Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A little about the next 8 weeks of my life

A little less than a year later, I'm back and have an event in my life that others (likely mostly family) might be interested in hearing about. I've been presented the opportunity to do an unpaid internship in Guatemala by the Whole Planet Foundation, the microcredit organization/partner of Whole Foods. My mom gave wheels to the then unknown opportunity by introducing me to Mr. Philip Sansone, the Executive Director of Whole Planet Foundation and a Texas Tech graduate. I met with Philip for the first time earlier this semester to discuss his experiences in Peace Corps as well as to talk to him about microcredit lending, a subject I've been pretty fascinated with for the better part of my college career. I met with Philip and another man, Evan, who has a more recent experience with Peace Corps at the coffee shop in the Whole Foods in downtown Austin, also the location of Whole Food and Whole Planet's corporate offices. We talked for a bit and Philip said he might have a potential internship opportunity in Guatemala that could utilize my Spanish abilities as well as provide me an opportunity to experience microcredit lending first hand. Naturally it was something I jumped at; the only downfall being that I would have to cover all my costs. I talked to the parents and they backed me fully, and things began to roll into motion. Here I am now, I leave in 5 days and I'm not quite sure the magnitude of what's ahead has fully set in, but I don't think I've ever been too talented in feeling prepared for the task at hand—that's not to say I'm not prepared, I just have a hard time convincing myself mentally.

This first update will serve as an introduction and informational about microcredit, Whole Planet, Grameen Bank and where I'll be in Guatemala as well as a small segment about the current political situation in Guatemala.

What is microcredit?

I'm going to copy and paste bits and pieces of a couple of papers I wrote for my Economics classes at Southwestern that sum up microcredit. Apologies for the dryness of the writing…

The Microcredit Summit Campaign defines microcredit as "Programs extending small loans, and other financial services such as savings, to very poor people for self-employment projects that generate income, allowing them to care for themselves and their families." (Microcredit Summit Campaign Online) These loans are typically made without attached collateral and are given to those who otherwise might not be eligible to receive a loan, specifically those of the most impoverished classes. Loans to the extremely poor are often seen as extremely risky; a risk many have been afraid to take (Robinson 2001, pg.20).

One of the most prominent microfinance institutions is the Grameen Bank founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Yunus constructed a lending system devised to help the rural poor invest in their own businesses and encourage entrepreneurialism so as to alleviate poverty in those areas. The regulated bank started with a small loan to a group of women and has grown to lend money to "7.58 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women. With 2,530 branches, [Grameen Bank] provides services in 83,178 villages, covering more than 99 percent of the total villages in Bangladesh" (Grameen Bank Online, 2008). The Grameen Bank takes the stance that borrowers are responsible and does not educate their borrowers like some Microfinance Instituions (Brigham Young University Broadcasting 2005). The growth and success of the Grameen bank has inspired the construction of similar programs around the world.

Grameen Bank has been one of the most successful microcredit institutions and has even expanded its operations in Bangladesh to provide telecommunications services and, more recently, healthcare to its borrowers. As a means of alleviating poverty, microfinance is a very positive movement, though not a perfect one. Many microfinance institutions are not profitable and must rely on donor money to stay afloat. The obvious bias towards women has been criticized for putting too much pressure on women, especially in chauvinistic societies, but the proof that women repay their loans at a much higher rate than men is hard to ignore. The microfinance institution that I will be interning with in Guatemala is a branch of Grameen Bank and is a partnership between said bank and the Whole Planet Foundation.

Whole Planet Foundation

From Whole Planet's website, stating their mission:

"The Whole Planet Foundation's mission is to create economic partnerships with the poor in those developing-world communities that supply our stores with product. Through innovative assistance for entrepreneurship - including direct microcredit loans and tangible support for other community partnership projects - we seek to unleash the energy and creativity of every human being we work with in order to create wealth and prosperity in emerging economies."

Whole Planet foundation began in 2005 and issues grants through money raised by the company to microfinance institutions around the world, one such program being the one in Panajachel, Guatemala, where I'll be working.

For more information and opportunities to donate to this cause, visit Whole Planet's website.

Panajachel, Guatemala

Panajachel, or Pana, is a small town of just over 10,000 people located to the west of Guatemala City. The town sits on the shores of Lago Atitlán, a huge lake sitting in an imminent caldera surrounded by volcanoes. The lake is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, if not Central America and is very much a tourist destination. The people of the region are mostly of Mayan lineage. The area supports crops such as corn and coffee bean growth.

Current Events in Guatemala

Just over a week ago a prominent lawyer named Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated while riding his bicycle in Guatemala City. A video surfaced a week later of the lawyer warning that if the video was ever found it meant that his assassination occurred through direct involvement by the president, álvaro Colom. Rosenberg represented two Guatemalans who had also been assassinated and Rosenberg maintained that their assassination was directly the cause of corruption within the bank Banrural. In the aftermath of the assassination of Rosenberg, the middle and upper classes of Guatemala have called for the resignation of the president and more recently signed a 35,000 signature strong petition asking the congress to make Colom eligible for prosecution.

Colom has stated that the video is a fake and has even allowed for the intervention of a UN security task force on corruption as well as an in investigative branch of the FBI to investigate his involvement in the murder. There have been peaceful demonstrations in the capital calling for the resignation of the democratically elected president.

As of now, it seems that everything is still decently safe in the country, but I'll be watching the current events pretty closely and making a final decision of whether to go or not based upon how stable things are the day before my departure date, May 25th. The directors of Whole Planet Foundation and Grameen Bank have all been keeping close tabs on the current events and will advise if necessary.

Anyhow, that's a little about what I'll be doing during my time in Guatemala. I'm not entirely sure how available internet will be during my trip, if at all, so I can't guarantee a high frequency of updates, but I'm going to try to update as often as possible. I'm very excited about this opportunity to experience this first hand and I hope that everything goes smoothly. If you want more information, check the links on the side bar to the right, the video introduction invludes a small interview of Alomgir Hossein, the man who leads the Grameen Microcredit in Panajachel. As always, feedback is appreciated =)