By Eva Wu, KF9 Philippines
Imagine you’re a loan officer who’s working for one of Kiva’s partner MFIs. You’ve been traveling around the field, collecting repayments from quite a few clients over the course of the day. It’s getting late, and you’ve amassed a huge amount of cash – the equivalent of a few months’ worth of income for locals. As the sun begins to set, you realize you’re still at least an hour away from the office – an hour’s worth of travel on your motorcycle, over rough roads that are poorly (if at all) lit. What do you think could happen next?
When I ask HSPFI‘s loan or project officers what they find most challenging about their jobs, they always say repayments. Not just because all the hours spent traveling to get to clients is rough and arduous, but because project officers make tempting targets for robbers and thieves as they carry huge sums of cash repayments back to their MFIs. One of the HSPFI project officers who I met was actually robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight. At around 10AM in the morning, the project officer found himself confronted by a robber with a gun and was forced to hand over all the repayments he had collected. Shocked and confused, the project officer went home before heading to the police station to report the crime.
HSPFI project officers are generally fairly philosophical and accepting of the dangers that comes with this line of work (“It is a part of our job and duty… it is an experience.”) But still, it took me some time to digest the fact that many of the project officers who I’ve met and come to respect are quite literally putting themselves in danger every day. Not only are project officers potential targets while they’re on the road, but they can also come under fire from clients or clients’ families. One such encounter involved a project officer and a client’s drunken knife-wielding husband. Luckily no one was hurt, but I don’t think that project officer managed to collect the client’s repayment that day. (This also made me realize that there was another practical reason as to why MFIs tend to target women borrowers – most women are probably less prone to threatening MFI loan officers with weapons or other dangerous household objects.)
What do you do? I pressed. What do you do under these circumstances? After all, as one HSPFI project officer told me, it’s not like we can carry guns with us. Another project officer who’s worked for over thirteen years with HSPFI shared that she tries not to react in difficult situations where she is being provoked by angry clients. You do not react, just do your part. And smile. Smile on the outside even though it’s hard on the inside. She added that most people will usually cool down with time; some clients have felt so ashamed of their outbursts that they’d visit the office and apologize to her.
There are also other strategies that project officers can employ to help reduce their personal risk. Project officers at one of HSPFI’s branches would travel in a group to a particularly remote village, setting out early in the morning on their motorcycles to visiting several villages on the way, and returning to the office after night has fallen – trusting that there is safety in numbers. HSPFI has also taken steps to help ensure the employees’ safety – project officers do not carry cash and give out disbursed loans to clients at their centers or their homes. Instead, clients visit HSPFI branch offices to receive their loan checks. I had guessed the reason behind this policy (as I’m sure you have as well), but I asked why anyways. It was because the risk for project officers carrying all that money one-way was already so high, HSPFI couldn’t risk doubling the danger to project officers by asking them to carry funds to AND from the MFI.
Most of all, project officers tell me that they pray. HSPFI staff pray that God will protect the project officers and ensure their safety while they’re working in the field. Next time you receive your repayments from Kiva, I hope that you can send a thought (or a prayer) to the hardworking MFI loan officers, who are working in difficult and dangerous environments to make sure that your money gets repaid!
Eva Wu has already finished her placement in the Philippines, but she crammed so much field traveling in her last few weeks that she went home with a bunch of stories left to share. She plans to linger on for a bit longer until she’s caught up with her Kiva Fellow duties here and on her personal blog. In the meantime, support HSPFI by joining the HSPFI lending team!