The Cultural Complexities of Poverty Alleviation

About 3 weeks ago I arrived in Burkina Faso, ready and excited to work with Micro Start, Kiva’s first partner in the west African country.  Micro Start has an amazing mission “to improve families’ living conditions in general, and that of women in particular, by facilitating access to financial and non-financial services” and a conscientious staff who start working at 7:30am to carry it out.  This is Micro Start’s Kiva Coordinator (KC) and I at the office during one my first days:

Although I’ve been here only a few short weeks, I’ve already had the opportunity to experience quite a bit of awesome Burkinabe culture.  One if its defining characteristics is the emphasis on strong familial bonds.  As Micro Start’s KC said when I arrived: “We’re a very poor country that’s very rich in culture.”  It is a perfect summary of my experiences here thus far.  In Burkina Faso, taking care of your children, significant other, and parents is a top priority.  A great example of this is mothers who always carry their babies on their back, facilitating a close relationship.  At 24 years old, I’m obviously way too old to start having babies, but if I ever get around to it, I’ve been requested to bring this tradition to the States.  We won’t have any more angst-ridden teenagers I’m told.  It is also unheard of to send parents to a nursing home.  As parents age, its is the responsibility of the children to provide for them: food, housing, and healthcare. While this makes for a beautiful culture, it creates some interesting complexities when it comes to a short-term view of poverty alleviation.

Here is a collection of traditional Burkinabe homes I saw while visiting borrowers; they keep extended families close together:

Just about every profile sheet that comes to Micro Start’s Kiva Coordinator from the loan officers lists “helping my husband,” “helping my children,” or “helping my parents” under the borrower’s aspirations.  I’m an advocate for supporting family members and sending children to school, so I had taken for granted that these aspirations facilitated quick poverty alleviation.  What Micro Start’s KC mentioned, and what I had failed to consider, is that extra income is often used to pay for the needs of parents, children, or significant others.  This means there often isn’t an immediate visible improvement in diet or housing, and the path out of poverty is long.

In the end, I think it’s a valuable trade-off: sacrificing the immediate results of donor-based aid for the sake of sustainable development with dignity.  Once the children finish school and have a world of opportunities in front of them, it will pay off immeasurably.  Once the money that went into the husband’s business helps expand it significantly, we will see the improvements in a lender’s living situation. As Westerners, we often want to see the results here and now, but sometimes culture is more complicated.   And sometimes the best results take a little patience.

These are some excited borrowers I had the chance to meet this week:

They were wonderfully friendly and showed us some fabulous Burkinabe love by leaving us the food in the picture for lunch.  It was delicious and vegetarian, which made for one happy Kiva Fellow!  Taken from their loan profile, the group president’s aspirations are to “take care of the family and her children’s schooling. Her ambition is to open a large restaurant.”  This is the beauty of microfinance: future potential and opportunity for sustainable growth.

To come alongside one of Kiva’s newest partners, check out Micro Start’s partner page, and lend to a Burkinabe borrower!

Allison Moomey is a Kiva Fellow (KF 16) working with Micro Start in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. To learn more, please visit Micro Start’s partner page, join the Friends of Micro Start/AFD lending team, and lend to Burkinabe borrowers.

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Allison Moomey