Friday, October 14, 2005

My Ethical Dilemma

So, I have a project to do in my anthropology program, which is causing me some consternation. What it boils down to, is, how does one propose a solution that works within the existing system, when one believes that the existing system is illegitimate? Our issue concerns the lending of small funds (microfinance) to poor, mostly indigenous, women in Bolivia, in order to stir the creation and sustainability of small businesses for these women. The studies have already shown that these microfinance schemes tend not to work, for a whole variety of reasons, but mainly (in my view) that the greater surrounding economic situation of these people does not allow for sustainable enterprises that can grow significantly over time. Bolivia is a nation with a majority Indian population, dominated by a small, European-derived (mostly Spanish) minority population. In many ways the setting, in my view, is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, in terms of the conditions of the indiegenous majority. How, in this greater context, can these Indian women start and grow small localized businesses that would ever catapult them into anything over a subsistence level, when their surrounding environment of poverty, lack of education, little or no health care, etc., is not situated to engender sustainable business enterprises ( as the studies already seem to show)?

My job, as an "advisor" to a local enteprise by the name of Promujer, an NGO (non-governmental org.) geared to assisting local woman to develop sustainable enterprises by assisting them with small loans, is to find ways to make the complete enterprise successful, meaning the sustainable business success of the women, as well as the sustainability of the lending enterprise itself, all within a context where failure seems largely inevitable, given the conditions. Yet I must, as in the real world, find a way to make this work for these women and the Promujer enterprise in spite of the dismal conditions, to make this work under conditions where these Indian people have always been held to 2nd class citizenship with no assistance by their government that would have enabled them to move away from poverty and lack of education. They can of course, and do, make things to sell or market small commodities, but everyone is so poor that not many buyers exist. Their skills are limited by their historical conditions. Conditions are bleak.

I proposed a revolution as a beginning to resolution of these challenges. And, the revolution has indeed already begun to take place in that country as of more recently. It won't be much longer until Indian people will make be in charge of their own self-determination in Bolivia. But I am charged with making microfinance work for them now, in the exisiting circumstances; circumstances I find to be ultimately, illegitimate. A maddening, but typical Catch-22 situation, which seems to be so often the environment for these intractable types of issues. As they used to phrase it in the 19th century, with the slavery question, the Indian question, the labor question, and now, the microfinance question: "What is to be done?"

I have some ideas, but I'm already not so enthused by their chances for success.


Blogger willowtree said...

Yeah, that sounds like a tough one, especially if you don't have a lot of faith going in.
Have you ever seen a documentary called 16 decisions. It was about Bangladeshi women who didn't wish to be destitute anymore, and therefore applied for "micro-loans" to start their own food sale businesses. In order to receive the loan they had to accept the "16 decisions".
I'm not sure of the success of the program. In the documentary, some women made more, some less, but all supported one another as a community. A lot of the focus was on the difficulty of life, but towards the end the women were shown trying to improve their lives.
I don't know if it would be of any help to you at all, but doesn't hurt to mention it.

Whole Planet Foundation

Sixteen Decisions Synopsis

CELCEE - Sixteen Decisions

Hope the links work.

I don't understand how you can be expected to guarantee success, that's... I'm not even sure what to call it. Am I understanding that correctly?
What if after you given/taught them the tools, the venture fails. They still have the tools to try again. Isnt that worth something?
What if the business is not sucessful? What will happen? Or is failure not an option?

8:12 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Thanks so much for these links. I'm sure I'll be able to glean information from them as I wrestle with these very difficult issues.

"16 Decisions" I've not heard of, but Bangladesh (and the Grameen Bank) is the home of the microfinance movt. If one is involved with the promotion of this concept of microfinance, then its usually spun as a success. If you come at it from an academic or scholarly perspective, then it seems not to work. The women are in a coercive (16 decisions) position of continual repayment, and many times they have to sell personal assets, restrict the family diet, or take out other loans, to keep up with the strict repayment schedules. The repayment rates are fantastic, largely due to the previously mentioned items (and therefore a great "finance" oppty. for financiers). No nation's GNP has been seen to increase at all as a result of microfinance initiatives though, and other, poverty and health indicators, seem either unaffected, or actually decrease over time in most cases.

I think the point of this, for us, is to realize exactly how difficult these issues really are. My main issue with this is, if we're taught that schemes such as this do not really fulfill their goals, then why do we have to "make them do what they cannot do". We've learned that the history of development is one failed scheme after another, and yet we are to do our best (on paper, of course), to make it work.
It's kind of like, "here's another sinking ship, see if you can make this one sail". My philosophy is, if something doesn't work, do't keep doing it over and over and over. I think that academia and the develoment industry are too tied into failed experiments (cause they generate lots of money for exactly those who need it the least, academics, developers, financiers, etc.)and that sometimes the best thing is to just walk away from the failures and regroup with something else that just might have a real chance for success.

I don't know if ever want to be an "academic". I want to be in the world of ideas, for sure, but ideas that can have results, so I'll keep working, though. I want to read sometime "Homo Academicus" by the great French thinker Pierre Bourdieu. He really breaks down how the academic perceives himself, vs, how he really "is".
An honest and powerful assessment, and from an academic no less. Now that's the type of academic I'd like to be!

9:49 PM  
Blogger willowtree said...

I dont like the- you have to be successful part, especially one has had success. That doesnt make sense.
You now it won't work, they know it won't work.

What's the next step?

Somthing tells me that if you were a hustler, this would be easier hehe. Come on Frank, mirror your government. Hustle, Hustle.

There is another documentary about Arab and Isreali women who tried to open their own business. It was a failure, but you did get to see all of the hardships they encountered. The head of the orginaztion though, she never gave up, even after that one went under, she started another business, right out of her living room. Some people have the bug biting them. They find/make ways out of no way. It would be helpful if you had a couple of those people to help you come up with a new way.

Pickles, Inc.

9:06 AM  
Blogger NeverAnonymous said...


I am very favorably impressed with you and your blog. You are obviously a man of great intelligence and high moral integrity. One thing I am not sure about at all is where you are while you are in charge of this microfinance program in Bolivia. Are you attempting to do this from here in the States?

I would think that the first thing you must do, to really be able to help these people, is to be living there with them. You can help create a climate that can succeed, even where all others have failed, and you can do it with your own power. Money is very secondary to the success of this endeavor it would seem to me, since it sounds as if it the surrounding factors may predispose any amount of cash flow from the outside to be doomed as a long term business exercise.

I think you must take charge of creating a unique enterprise, where the sheer force of will can surmount the difficulties present. In essence those are stummbling blocks of racism and prejudice, and a successful enterprise can overcome any past problems for the indigenous population.

Using the internet as a vehicle for selling and exporting local crafts, positive publicity for the enterprise, passion to succeed can do so.

Good luck! I know you can do it, where others have failed.

1:38 PM  
Blogger NeverAnonymous said...

Then again Frank, to play devil's advocate for the moment, they do say the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same action over and over expecting a different outcome. You may well have a point concerning academia, however the trick to me seems to be to be the innovator, the one to find success where others have failed before,by trying a different tack. Do something outrageously innovative, don't follow guidelines doomed to failure. TO dare to be different is how progress is made. Be daring. Find that crack in the ice and follow it to the sun.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Thanks Willowtree, for all of your help with advice and the links. I reluctantly completed my project, to be emailed in for our Mon. class. Being required by the course to work "within the system", I used a traditional lending circle model, where I tried to create a two-tiered mechanism by which loan defaults are spread out amongst a larger segment or group, so that loan defaults would not destroy one individual, but would rather be absorbed by a greater team, in circular-like manner. This way, no one can get too rich, but then again no one defaults individually (you'd get a few chances, then the team decides if they want to keep absorbing your defaults, or eventually jettison you). It might be a limited improvement in a larger, more dreadful situation.

Never Anonymous - Thank you for your kind words. This is a Master's level prjt. (cultural anthropology) so we work using the real world restrictions, but this is all on paper right now. If someone comes up with a real good innovation, it could make its way into real world application, possibly. But for now, we work on these issues in the classroom, in the realm of theory for now. I hope to do real field work on similar issues quite soon, maybe in Bolivia, or Costa Rica on a somewhat related issue. Your mentioning of the Internet can be a very real, relatively cheap solution to the connecting of markets (Ebay?)that could soon have real benefits for developing nations.

"Find that crack in the ice and follow it to the sun."

I really like that. It reminds of somthing by the poet Yetuvshenko (I think it was)written under the totalitarian Soviet era rule within Russia, who had said:

"Though the whole world be paved over in concrete, yet still a small flower would emerge from a crack within it" -or something along similar lines.

10:43 PM  
Blogger NeverAnonymous said...

Yevtushenko was a great poet and man, and Babi Yar remains the highest standard for holocaust poetry. He was my Grandmother's favorite poet. Most of her extended family from a small Polish town was wiped out in the Holocaust; from whence she had fled earlier to the States after pogroms had already killed many.

5:11 PM  
Blogger NeverAnonymous said...

Frank, actually i was attempting to thank you for the comparison to that great poet. You honor me by the mere suggestion. I knew you were a man of great intellect! :)

5:13 PM  
Blogger NeverAnonymous said...

thanks frank for the yevtushenko comment, that is superb company with whom to be considered, even if only for one line & i thank u!

5:31 AM  

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