I’m like many Peace Corps Volunteers in that my roles and responsibilities at work are constantly evolving. It’s normal, but unfortunately keeps me from sharing work updates on this blog because it’s hard to know what to write. I’d be hard-pressed to describe a typical workday, but if any single day could capture my work here in Benin, a certain Wednesday in late February would serve pretty well. Let me tell you about it.
I’m part of the Community Economic Development program, whose broad goals are business development and personal money management. I work with market gardening and food processing collectives through a local office of the national agricultural extension service. Beginning in September when Adam and I moved to our site, I started building relationships with the collectives, including one that processes palm oil.
Collectives are common here, but they vary in format. Some are for women only (although men often hold the leadership roles), some are mixed. Some focus on gardening, some on processing, some on services (like musical performance) and some lack focus at all. In some groups, members work together closely and pool profits; in others, the members work more independently. There is a strong tendency to form collectives, particularly among women, but many of them don’t reap the full potential benefits.
The collective that this story is about owns land, a building and equipment, which are rare assets. The women are all concerned primarily with other home-based businesses, but they benefit greatly from the collective during the palm harvest season, when they use the giant boiling vats and settling tanks to extract oil.
Through the course of our initial meetings with the group, when we were trying to assess their needs and plan our intervention, my counterpart and I learned that the women had participated in a loan association in the past with good results. Loan associations can be really useful for people who don’t qualify for formal loans or can’t afford the risk (even of microcredit). The way they work is that a group manages a fund that each member is entitled to borrow from in turn, with fees and penalties that go back to the pool of capital. They are self-regulated based on trust, mutual interest and personal reputation.
The collective’s prior loan association had long since paid out its dividends and wrapped up, and the women were interested in starting anew. I was excited to help them, but wondered what obstacles were preventing the group from doing this on its own. If they’d had success in the past, why wouldn’t they just replicate the process? Turns out their first association had received start-up money to fund its loans.
It was a clever arrangement that had enabled all the collective’s members to benefit individually from a grant made to the group. Now the women were waiting for another donor to start again, but that’s not something I am able or willing to arrange for them. First of all, Peace Corps Benin does not provide seed funds for loan associations. But more importantly, I know that the women could self-fund their loans and that doing so would be a more empowering, sustainable and capacity-building exercise than accepting external funding.
At any rate, I had agreed to help the women form a loan association, and my counterpart and I had scheduled a small meeting with the group’s leaders to talk about the methods. I got hold of a good village savings and loan association training program from a fellow volunteer and talked it over with my counterpart, who was really enthusiastic about the program. Since he is also working with the president of the collective on a separate project, he combined errands and scheduled the two meetings back-to-back. Thus began my Wednesday.
We arrived at the association president’s home, shook hands and exchanged greetings. Meeting times here are more like guidelines than rigid plans. “We’ll meet at 10am” means, “Show up at 10am and I’ll most likely be there, or at least be willing to head over pretty soon after you show up.” Now that we’d arrived, the president put on some music, sent a kid to go buy sodas and started calling participants on his phone to tell them to head over. Every five minutes or so, another participant arrived, the greetings were repeated and someone pulled up another chair.
I sat on the sidelines and observed while the group made small talk in Fon (the de facto common language of this group.) Once everyone had arrived, my counterpart and his colleague went through their business. I kept busy by rereading and refining my notes in preparation for our part of the meeting because I don’t speak Fon and couldn’t follow their conversation.
Official meetings always require me to carefully plan what I’m going to say. I come equipped with a vocabulary list of key French words and phrases in case I draw a blank—in this instance cotiser (“to pay dues or contributions”), dispositive (“system”), parts (“shares”) and prêter (“to loan”). If I’m going to be explaining a detailed concept I bullet it out so that I can maintain a clear logical flow and don’t skip over important information.
The first piece of business wrapped up an hour or so later, and we took a break for orange sodas. Since my piece of business was unrelated to the previous stuff, the president had to call several leaders of the women’s group and tell them to come. Again, we shot the breeze for a half hour or so while everyone assembled. The CD started over from track one for the third (maybe the fourth) time. I decided I should buy a copy.
Once the women arrived my counterpart and I presented our training proposal. The program we proposed is simple, self-driven and has room for growth. Under this system, a group of about 20 people meets weekly to make mandatory deposits. They decide what the minimum and maximum payments are at the outset, based on what they know they can pay. Once some capital is accrued—a couple of months—the group starts making loans, and it continues to make new loans as often as money is available. The members decide whether to approve loans based on the quality of the borrower’s plan, with the amount based on how much that person has paid in already. All told, the association functions for about one year, after which the savings, plus profits from service fees, late fees and penalties are divvied out to the members in proportion to their inputs.
These systems have a track record of helping people who don’t have the resources and connections to establish formal savings accounts or qualify for formal loans. It’s a good fit for the women in this collective, who normally save money by hiding it at home, where it’s vulnerable and doesn’t collect interest. I thought the women would see what I saw: a low-risk, low-effort, affordable system that would benefit them all for a long time. I expected a strong positive reaction.
Instead, there was silence.
And discontent. Palpable discontent.
Nobody made eye contact. People slouched in their chairs. Tooth-sucking noises and disgruntled sighs were the only things that broke the silence. Those and the flies buzzing audibly around my orange soda.
I surreptitiously checked my vocab list to boost my confidence and broke the impasse by stating the obvious: “You don’t like the loan system.” The group spoke enough French that this meaning was clear.
No, they informed me, they did not. The women had believed I was going to deliver a grant to serve as the loan capital; otherwise they would not have been interested. I had been expected to come to this meeting with a checkbook (or better yet, cash). Instead I proposed that they invest time and money in an untested system that would offer much smaller loans (at least at first).
I was embarrassed about my clumsy misunderstanding and disappointed that I had let the group down. But before those two feelings, I was just mad.
My counterpart and I had explained in great detail—more than once—that I had not come to this community to disburse funds or to implement top-down projects. Peace Corps volunteers are meant to develop projects in cooperation with community partners, and any grants we obtain require a substantial local contribution. However, most people here are used to being targeted for more passive development programs, where they are offered training and equipment as part of projects designed from far away. These programs can be beneficial, but they have also instilled a certain degree of inertia by spending on readymade solutions that don’t stimulate local innovation.
I had been confident that we were all on the same page, and that I was about to begin a really constructive project with this group, but in fact they had heard what they wanted to. I might draw strong distinctions between myself and other development workers here, but it turns out that the people I work with don’t see a big difference.
I did feel bad about the misunderstanding, but I was frustrated and lost my patience. I responded, too harshly, that I believe it’s better to start where you can rather than waiting for external aid. The group should pool its resources, I explained, and build them up. The vocabulary fairies blessed me even though I had not prepared a list for this contingency. Adrenaline is magic. I finished what was probably the longest and least stuttering—and certainly most forthcoming and opinionated—flow of speech these people had ever heard out of me. I cringed and held by breath as my counterpart translated, although my tone and body language said it all. I was pretty sure I’d overstepped.
To my surprise, the president threw up his arms and exclaimed, “We’ll do it. We’ll start! Jennifer is right!”
A murmur of general agreement emerged, but the vice president remained silent, clearly unconvinced. I turned to him and asked what he thought, and he brought up a salient point: all the members of the collective had believed I was coming with money, and they would not be convinced otherwise. The leaders could say whatever they wanted, but nothing could prove they weren’t hiding the money. “Look at all these soda bottles!” he said. “These women will think we partied.”
The ice-cold reception we’d received now made much more sense. It dawned on me that we were all in a pickle. Not only was there a disappointing absence of money, but we now had the task of repudiating blind faith. In light of this, I felt bad for lashing out, and I apologized.
And how did they respond this time?
“Jennifer,” they said, “we know you never said you had money. We know you said you don’t have money for us. It’s just what we believe. We always believe that yovos are going to bring us stuff.”
And then, after a pause, “Don’t people ask you for money all the time?”
As if maybe I’d been living on another planet.
I told them their jobs are more difficult than mine, and we had another round of sodas.