I just need to vent a little.
I receive a number of newsletters and communications from organizations who have a presence in Nicaragua. It’s very helpful to know about the initiatives and successes being created, and within the development community it’s often valuable to hear what is working through the efforts of others; good ideas were invented to be replicated elsewhere (as long as there’s no copyright involved!) But I also receive puzzling reports from time to time, missives that defy my understanding (which sometimes doesn’t take much) or which misrepresent reality (which sometimes defies my understanding). I probably shouldn’t let such things bother me. But they do bother me when they inaccurately portray the circumstances of those whom they serve, whether intended or not.
One very well-known organization in Nicaragua is particularly renowned for its credit work with small producers. (I referenced our interactions with the organization in an entry here dated February 9, 2014.) I’m still a bit frustrated with their abandonment of the small coffee producers in that case, but maybe especially so in light of the fact that representatives of the group will be speaking to an upcoming conference about the virtues and values of accompanying “little guys. ” I’m not at all certain how our mutual small producer partners might be depicted. And they certainly deserve a realistic representation in front of such an audience as potential U.S. funders. Will their voices be heard?
Then just this week I’ve received a piece sent by an organization which performs significant work in Nicaragua, and which has done so for many years. Unlike WPF, it relies on investments from the public, so fundraising is never far from their consciousness, which may also be a reason for what was written. In any case, I always choose to digest their communications first as a potential investor, as though I had no personal experiences within Nicaragua. It provides an opportunity to hear something new, or at least to hear about Nicaraguan reality through a different voice, hopefully enhancing my own perspectives about the work WPF does and the context in which we do it.
In this issue, I was quickly and sorely disappointed. The lead article was little more than a self-promotion piece about how terrific this organization is, especially in the eyes of its Nicaraguan partners. Now, that’s nothing new for institutions that rely on the image of good works for their fundraising success; indeed, often they must “toot their own horns,” because there are few others who can. It’s fair to do so. But the article moves into the shadows of misrepresentation when it suggests that a.) their poor, rural partners have many funding options, b.) that their partners strongly prefer to work with this funder due to loyalty and c.) that the quality of this funder is as important to the borrowers as the money itself.
Wow. Development groups can tout themselves all they like, and I won’t care a bit. But to suggest that the truly poor have a wide range of funder options is simply not true. To state that Nicas “choose” this particular funder because of its mission is an attribution to the poor that is inaccurate, and misrepresents the desperate circumstances of those in need. Even quoting one of their partners as using the term “corporate automaton” breaches credibility: it doesn’t sound like the language of Nicaraguans I know.
The reality of the rural poor as I have experienced it is quite different. Credit is a precious resource that is nearly non-existent to the poor who reside in the rural sectors of the country. There are fewer funders who venture into these areas. Inability to provide collateral renders potential borrowers ineligible for funds that otherwise might be available. And where loans are somehow available, the often usurious interest rates makes access to such funding unattainable. Selection of a funding partner from a wide range of competitive options is simply not the rural reality.
The idea that their partners have chosen this organization primarily from a sense of loyalty suggests that the urgency and desperation for access to credit is a secondary consideration for the poor in Nicaragua. Now, I am quite sure that the recipient partners are very grateful for the availability to credit which this organization provides; indeed, the access fills a niche that too few other institutions are willing to inhabit. But the truth of rural Nicaraguan circumstances is that while gratitude and appreciation are heartfelt, such emotions do not put seed in the ground nor fertilizers in the soil. Financial transactions in this part of the world are built upon needs. Partners will be grateful for accompaniment, will rejoice in receiving funding visitors in order to show off what they have accomplished. But years of economic disadvantages and the hidden agendas of potential funders (“do it our way” or “only if you observe this form of faith”) have taught the lesson to Nicaraguans well: whoever has the money at the right rate of interest has their attention. Survival sometimes makes fickle friends of us all.
Finally, the quality of the lender, claimed to be as important as the funds themselves, is a relative thing. We all tend to see ourselves through our own range of experiences and values. When I think of WPF as a “quality partner,” I imagine it through my own definitions of quality and partnering. Those values may or may not be the same as held by Nicaraguans, whose primary needs are to obtain credit at low interest rates and without political, social or cultural strings attached. Those serving the poorest sectors of the world’s populations can too easily be pulled into what might be called “a messiah complex,” where we gradually come to see ourselves as as something more than a needed resource. We can too easily exaggerate who we are. But in dire circumstances- and with all due respect to motive and friendship and human empathy- the money is what is most important. What I think funders owe to their partners is an effort to discern their needs and their solutions and the quality of their lives.
I don’t mean to disparage the good works being done by any organization in Nicaragua or anywhere else in the world. Thank goodness for the care and the caring that is rendered every day in the name of helping the poor. It’s just that every once in a while I feel this nagging awareness of a self-serving business motive that, frankly, feels out of place in the work of serving others….