The Puzzle of Poverty: Embera Puru Edition

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>>Authored by Kristin Smith, Program Intern for the 100 Million Project

jjjjJust a few weeks before joining the Microcredit Summit Campaign team, I traveled with Global Brigades to teach financial literacy workshops and provide microenterprise consulting to small business owners in an indigenous community in Panama.

The program, founded in 2003, sends university students from the United States and select European countries on a series of brigades to Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Ghana to “strengthen the health and economic development of communities” by meeting a certain aspect of their “holistic model.” Learn more.

Their holistic model attempts to assess and address the most dire needs of developing communities in an intentionally sequenced process to help them achieve a state of sustainable self-sufficiency.

Panama holistic model

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Under the holistic model developed specifically for Panama, the process begins with Global Brigades employees researching the region and evaluating the community through a process of “integrated community development” to understand its most pressing needs.

Initially, the program sends medical and dental brigades — passionate volunteers working to mobilize positive social change — to the communities to provide mobile medical and dental clinics. Community banks are then established by a group of community members with guidance from Global Brigades staff to encourage saving for health needs and emergencies. Once established, the community banks begin distributing loans to community members for environmental projects and new business developments.

My brigade, composed of my colleagues from the University of California-Berkeley and others from Arizona State University, was excited to complete the Global Brigades puzzle (that is, the holistic model). Our role was to teach financial literacy and perform business consultations in the community of Embera Puru.

Embera Puru is an indigenous community of some 250 individuals in the Darien Province. Located in Eastern Panama near the Colombian border. Embera Puru is an Embera community, one of the largest indigenous groups in Panama and Colombia. The community members’ main source of income is agriculture, producing crops such as plantains, yucca, rice, and otoe (a local root vegetable), and creating artisan handicrafts.

With guidance from Global Brigades, the community established a caja rural (community bank) to encourage savings and loan making within the community. Embera Peru’s caja now has 21 members with 21 active savings accounts, but there are still many among the 266 inhabitants without this means to save.

Comparable to a savings group, a caja rural is a group of men and women who pool their funds to create a solid financial base, providing savings and loan services for themselves and for the entire community. Despite the initial contributions of Global Brigades, the caja is entirely owned and operated by members of the community.

Because the indigenous communities of Panama are predominantly closed economies, community groups eschew money from the outside and make weekly savings deposits into the community bank to begin their work. Group members manage the fund themselves, make decisions about who can receive loans and under what terms, and hold each other accountable for loan repayment.

As part of our business consultation work, we met with representatives from the community’s “Environmental Committee,” a group of farmers producing beyond self-sufficiency for distribution within the community, to ask simple questions to best understand the level of business assistance they needed.

The president of this group, a man by the name of Marcelino, also happens to be the treasurer of the caja rural, as well as a community teacher. Through conversation with Marcelino, we learned that his bookkeeping records won their bank a prize for “Caja with the best bookkeeping management” at a board of directors microfinance workshop in Panama City.

Analyzing the business’s books and records, we found a very thorough system and were stumped on how else to proceed with our consultation. (Aside from our recommendation that they include an inventory management system in preparation for increased production.) Not long into our conversation with these experienced committee leaders about potential business obstacles, we found ourselves confronted with an irritated committee leader and community elder who expressed his frustration with the focus of our questions and our work.

He argued that the group’s record-keeping strategies were highly insignificant in comparison to the group’s utter lack of inventory. It turns out that there was a community water shortage resulting from a collapsed well and a series of unfinished agricultural projects throughout the farm.

“Money,” he said. “We need your help on the farm, we need more crops, and we need money.” My observation was that the present infrastructure severely lacked sufficient capital to support a self-interacting and self-sustaining community.

As I sit now at my desk here in Washington, D.C., far removed from this man and his community, I face the internal debate of whether our work and efforts in microfinance are indeed meeting the direst needs of these people. My short time in Panama reinforced my understanding that development is a puzzle that we do not always equip ourselves to solve. Regardless of the practicality of the services we were working to provide, if other pieces of the complex puzzle are not fully in place, the outcomes in general are undermined.

Increased financial access serves as the window of opportunity for many entrepreneurs throughout the developing world, but without the proper environment and sufficient infrastructure, access to money is rather trivial.

Prioritizing the views, aspirations, and goals of clients or other program beneficiaries is critical as well. As economist William Easterly often argues, no matter how well-intentioned our efforts, without proper feedback from those receiving the assistance, how are we to measure the effectiveness and progress of our efforts? Under my interpretation, Global Brigades was not responsive to the needs and aspirations of its clients.

While the Embera Puru puzzle remains unsolved because the other pieces were never correctly and fully placed, I am glad to know that the industry and many of its institutions are making great strides towards increased attention to feedback from clients and beneficiaries as well as accountability of institutions to deliver on their objectives. Despite the puzzle’s sheer complexity, we have all the pieces and the ability to work with the poor to solve it.

I encourage Global Brigades to join the Microcredit Summit Campaign in making a specific, measurable, and time-bound Commitment on their efforts to end extreme poverty.

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