Contemplating International Development in the New Year

Question_Mark_Puzzle_PieceThe New Year always brings with it a healthy serving of self-reflection. Am I eating well, exercising enough, spending time with those I care about, working on my relationships, doing what makes me happy, etc.? Coming into this New Year I have been doing exactly that. I am blessed to be able to say that I am happy with where I am and what I am doing. While asking myself these questions I paused a beat when I got to “am I doing what makes me happy.” Thankfully, the answer was “yes”. I arrived at this conclusion by really thinking about the work that I am doing and the field of work I am pursuing. I love the amazing opportunity I have to work towards truly making a difference in the world through the work I am doing with savings groups. I’ve known for a while now that I want to work in international development and am fortunate that my first go at it landed me in the field of microfinance. There are so many types of international development and so many different ways to skin the cat named Poverty Alleviation (I don’t recommend giving your cat this name, too much pressure for the cat) that it can be quite difficult to choose the best path.

Through my studies at school and on my own time I have found that the trend in international development has been that when foreigners working for an NGO enter a developing country with the intent of alleviating poverty, they come with some type of donation, or at the very least some funding to get things started. The practice does not support a sustainable model and does little to help those in need over the long run. Don’t get me wrong, the projects are well intended, but I believe the money invested in them could be better spent. Savings groups, however, are a revolutionary type of international development focusing more on empowerment and financial education rather than donations or temporary projects. The idea is not to try to simply make their lives a little better by giving them, for example, a new stove. Instead it is an attempt to empower the poor and support them down a path towards self-sufficiency. This means providing them with tools and knowledge that will enable them to, at the very least, better manage their ever-changing cash flows to provide their families with the daily necessities, which could include purchasing that stove and thus increasing its overall value to the family.

This type of financial service has amazing potential to work towards alleviating poverty on a global scale. One of the challenges the poor experience is the uncertainty of tomorrow. Cash flows are so irregular it becomes very hard to manage money on a daily basis. Having a place to save and to access large (a very relative term) sums of capital helps mitigate that uncertainty. Financial stability is a luxury millions of people around the world lack and simple donations are not going to change that. There’s a reason the cliché “You can give a man a fish and he can eat for a day…(you know the rest)” exists. By supporting the poor to better manage their cash flows in the form of a savings group, they will be better off in the long run when the support has moved on. A key question that needs to be asked, and rarely is, when talking about development work is: “Does this project empower the ones it is trying to help to be able to help themselves in the long run?” Fortunately, I believe the answer to that question when I look at my own work is yes.

It is also important to recognize that development work is a two-way street. I have been learning just as much from those that I am trying to help as they have been learning from me. While guidelines, essays, papers and conferences all discuss and analyze the best way to offer this service to the poor, the best resource I have now is the experience I am gaining through this trial by fire process here in Guatemala. These are exciting times in the world of international development and I am blessed to be right in the heart of it trying to find the best path to take that will make the longest lasting impact.

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