Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The American Dream?
Microfinancing - an Opportunity and a Chance
Sunday I witnessed the American Dream. A young family – a couple with a very young toddler – operating a growing small business in their recently built house. Their recent past would show a struggling family with lower quality of life and living conditions. In a few years they have come a long way. Yet, I am in San Juan Oriente a small town near Mayasa roughly 25 minutes from the capital of Nicaragua. On my first field visit to Nicaragua I learned quickly not to label myself as an “American”. The response from my Nicaraguan friend said it all “I am American too” - perhaps it was not the only title that could easily be blurred. If we are to believe that the “American Dream” is based on the United State’s reign as the “Land of Opporunity”, then perhaps its borders are not confined to land approaching Mexico and Canda.
My travel and research has taught me that the beauty of the United States rests in its equal protection under the law, its system of checks and balances, and the sturdy foundations created in the Bill of Rights. However, if you ask Nicaraguans (and other Latin Americans) many will answer the American Dream is a combination of employment and opportunity. Nicaragua, like many developing nations, suffers from underemployment and lack of opportunity for the masses. 75% make less than $2 dollars a day. Of the children that enter primary school one-third graduate and take an average of 10 years to finish the 6 required. Jobs and education (two of the three key factors of development) have struggled for over a generation.
During the presidential elections both candidates stressed the entreprenurial spirit of the everyday American as the backbone of the country – we have heard even more given the slow flow of credit from the large banks that have hurt small business, entreprenuers, and indidividuals seeking loans. In Nicaragua, like countries all over the world, microfinance is providing the ability to reach the American Dream. Small loans to small business, start up funds for an idea, and access to capital that previously was unavailble or non existant. This young family has prospered (in relative turns) in the past two years given their work with Nitlapan - a microfinance organization started at the Universidad de Centroamerica ( Jesuit run).
The work of Nitlapan and it’s effect on a a group of artisan families in the Mayasa state has been documented and aided by the consulting of Fairfield Unversity – mainly through the efforts of Professor Winston Tellis and student projects. Recently Tellis, a information system professor and development guru, had a group from Fairfield University shoot a short documentary that captures the who, why, and how, but most importantly it captures the what is happening and how it has affected the individuals seeking the credit. (view video clip here)
Microfinance initatives have sky rocketed in the last five years. Websites like Kiva.org have created portals and channels for individuals to make a direct difference in the lives of others. It must be stated that microfinance organizations are not all cut from the same cloth (think average Joe vs a top flight athelete). Some charge high fees to make up for capped interest rates (remember it is a business not charity) and there are even examples of unethical methods of collecting debts owed. However, when run properly microfinance has the ability to provide captial, opportunity, and what many people in the Western Hermisphere believe is the “American Dream”.
Sunday I witnessed the American Dream and I was in San Juan Oriente, Nicaragua.