate since nearly all 130+ participants showed up, including many that hadn’t been attending very frequently for a while.)
We had Mr. Felix speak first, through his translator Brian. I was on “take-a-bunch-of-pictures duty.” You’ll see from the photos that I’m not much of a photographer, but I tried. Heck, I think it’s the camera’s fault. Stinkin’ camera!
I wish I could say some of what Mr. Felix said, but I really wasn’t paying attention since I was trying to take a bunch of pictures in hopes that one or two might look good. I do know that at one point he asked a simple and direct question: “Can someone tell me one thing that they’ve learned in the classes?”
I suppose I should have warned him. As I’m learning with my interviews, even simple, direct questions get long, convoluted answers.
Instead of answering the question as asked, people will often testify about how much they like the program and how grateful they are for it. Sometimes they’ll talk about how wonderful the facilitators are, or how great it is that Eagle Condor is there in their city. I confess that maybe us Gringos aren’t doing a great job translating the questions to make them simple, but we seem to get the same sorts of answers even when a native Spanish speaker clarifies what we’re trying to say.
After a couple extended testimonies (which were quite nice, just not what he was looking for,) a lady stood up, and gave a testimony right on the sweet spot. She basically went through each of the important points of the program, talked about why they were important to her, and about how she plans to use them. It certainly wasn’t just the “one thing” she had learned, but it was better.
After that, Mr. Felix asked the facilitators to teach a little bit since he wanted to see it in action. Then we got a big picture with everyone (one someone else’s camera, sorry,) and got back in our convi.
The trip was great for Mr. Felix, and hopefully for the town as well. Interesting things happen when you come in to a place and try to do good. Lately lots of rumors have been flying around about the program.
|Victor (standing on left) in action|
Some people have been claiming that the program is just part of the current town governor’s campaign to get reelected and that it will go away when the elections are over (which is weird since elections aren’t for over a year. Like, even if it went away afterward, they would still have plenty of time to get what they need from it.)
Others have been telling all their friends that the program simply won’t work. I can understand that, they haven’t seen it work, and neither have I. I’m sure it will help, but I don’t personally have evidence, nor can I guarantee that each individual will be able to be successful with it. The trouble with this gossip is that they will certainly be able to look at a participant and say “see, I told you,” but I bet you anything that the supporters will be able to look at another participant and say the same.
The biggest rumor is that the micro-loans simply won’t happen. This seems like a weird piece of gossip, since I can’t imagine why an organization would lie about that when the benefit is being required to pay for 2 facilitators and a supervisor to catch a convi to a city 20 minutes away every day to teach a class and visit participants. If I’m gonna lie about something, it’s going to be to get some ice cream or something good.
|Jorge throwing it down (in the red shirt)|
This concern may be a tad legitimate though. The micro-loans are partially tied in with the regional government delivering on its part of the bargain. Thus far, they’ve really kinda blown it when it comes to any real resource offering. Hopefully they get their act together in time. I would like to say that Eagle Condor will find a way to make it happen anyway, but they’ve already found that a clunky government process can be a troublesome foe (for instance, every month, to get the facilitators paid, Eagle Condor has to fill out no less than 11 government forms. They always get them in very early, and it always takes forever anyway.)
After we got back, the normal handshakes were given, and we headed on our separate ways. Us, to go buy some whiteboards for the classes, and them, to go struggle with the government some more to ensure they reimburse and provide the things they promised (such as the whiteboards.)
I suppose the day ended in an uninteresting way. Just 6 guys having witnessed 130 people willing to work for some help behind them, and a long road of struggling against clunky bureaucracy, apathy, poverty, illiteracy, participants with stagnated dreams, as well as mitigated and cautious hope, and a complex economic environment.