“Where There is Despair, Let Me Sow Hope.” -St. Francis of Assisi

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While I have written a lot about Kiva in my posts about micro-finance, there are many other organizations that do micro-finance work that deserve recognition. One such organization is Sow Hope, a non-profit located in my surrogate hometown, Grand Rapids.

After my seasonal job ended in November, I went on a trip through several parts of the country including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and eventually ended up in Chicago for a weekend. While there, I had the opportunity to attend a showing of the documentary that Sow Hope produced and to participate in the question and answer session afterwards. I learned a lot about the good work the organization does; it has helped nearly 40,000 women globally to become empowered through programs in healthcare, micro-finance, literacy training, and clean water initiatives. I also learned that despite the volume of women it has helped, it is a rather small, and streamlined organization: having a small, volunteer board of directors and two paid staff members. I was drawn to that aspect of the organization because it reminded me of an organization that I interned for my sophomore year of college, ANSWER. What drew me to both of these organizations is the transparency that they offer as well as a stronger emphasis on community.

So I urge you to check out Sow Hope, and if you feel compelled by its story, find a way to volunteer your time, money, skills, and talents to further its cause.

First World Problems

My new favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote is this: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ” To me, this quote not only challenges the traditional idea of what helping the poor and being compassionate is, but also provides a valid critic of the way our government, non-governmental organizations, and economic systems are structured. While one can read it as a single person giving money to “a beggar” it also could apply to the idea of charity as a whole. Many corporations give millions of dollars to a non-profit that may do some good, but doesn’t actually change anything or end the cycle of poverty. The same can be said for a government; like the US for example, which will give nearly $50 billion of aid to other countries, and yet these countries can never seem to get out of poverty. Perhaps the notion of charity needs to be reevaluated.

This is what I like about micro-finance. Although it is not perfect, it seems to challenge the traditional structure of aid. It is more empowering than handouts. With micro-finance, people are given money, yes, but they are also given respect and accountability.

So with that being said, two days ago I made another loan! This time it happened to be to someone in the US. Unfortunately, I must admit that I, although I’m sure I’m not the only one, tend to be a bit biased against people asking for loans in the developed world (especially the US). I unconsciously assume that they do not need the loan as much as those in less developed countries. This is a common misconception, to be sure, and it can stand in the way of the reforming a pretty flawed system like that of the US. When I think of it at a more human level though, such as in terms of my own struggle with this project, I can more easily understand the plight of someone in the developed world.

So I encourage you, whoever is reading this, to take a minute to check out this other entrepreneur’s blog, shop, and kiva profile (she still needs lenders!) Although there may be people who are in more dire financial conditions, we can’t forget our neighbors who may still need our help as well.

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Catarina’s Loan: http://www.kiva.org/lend/597599

Catarina’s Shop: http://docerelashop.com/

Catarina’s Blog: http://blog.docerelashop.com/

P.S. She makes stamps too! Talk about a perfect loan for me to help with!

I Made a Loan!

So last Christmas my brother and sister-in-law gave me a Kiva card and that enabled me to lend $25 to a young woman in Guatemala. A few weeks ago I got an email telling me that my loan had been repaid! Since then I have been looking for someone to whom I could re-lend that money. I wanted it to be someone who shared a similar story to mine. Sure enough, today I found someone who resonated with me. I made a loan to a woman age 40 who, alongside her husband, has started her own business making hand-made bags, hammocks, and backpacks. She is from Colombia and she is one of the few borrowers who is smiling in her picture. (I’m aware that smiling in a picture like this may not be a cultural norm for many of the borrowers, but it is one norm of my culture that I couldn’t shake.) I think it was that smile that spoke to me the most. It was infectious and gave me hope that my own business will succeed. I am excited and happy to be a part of her success and rise from poverty to prosperity. Even though I don’t know the woman I made a loan to, it reassures me to be connected to someone who may be struggling with the same issues. It makes me feel less alone in this venture.

Cure to Poverty?

Cure to Poverty?

I read this book last semester for my international economics class (and partially on my own accord.) I took the class in an independent study format and since I was already reading the book, and the textbook for the class was pretty worthless, I asked to use it for the class. Thankfully, I found Yunus’ approach to poverty and economics was radically different than that of the dry textbook. He brought economics to life and made it interesting. (I suspect I shall be using his book as a reference for many more posts.)

Yunus’ approach is what is now called microfinance/lending/credit and he started his own bank (Grameen Bank) in order to finance small loans to the poor. His poverty-fighting journey began when he was a professor and realized that in the town nearby there was a large number of people living in poverty. He then began asking himself what the role of university was, and should be, to the community. His conclusion, that the university should be an asset to the community -not a separate entity, empowered him to find ways to help the community as well as teach his students simultaneously. He went out and talked to the poorest of the poor and found that their issue was not that they didn’t have any ideas on how to earn capital, rather they had no initial capital to invest in their ideas. Thus, Yunus impulsively invested in one person’s idea, while symbolically investing in the ideas and futures of poverty-stricken people everywhere.

Since 1983, when Professor Yunus started Grameen, over 3.8 billion dollars have been lent to more than 2.4 million families. He has also won the Nobel Prize and inspired others to start their own micro-credit programs. He started a revolution that is still gaining momentum today, one that is the epitome of creativity. He saw others’ capacity for creativity and was inspired to create a new system to help those people meet their creative potential.

Some of the best side effects from microfinance, however, have not had much to do with economics at all. Because his microfinance institution, along with many others around the world, made it a requirement for borrowers to attend meetings with other borrowers in order to learn from one another, a strong sense of community began to take hold among the borrowers. They learned how to solve each other’s problems and began supporting each other in their respective endeavors.

Remarkably the sense of community has not been confined to those local communities. Given the newer technologies of the day, i.e. the Internet, people from these communities have been able to connect with people around the world who are either struggling with the same issues, are willing to invest in their business, or have never heard of microfinance. In fact, the microfinance movement has reached people who have never given much thought to worldwide poverty, but who, through the use of the Internet, may have their horizons opened by a story of a person whom they’ve never met living in a place like Bangladesh, Honduras, or Ghana.

The microfinance revolution has also had a profound effect on gender equality. In many less-developed countries women are unable to borrow money, work outside the home, or even leave the home without their male guardian’s consent. However, Yunus found that allowing women to be the breadwinners made for a more prosperous family unit. They were more likely to invest in the education of their children, the upkeep of the home, and food. He thus set out to make at least half the loans granted by the Grameen Bank go to women. Today, about 95% of the borrowers are women. These women are better fed, have children that are better cared for, and are not subjugated to domestic violence nearly as often (men tend not to beat women when they are providing them with more income.)

While microfinance does have its drawbacks (more on this in later posts), the way it creatively and constructively looks for lasting solutions to the issues of global poverty, international/community development, and inequality is inspiring people across the globe by giving power to those who have previously had none.

Introductions

This blog is about my latest business venture: starting my own micro-enterprise “Right Brain Left Hand Creations” in order to learn what it is like to start my own small business so that I may help other women do the same. I am inspired by micro-finance –a process of lending money to the poor either as start-up cash for their business idea or  to help their business grow– and I see it as a viable solution to poverty world wide.

As far as my business is concerned, I’ve started making handmade “thank you” and “I’m sorry” cards and decided to sell them on Etsy.com. This began with my desire to have thank you cards that are very personal. I love beautiful paper and interesting lettering, so this seemed like a really natural choice for me.

I’ve never seen myself as a business person, EVER. I went through school feeling destined to go in to the non-profit world and use my talents elsewhere. When I graduated I could not find/get a job in this field primarily due to a lack of experience. That’s the funny thing with experience, though, you need it to gain employment, but employment is what gives you that experience. A question began to well up within me: how do you gain experience, if no one is willing to give you a chance? My answer: do it yourself.

Thus I decided to start my own business and see where it goes. If it fails, meh, so be it. I guess my talents lie elsewhere. If it flourishes, nice! Then I can buy groceries! (Haha.) If it gets in this weird middle state (which will probably be accurate) I’m sure I’m not the only business to do so, so it will give me empathy for those who are in the same situation and will also teach me a lot about small businesses and how to problem solve within that context. Basically, even if I fail, I feel as though I won’t lose. Life’s lessons are the best rewards and they are given liberally.

I am also going to make a loan on Kiva.org to another woman in another country and will be tracking her progress as well as providing facts about micro-finance, the global south/poverty, and gender equality.

I’m excited about this new project of mine, and look forward to creating, growing, and learning in this process.