Tag Archives: Education in Nicaragua

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Ever since Winds of Peace first began its microlending practices in Nicaragua in 1994, it has struggled with the balance between making resources available to those organizations in greatest need and the desire to maintain a high rate of repayment.  It’s a difficult balance, because often those in greatest need have the least experience and the toughest obstacles to surmount.  While we have been blessed with a very strong repayment history from our partners over the years, we also have lamented the fact that there did not appear to be any means for effectively researching a group’s credit history, either good or bad.  Sometimes we might be able to speak with other funders, if we knew that they had supported an organization in the past, but such opportunities were few and far-between and often the information offered provided limited insight as to future credit performance.  The result has been to the detriment of both the members of the funding community, who have had to take on greater risk based upon their singular assessments of a group, as well as to the field of potential borrowers who must generate their funding requests under a generic cloud of suspect accountability.  That may be changing.

WPF has recently subscribed to SinRiesgos, a credit bureau servicing the entire country of Nicaragua.   While this organization came into existence in 2004, it began independent operations in 2006 and has really become an active and sought-after service in the wake of the No-Payers Movement in recent years; there is nothing like a period of defaults to get the attention of lenders.  As a result, the database has been expanding with new entries and the users have grown from a few big lenders to now include individual cooperatives seeking to evaluate potential new members.  The service currently serves more than 230 institutions, including banks, microfinance institutions, and cooperatives.

The presence and growth of an organization like SinRiesgos might seem like an unremarkable development to some.  Service companies such as this are common in North America and throughout Western-style economies.  But its presence in Nicaragua marks a threshold of importance for that country in at least two respects.  As an operating tool for use by the credit industry, the service represents a major advancement.  Lenders in Nicaragua have long been hampered by assessing loan-worthiness in the dark, relying on word-of-mouth representations, written proposals which may not always contain accurate credit histories and occasionally personal interviews which can be highly subjective.  The result has been that many lending institutions which once operated broadly across Nicaragua are now much more restrictive in their presence or have left the country altogether.   But there’s a second benefit that carries an even-greater potential, the creation of an accountability tool for the borrowers.

Accountability is often found in the personal character of leaders, those who speak on behalf of their cooperatives or associations.  Their word is their bond and one may rely on that with confidence.  But such reliability is not universal and in any case it is usually difficult to assess in advance.  For hopeful borrowers, the challenge has become not only how to convince a lender of the importance of loaned capital, but also their trustworthiness to receive it. With the credit service, they now have a tool to demonstrate their reliability, something by which to measure the the performance of their words.  And that is an asset to the poor and poorly-connected worth a great deal.  It is measurable credibility.

There is yet another benefit to the emergence of the credit bureau service.  It is in the form of an attitude.  When most people are faced with an objective, there is an inherent desire to achieve it;  it might come from pride or self-satisfaction or self-respect.  But there is also an external drive to accomplish it, emanating from our  knowledge that the people around us are paying attention, and for most of us, that’s a powerful motivation to “measure up.”  If the detriment to defaulting on an uncollateralized  loan is that one can simply walk away from it and on to the next funder, no one is well-served.  The original lender has lost the loan, the borrower has failed to repay and that is the end of the story.  Such a minimal consequence actually harms the borrower when the default is without meaning, without impact.  As a consequence, the lesson learned is that defaulting is painless and therefore not to be taken too seriously.  But if the outcome creates an effect, a cost, an impact- in the marketplace, the community and in the psyche- then a transition is possible.  The essential outcome is not simply that default is painful; the true lesson is that successful performance builds confidence, self-respect and a foundation from which to dream.  And that is what SinRiesgos has the capacity to do for its participants.

I never thought about such impacts as our company worked with credit services in the United States for more than 30 years; it demonstrates the shortsightedness that we all tend to bring to our respective perspectives.  But the people of Nicaragua, and I, are still learning….

Seeing A Future

Our work in Nicaragua has been made up of wins and losses over the years, just like in any enterprise.  I cheer the groups which seem to embrace the principles of transparency and participation and  holistic well-being and I mourn the groups that at first step up to that difficult model and then back away, whether through habit or urgency or seduction.  It’s hard for me to remember that the organizations with whom we work are not U.S. businesses, and that I can’t really look at them through the same lens that I might use to consider the workings of a company here.  But there is one need that seems to apply to developing organizations no matter what structure they may have and wherever they may be located.  That essential component is the ability to envision a future.

It’s important for you to note that I did not say the future, but a future.  The future implies whatever is destined to be, something beyond both our control and our ability to foresee.  A future suggests a point in time to come which is subject to our influence if not complete control.  An organization is subject to all of the laws of Nature which will shape the future, but it maintains a hold on many of the cultural, social and relationship elements of a future.  Good-to-great organizations around the world have come to recognize and embrace that difference.  A future is made up of elements beyond our control, but many are of our own making.

That truth applies equally to any of the four priority initiatives undertaken by Winds of Peace.  In order for women of Nicaragua to achieve an equal status with equal rights, they must first be able to envision a future where gender issues are not a hindrance to personal development, but rather an awareness of the enormous untapped resources within the country.  If Indigenous communities seek to regain their ancient cultural and property rights as the original inhabitants of their lands, they must first be able to envision a future where they are willing to truly speak from the ancestral voice, as one, in bridging past and future generations within the framework of cultural stewardship.  If the rural agricultural poor ever escape from the factors which isolate and oppress them, it may be a result of their ability to recognize their collaborative strengths and a future view of broad engagement and participation from peasants who are able to separate short-term relief from long-term transformation.  In order for education to lead Nicaragua into a future instead of the future, leaders throughout the country will need to see education not as a problem with few solutions, but as the solution to a great many problems facing the entire nation.  Those changes in perspective alone reshape a future in ways beyond measure.

But in each case, the change comes first from envisioning a future that is wanted and then from committing to that vision.  The visioning is more than unstructured dreaming; it consists of objective components that are refined to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.  Only if the resulting vision is compelling enough, will it have the strength to garner the commitment from others that will be required, because that dedication forms the essential energy needed to swim against a tide of status quo.  Creating a future is neither automatic nor easy, but few worthwhile outcomes  ever are.  Just ask the members of countless enterprises that go out of business every year.

Whenever faced with a faltering initiative in Nicaragua, I ask myself whether there was a future in mind at its inception, or whether the request for partnership was born of short-term, immediate need.  I wonder whether an initial vision became somehow corrupted by circumstance or self.  It’s often difficult to discern where a group is in its thinking, and some folks have become very accomplished at telling a compelling story without a compelling vision behind it.  Our evaluations will never be perfect.  But the ones who stand to lose the most are not the members of Winds of Peace or the countless other funders who work in Nicaragua.  It’s the organizations themselves, and the individuals within, who run the risk of having to face the future, whatever unknowns that may bring….



Getting Good at Chopping Wood

I spent much of the past week sawing and splitting wood.  I visited the pile of tree trunks and limbs, earlier culled from the forest, in whatever free time I could muster, first hand-sawing the logs to appropriate fireplace length and then splitting them by hand until the woodpile stood some four feet high and ten feet wide.  I’m proud of the output.  So often, work that I do of an administrative or development sort is hard to measure on a daily or weekly basis.  But for this past week I had something very tangible, indeed, to show for my efforts.

Unfortunately, “effort” is absolutely the right word to use.  Many years have passed since I last wielded an axe and I’m afraid that whatever woodcutting techniques or prowess I may have once had were long gone as I began.  So I started the week with little more than a desire to produce fireplace logs. I did not recall the proper selection and use of handsaws. I had no one to remind me about the physics of swinging an axe.  I was completely unfamiliar with the different densities and other properties of the varieties of wood encountered.  I had no previous experience with jigs and fixtures to aid in holding and positioning the logs.  Despite my great enthusiasm, I began the week grossly uneducated about the task at hand and too inexperienced to realistically expect much of a positive result.  After a couple of very sweaty but low-yield days, I realized that strength and determination would have little to do with my success with the woodpile.  I had to learn.

As it turns out, I found a short article that talked about, of all things, the use of timber saws!  I absorbed everything it had to say, and it fueled an appetite for more.  I searched the Internet for topics like hand saws and wood splitting, body mechanics, tools to complement a wood axe, how to stabilize logs for splitting, and more.  I watched and listened to videos featuring experts with decades of experiences.  I soaked it up and found myself practicing such techniques almost immediately.  And within a few days, my output had improved to the point where my problem became wood storage instead of production.  As basic as the process of wood cutting and splitting may be, there is some sort of primal satisfaction in really learning about and then manually building a woodpile, in efficiently cutting a beautiful length of birch log without the din of a chainsaw, and in splitting a stout section of hardwood with a single blow from the axe. You can read electric chainsaw reviews until you are blue in the face, go out there with your beast machinery and do a lot of work but you will not get the primal satisfaction that manual wood chopping will release in you.

Having thus rekindled my enjoyment of this ancient rite, I thought about the process involved in getting good at almost anything.  It requires opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel.  Without all four elements, success is unlikely or at least greatly restricted.  While there are undoubtedly prodigies and savants who are gifted with abilities that are inexplicable, most of us reach a stage of competence and then success through assimilation of knowledge, however it might be acquired.  There are other ways for me to feed a fireplace: I can pay someone to deliver firewood to my home, I can use a chainsaw and an automated wood splitter, I can hire people to cut timber-living or dead- on my property as necessary, or I could even elect to use boxed logs purchased in a grocery store.  But to supply my needs by myself, I need to know how it can best be done.  Whether in person or from a book or online, the teaching and the learning is the key.

The formula is really no different anywhere in the world.  The rural peasants in Nicaragua understand a great deal about the crops they raise, the techniques that are particular to their lands and geography.  They often possess that deeply-held dedication to persevere in the face of long odds.  But if they are to succeed with consistency, they require all of the same elements for achievement that I needed for chopping wood: opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel.  What about understanding the markets?  How about comparing experiences with producers in other communities?  Might there be value in understanding the entire value chain in their endeavors?  Education at whatever level encountered drives the human spirit and imagination, it fuels the hunger to create everything from woodpiles to crops to healthy communities.  It is the ignition for quality of life that is universal in its attraction.

We have the capacity to both teach and to learn, if we will.   When we do, we develop dimensions to our lives and our world that we might never have previously dreamed.  Not unlike starting with a few logs and ending up with a season’s worth of wood for staying warm….

Getting Schooled

I mentioned here a while back that a portion of my recent visit in Nicaragua had been focused on the education initiative which Winds of Peace started last year.  Our agenda for the week permitted a lengthy visit to Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, a 1400 student house of joy.  The school is one operated by Fe y Alegria, one of WPF’s partners in working on the education initiative.  By the end of our tour and conversations, it was very clear that the students weren’t the only ones getting schooled that day.  My own education became elevated that day in ways that I had not expected.

If I tell you that Nicaragua’s statistics on education reflect poor progress, that the average student only receives about five years of classroom participation, that a third of students don’t make it out of primary school, that the country dedicates only 3% of GDP to education funding (when 10% is considered the minimum necessary), that of the kids who start first grade only half will reach grade five, then you might reach the reasonable conclusion that Nica schools leave a lot to be desired.  But you’d only be partially correct, because the presence of Roberto Clemente School belies the truth of an educational system in dire need.

My education on tour day included the expected elements:  accompaniment by Leslie Gomez from Fe y Alegria, meeting Berta Vasquez, Director General ofthe school who seemed to know the name of every child there, a walk-around of the premises, peeking into classrooms, observing kids between classes, in a few instances actually visiting with some of the students, and generally being conspicuous amidst a sea of uniformed scholars.  It’s an experience that I’ve had previously, in U.S. schools, so I thought that I knew what to expect in terms of the pupils’ behaviors, demeanors, sounds and interactions with me.  It turns out that I was quite wrong.

First, I noted the sounds of the school.  An open courtyard surrounded by classrooms may have amplified what I heard, but there was no mistaking the nature of the noise: I can only characterize it as joyful, vibrant, excited.

And I’m not talking about the pre-school classrooms, where one might expect little kids to be having fun because they don’t yet recognize what they may eventually come to regard as the drudgery of school.  I’m including the classrooms of the middle and upper-age students, high schoolers whose Western peers frequently exude sardonic sarcasm and languid disaffection about their

time in the academy.  Here, though, only pride and school “ownership” were on display.  Everywhere we went, in each of the classrooms, the buzzing of true, energetic fun sounded all around the building; it is not a sound that can easily be faked, and the attentive faces behind the sounds attested to its reality.

Then there was the look and content of the classrooms themselves.  The uniforms which the students wear created a sense of organization in each class, uniformity that suggested the responsibility that each young person owed to the others; no visual outliers, no fashion statements here.  The walls reflected the learning being done, with bright colors and lessons and children’s names to be seen everywhere, tangible statements of “I can.”  Absent were the trappings of technology and modern distraction.  What mattered on these walls and in these rooms were the outputs of the kids.  The computers and the electronics were all housed elsewhere, and for another time of the day.

Despite what might be viewed as regimentation at the school, there is a large waiting list of families desiring for their children to attend; kids really want to be at this school.  There is also a cost for attending, as students have to cover the cost of their uniforms and some materials consumed.  Many families simply cannot afford the 80 Cordobas ($3.43) per month that is required for attending.   I was pleased to learn that the financial assistance provided by Winds of Peace via Fe y Alegria had covered scholarships for 68 students.  Wow!

When we dared to interrupt and enter several of the classrooms, the reactions were consistently stirring. Each time, the several dozen students rose to attention beside their desks, as if on cue, and the smiles directed at their visitors unequivocally affirmed the sounds and the sights described above.  I know the energy and vitality that young kids breathe into life (I’ve raised four of my own!), yet the impact of the collective energyand enthusiasm in these studentsstruck me in a way quite different from other school visits I’ve  had.  At one classroom stop we were privileged to meet William, the president of the school student body.  The conversation was eye-to-eye anddirect; he displayed great self-confidence in describing his responsibilities and his charge of leadership and role modeling.  As I stood transfixed by this young man’s bearing, the vice-president of the student body, Debora, emerged from the classroom to introduce herself and respond to more of our questions.

During the whole of our discussion, not once did I see a dropped gaze or a self-conscious stare at the ground.  By the time the third member of this student leadership trio, Danny, joined our impromptu lesson on student government, I had become completely disarmed by the poise and self-assurance being cultivated among the members of this school.  And as if to accentuate the fact thatour interaction had not been only for show, each of the three took my own notebook and entered their respective e-mail addresses and Facebook connections as a means for continued conversation.  I was as impressed and impacted as I could possibly have been.

As if this entire excursion had not amazed me beyond my expectations for the morning, as I approached the truck to depart I had the lovely encounter with little Yareli, described in my blog here of May 5.  Her sweet “blessing” was icing on a cake of immense meaning and proportion, and a treat that will stay with me, likely, forever.

If the state of education in Nicaragua is truly needy (and it is), such need is not comprised of youth who are without motivation or inherent capacities.  A short visit to Roberto Clemente School will quickly disabuse any skeptic of that notion.  Rather, the deficit is one caused by a lack of priority and discipline in facing the future needs of an entire nation.  In short, it’s the adults who are failing in the classrooms, in favor of other perceived primacies that are shorter-term and supported by louder lobbies.  As a result, the beautiful music of students having the opportunity to embrace the ownership of their own futures plays much too infrequently and softly.

Leaving the school grounds, students waved at us.  I remember mentally thanking Louise Nielsen for her special concern for kids and their education and for the work that we now do in this field in her name….