Risk Management in Microfinance
Rats are spiteful, evil geniuses. They had a field day while we were gone for the holidays, eating the soap and carpeting my room with poop. They turned my laundry into a nest of half-eaten bugs, poop, and shredded underwear. I find it funny that I can’t stand rats and they did this to my room, while David isn’t really fazed by rats and his room is untouched. Like I said, spiteful.
Kurians don’t like rats either, the animal or the human kind. I’ve found that our members tend not to rat out other people (I know, sorry for the corny comparison). Although we hear a lot of small-town gossip, foundation team managers are often not told damaging but important information. For example, more than one of the individuals we identified as potential CED field officers had a shady history involving money. In some cases it took months for me to find out, through some gossip I heard from a community member who isn’t even a Nuru member. When I mentioned the crazy stories to my field managers, they calmly said “oh yes, that’s true.” I couldn’t believe no one had told me earlier! In response, the field managers explained they didn’t want to be accused of “back biting”. I don’t want to encourage gossip but it’s important for me to know certain rumors, like which field officers can’t be trusted with money and which loan clients are more likely to use the loan money on alcohol than business.
Many of our programs managers have had similar WHAT??-experiences. Despite the potentially harmful impact on Nuru, no one wants to be the person who told the mzungu and directly caused someone to lose his or her job. I’m sure anyone can identify with this, but it holds especially true in such a small community where nothing is secret. In a large company, if you found out a new hire had a history of stealing maybe you could anonymously tip off management. But in Kuria so far, that doesn’t seem to be possible. I’m not sure if it is because of solidarity or a fear of repercussion, but there has to be a way to filter such relevant information from the rumors. During training, I’ve been careful to emphasize in the non-technical aspects. It’s important that CED field officers prioritize service and relationships as much as they do calculating interest, analyzing savings group ledgers, and practicing loan application reviews. A big part of risk management will be our ability to make program decisions based on non-quantitative factors like character. Outsiders can’t do this, which is why our local field officers are so important. Other microfinance initiatives have passed through these communities, and we have to leverage the fact that our staff comes from the community.
Obviously, we need to draw the line at gossip. Some rumors are almost complete speculation, fueled by jealousy or feuds. Hostility between family clans in the region has been a problem. Even though some Nuru staff comes from completely different tribes, such as Luya, members are much more opposed to staff members from a different family clan within the Kuria tribe. There might be several schools or churches in a small area, because clans want separate ones. “Clan-ism” can also cause bad rumors. It’s challenging but hopefully in the future members will see that Nuru values merit and humility above status, gender, clan or tribe.
It also doesn’t hurt to keep up with Kuria’s version of water-cooler gossip once in awhile.