Hey everybody! My name is Natalie and I am a guest writer for the Whole Planet blog today. I am a student at Virginia Tech, living and working in Dakar for six weeks to get experience related to my Economics and French majors.
I have been interested in economic development for a while, and came to Dakar to learn more and hopefully shape my future course. I specifically chose Senegal because it is francophone, and I badly wanted to return to West Africa after ten incredible days I spent in Mali last year. During my time here, I am working with the Senegal Ecovillage Microfinance Fund on microfinance program design and evaluation. I also am living with a host family so I am getting lots of exposure to the Senegalese life and even learning some Wolof (insha’Allah).
But the point of this post is not to tell you about my amazing six weeks here, but instead three specific days. This past week, I got a crash course in microfinance when I accompanied two representatives of Whole Planet Foundation, Brian and Claire, on their site visit to CAURIE Microfinance in the Kaolack region of Senegal. CAURIE is a great organization to observe, as they serve only female clients and are one of the largest microfinance institutions in Senegal.
During these three days, I ate at clients’ restaurants, attended Village Bank meetings (anywhere between twenty and a hundred women dressed in their best fabrics, quite the sight), and sat in on numerous meetings. Claire and Brian were unbelievably nice, always taking the time to explain the intricacies of everything from loan repayments to groups of solidarity, and how and why Whole Planet works with local MFIs.
Groups of solidarity were something I found especially compelling. Muhammad Yunus, one of the pioneers of microfinance, once said “To argue that banking cannot be done with the poor because they do not have collateral is the same as arguing that men cannot fly because they do not have wings”. This statement demonstrates that there are often other, not immediately obvious, ways to overcome a difficulty. In this case, groups of solidarity solve the problem of the poor not having collateral when they want to take out a loan.
CAURIE has recognized that no one knows the ability of a potential client to pay better than the women that live and work alongside her, day in and day out. They take advantage of this when creating a Village Bank, by asking the women to form groups of solidarity. Each of these consists of five women that agree to finance any of the other four that are unable to fully repay at the end of the loan cycle. Naturally, the women are not going to join a group with one they believe is likely to default on her loan, leaving them responsible. These groups serve as a straightforward, inexpensive vetting process to find reliable clients. I found this very intriguing, how an economic institution is able to take advantage of the social aspect of village life to facilitate sustainable financing.
On a more broad scale, during these three days I also got the chance to experience firsthand what it means to work in Senegal. In particular, how schedules are more of a suggestion than something to be strictly followed, and being the person with the camera will bring you endless attention and appeals of “photo moi! Photo moi!”
As I’m sure anyone reading this can tell, this was an incredible couple of days that gave me a snapshot of what it means to work on economic development, specifically how it is always interdisciplinary and must take into account social and cultural factors to be successful. Equipped with the knowledge of how my Economics and French studies can be applied, I will be much more driven as I finish up my last two years of university.
Thank you again to Claire, Brian, Whole Planet Foundation, and CAURIE Microfinance for giving me this once in a life time opportunity!