By Gemma North, KF9, Cambodia
So goes my Cambodian colleague’s expression on the value of experience. It has been just over a week since I arrived in Phnom Penh to begin my fellowship with CREDIT. Before coming I had done some reading on Cambodia’s history and culture, but had tried to arrive without any preconceived notions. After spending just a short time in the field however, it became clear that I had brought along my “western” mind and misconceptions. Luckily, I have had the chance to address a few of my assumptions on microfinance.
To begin with, I have continuously been impressed by the professionalism of the MFI staff when interviewing borrowers or even potential clients. Although we may be sitting on the platform that serves as the individual’s bed, or perhaps a bag of rice, there is never a sense of condescendence or pity. All parties are at ease and often share a few laughs in the course of the conversation. I subscribe to the belief that microfinance helps to bring out in borrowers a greater sense of empowerment and personal responsibility. I also greatly value Kiva’s emphasis on creating connections between lenders and borrowers based on an equal footing and respectful interactions. However, witnessing these values being manifested in the Cambodian countryside brought about a new depth of understanding for me.
In the past few years the rising popularity of microfinance has created a buzz around its power to help alleviate poverty. Yet after a couple days listening to CREDIT client stories, it became apparent that most of them had taken out loans to expand or even just maintain their existing business. A few borrowers could not tell us what their daily or even monthly profit was, and most explained that they had not experienced changes in their standard of living as a result of receiving one or more loans. Going one step further, a client informed us that prior to receiving a loan, her children were attending school but had since stopped in order to help with her clothing sales business. This was somewhat disconcerting and humbling to hear since I (and I suspect many people), hope and look for a rapid and visible improvement in a person’s situation when we evaluate the effects of microfinance. Yet I am coming to realize that in some circumstances, when an individual receives a loan it will take time for him or her to noticeably begin to move out of poverty. Also, the onlooker must understand and accept that the borrower will use their own judgment to make the best choices for them, their businesses and their families.
We have all heard about the effects of microfinance hundreds of times so for the next four months I hope to give Kiva supporters another window through which to see CREDIT’s work and the impact it has on the lives of their clients.
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