By Alexis Guild, KF11 Bolivia
Let me start by introducing myself, which will fit well into the theme of my blog post. I am originally from the San Francisco Bay Area but am currently living in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I am a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Before Kiva and graduate school, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. From 2007-2009, I lived in a rural municipality in the western highlands of Guatemala in the department of Totonicapán (where Kiva’s field partner, Asociación ASDIR, is located).
I am sure you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “of course she wanted to be a kiva fellow – it’s a natural progression”. Well, yes and no. You see, while I really enjoyed my two years in Guatemala, I also came away from it somewhat skeptical of international development. While I saw many of its advantages, I also became aware of its drawbacks. Primarily, I was concerned about the culture of dependence that seems to be created as a result of the plethora of international aid organizations. So where does microfinance fit into the picture? And why I am here in La Paz if I am skeptical about the impact of international development?
As cheesy as it may sound, I first became interested in microfinance after reading Muhammad Yunus’ “Banker to the Poor”. A friend of mine in Guatemala, another Peace Corps volunteer, suggested I read it. Despite my skepticism, I was intrigued by the idea that small loans could empower people around the world to lift themselves out of poverty. OK, I am oversimplifying it a bit. Microfinance is not the be-all and end-all of poverty alleviation. But as a Peace Corps volunteer, I liked the sustainability of microfinance. My Peace Corps project had nothing to do with women’s groups or small business development. I knew little about the microfinance sector, except for what I read. In graduate school, therefore, I decided that I needed to learn more. I took a class at the Business School where I learned all about the academic theory of microfinance. But being a grassroots organizer at heart, I needed to go into the field and get on-the-ground experience to see the true impact for myself.
This brings me back to where I currently am – in La Paz working with two of Kiva’s field partners: IMPRO and ProMujer Bolivia. I have only been here 9 days and have already; recovered from altitude sickness (fun fact: at 3500 meters above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital in the world, at least according to my guidebook), heard two protests, been to two street fairs, and almost been hit by several cars on the busy and very crowded streets of the city. I have also been on several client visits with the loan officers and have seen areas of the city that are not even mentioned in the guidebooks.
Like Peace Corps, being a Kiva fellow is an adventure. You never really know what your day will be like or whom you will meet. I look forward to sharing with you my experiences and adventures in Bolivia and the world of microfinance over the next three months.