There is a delicate balance that exists between theory and practice when it comes to
international development work. Intellectuals and scholars can get together and talk about what they think is the best way to go about providing aid to a developing country, basing their decisions on complex formulas, reason and logic. However, without actually knowing on a personal level the people these theories are trying to help one can never truly get to the heart of the problem. Partly because, it’s hard to know what the problem is without being able to talk to people and understand their needs from their own perspectives. On paper a plan for helping a community may seem flawless, but then once tested in the field countless flaws may present themselves. At the same time practitioners need theories to guide their actions when in the communities because without those theories it becomes very difficult to know where to start with implementing a solution and then how to measure the impact and success one has on the community where they are working. Thus theory needs practice to identify needs and verify that the theory is correct (or at least on track) and practice needs theory for guidance and measurement.
Up until now my work here in Guatemala has been heavy on the practice and light on the theory. I have been researching best practices in savings group work and have been learning from what other people and organizations have been doing in the field. Luckily, many organizations publish their work for others to use, learn from and build upon. While I am sure these works were based in theory and developed through practice, I haven’t learned much about those theories hiding in the background.
My plan of attack has been trial by fire. I have reached out to, and had preliminary meetings with, seven different organizations since moving to the lake area mid-February and have yet to establish a single savings group. I have been developing a savings group model based on four other models that already exist and have been in use for years now. These other models are Asociación de Comunidades Autofinanciadas’ Comunidades Autofinanciadas (CAF)model, Oxfam’s Saving For Changemodel, Catholic Relief Serivices’ Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC)model, and Village Savings and Lending Asociates’ Village Savings and Lending (VSL)model. From each of these models I have been taking bits and pieces, many of which overlap among other models, and putting them together to create Soluciones Cooperativas (SolCoop). I hope to develop SolCoop into the model that Soluciones Comunitarias will eventually use to provide savings group services in the communities where they work.
However, as I have been failing to start savings groups within the organizations I have been in contact with, I feel it is time for a new approach. There are a number of reasons these organizations have not wanted to start a savings group, chief among them being that the members are already saving, or at least have access to savings services, in BanRural and other traditional style banks. The theory behind savings groups is that potential members do not have access to a reliable and affordable means to save their money. I have been going against this theory and targeting women’s weaving cooperatives that thus far have all had access to traditional banking services.
My new approach is to go back to the theory and gain a better understanding of where this type of development work came from. To do this I will be participating in the Masters in Community Development Policy and Practice at my undergrad alma-mater the University of New Hampshire (UNH). This program was started by the Carsey Institute at UNH and aims to help working professionals in the field of community development apply theory and policy to their practices on the ground. With the support of this masters’ program I hope to gain a fresh perspective to develop a more focused plan that can be applied to implementing and adapting the SolCoop model.
The beauty of this program is that it is tailored towards working professionals and allows them to continue their work while studying at the same time. I will be returning stateside on May 17th for the one month summer session focused on the community development project design and then come back to Guatemala mid-June to apply the re-vamped design to my current savings group project. The Fall and Spring sessions are all online, so I can stay in Guatemala working and studying.
Needless to say I am super excited about the opportunity to continue working with savings groups in Guatemala and study for a masters’ degree at the same time!