Thinking Small

Most days, I think about my work environment – meetings outside on the grass surrounded by maize fields and cute children – and I feel pretty lucky. Today is not one of those days. David and I are doing our weekly audit of the health center books, not my favorite task. It’s like a painful game, which I call “Where Did These Numbers Come From?” or “Where’s the Money??”. On top of it all, today there is loud construction going on in the health clinic, and it is immunization day for the kids. I keep losing track of the receipts I’m counting because of jarring sledgehammer thuds, or a child screaming in pure terror. It sounds like he’s screaming “Why?!?” over and over again. Really unnerving. We flip through receipts. Flip, flip, flip [WHYEEE?? WHYEE???], flip, flip [THUD! THUD! SMASH!], flip [WHYEEEEE???]. All that’s missing are traffic horns, and I might have a heart attack.

We finally figure out this week’s numbers maze. Dave looks up from the receipts, mildly frazzled. “Who’s going to do this when we leave?”

I’m pretty confident the health center treasurer we’re training will be up for the job by then. But I wonder the same thing every time I wade through a messy Savings Club ledger or settle a field officer disagreement. Should I have done that, or should I have let them figure it out? Am I doing a good enough job of training?

Right now, we have the luxury of being small. I know most of the group representatives by name, and if the group has problems in their record keeping I can sit down and work through the book with them until we fix it. I wonder how the homegrown feel of the Savings Club program will change as we grow. Field officers will divide into their respective regions and the field managers may not know every group representative. I have to set precise rules and automated processes in place on how everything should be done. There can’t be as many exceptions or favors, because the risk of letting a friendship bend the rules of responsible repayment is too high. But at the same time, microfinance is founded on personal relationships. No matter how big a micro-lending program grows, there has to be trust on a very basic level – between loan officers and their groups and between members who are guaranteeing each other’s loans.

The most important position in the CED Program will be that of our field officers, cultivating individual relationships and trust. This can require taking the time to do something that isn’t very efficient. I realized that this week, walking to a member’s house with one of the Savings Club group representatives to deal with a problem in her group. It is a lingering problem with one of the members, but just taking the time to go to the member’s house somehow makes everyone more cooperative. I let the field manager, Moses, do most of the talking. The problem gets resolved. They show us the farm and how fast the Nuru maize is growing. The visit was inefficient, probably not the best use of my time. But it’s the bright spot in my day stuck inside the office, sorting through badly recorded group books. And maybe by taking less than an hour out of our day, Moses and I kept at least one good member from leaving the Savings Club program. This is what he will be teaching the field officers. The process needs to become smoother and more efficient, but it can’t feel processed; we have to keep our relationships genuine.

 

About Vivian Lu

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