Microfinance offers financial services, such as tiny loans, to low-income individuals with whom the normal financial sector does not or cannot work with. As a development solution, microfinance is appealing because there is investment on both sides of the equation. Due to this personal investment, microfinance empowers its clients to improve their lives and move out of poverty by attaining clean water, food, stable shelter, and education. While I certainly did not think it was the only solution to poverty and lack of development, I thought it was certainly one of the best tools we had.
What I frustratingly, and somewhat heartbreakingly, learned this summer is that pure microfinance is one of the better tools we have to end poorness but not poverty. The definition that I had previously applied to “poverty,” I now apply to “poorness.” That is, poorness is when a person or a family cannot fulfill basic human needs such as food, clean water, clothing, and shelter. Poorness is more or less measurable. Poverty, on the other hand, is not so definite. Poverty is a mentality and an approach to life.
I did not come to this conclusion independently. Rather, many of the Esperanza’s clients made the distinction themselves, repeatedly saying in our interviews, “I’m poor, but I’m not impoverished.” The clearest example of this distinction was with Esperanza’s client Gloria. She showed me her house, and when I commented on how lovely it was, she chuckled and gave me a knowing smile. She then explained to me that it may look like she’s not as poor as her neighbors, but that she really is. The difference is how she approaches life. She keeps her rented house tidy and when she pointed out a table, she explained that she found it for free. Moreover, because it was dirty and ugly when she found it, she cleaned and painted it so it would look new. Many people buy their groceries on a daily basis, but Gloria has found that if she thinks ahead a bit, she can buy for the week, purchasing in bulk to save money.
Both directly and by example, Gloria explained that poverty is an approach to life and resources. Impoverished people look at what they lack and feel trapped. Conversely, people who are poor but not impoverished seek opportunities to improve their lives.
In addition to being a mother and an Esperanza loan recipient with her own business, Gloria is a fulltime volunteer teacher at a private school that she helped start three years ago. The current school is the building behind Gloria in the photo. Gloria had me close my eyes as she slowly, block by block, talked me through the new school and community center she envisions. While she does not know exactly how they are going to procure the resources to construct that new school, she is not deterred. She understands that there are obstacles that will take time and hard work to overcome, but ultimately she operates through dreams and future opportunities.
I have realized that to alleviate poorness in sustainable ways, we must first (or simultaneously) alleviate and end poverty. I am still wrestling with how best to do that because that requires changing hearts and minds. But I cannot simply rubber stamp a program into communities. Rather, the solution to poverty is a combination of education, dedicated relationships, and immense patience. To develop nations, people must be developed first.