Posts tagged ‘economic development’

A Glimpse of Microfinance and Urban Poverty in Ulaanbaatar

Kiva loans being promoted at Transcapital

Munkhbayar, the Kiva Coordinator, promoting Kiva loans at Transcapital

Last week I started visiting some of Kiva’s borrowers with Transcapital, one of Kiva’s field partners that I’m working with here in Mongolia. While it was really encouraging to see Transcapital’s enthusiasm for Kiva at the head office as well as its various branch offices around Ulaanbaatar (UB), the new insights I’ve gained on urban poverty—both from these visits as well as just day-to-day life here—have left me perplexed so far, with far more questions than answers.

A short term solution?

Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB

Narantuul, the largest outdoor market in UB (above), and what you’ll find there (below)

vendors at Narantuul market

Our visits began with a stop at Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB where a number of Transcapital’s clients have retail outlets. At a first glance, Narantuul is a colourful and vibrant marketplace where vendors sell everything from food and candy, to winter coats, scarves, belts, jeans, baseball caps, cardboard, and more. It’s the place where Mongolians often go to find cheaper wares, which makes sense considering some of the staggering prices I’ve seen at Ikh Delguur, the State Department Store. We spoke to Bayasgalan, the proud owner of a shop selling winter coats and clothes, a long time client of Transcapital’s, and a Kiva borrower.

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Other vendors watched us with curiosity as we chatted with her, and the mood at the market was lively despite the cold. But my translator friend, whose family had sold candy there, explained to me as we left that pretty much all the vendors there need continual loans to in order to sustain their businesses. Without loans, they can’t operate; but even with loans, they struggle to get ahead… which is anything but encouraging.

Harsh working conditions

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

vendors at Kharkhorin market

The next day, we visited Kharkhorin market, UB’s second largest outdoor market, located on the other side of the city. The wares there were slightly different: I saw lots of shoes, but also an eclectic collection of hardware parts, sinks, ropes, tools, and other random second-hand items.

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

We had trouble locating one of the two borrowers we had to meet, so we wandered around for some time looking for her. In the meantime we met and chatted with Saranchimeg, who had used her loan to increase her supply of winter boots. We had been outside for about 45 minutes by the time we finished chatting with her, and I thought my fingers and toes might fall off. It must have been around -25oC that day with the sharp wind whipping through the stalls. But my thoughts were with the market’s vendors who stand out there all day long, day in and day out. My translator friend assured me that, just because they’ve lived in Mongolia their whole lives, it doesn’t make the cold is any easier for them to bear. I was humbled by how hard they work.

The reality for taxi drivers

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

We also visited with some taxi drivers. While a male taxi driver may not be one of the sexiest loans on Kiva’s website, you should know how hard these people work to support their families, just like anyone else. And for what? Being a taxi driver is a tough way to make a living in UB: A one-kilometre ride will earn a driver about 1,500 Tugriks (or 1.07 USD).

I need a ride, someone... Anyone?

I need a ride, someone… Anyone?

Moreover, the competition is stiff. Since cars have become ubiquitous in Mongolia’s capital, everyone has become a taxi driver. It’s an overhang from the early days of capitalism, when cars were not that common and the city’s residents would help each other out by giving rides. Now, you see people on the streets with their hand out all the time, and it usually only takes a few minutes for a car to pull over.

Another borrower we met lived in one of the outer ger districts, the slums of the city which lack basic services like running water and sanitation. He was middle-aged and had taken out a housing loan, but he told us that he had been a driver under the socialist regime. He explained that he had had much difficulty in finding employment in his profession. Recently, though, he has started applying for driver jobs again. It’s a mystery to me how he has managed to make ends meet over the years.

Survival of the fittest?

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

It’s easy to think that people don’t work because they’re too lazy, or because they simply refuse to accept lower-paying positions. This may be true in some cases. But there may also be more to the issue than meets the eye. Mongolia had its Revolution and transition to a market economy in the early 1990s and it seems the transition was difficult for those who were brought up and educated in the socialist era: Many of their skills and experiences have not translated well in the new economy. While a lot of the leadership I’ve seen in white collar jobs are shockingly young—in their late 20s or early 30s—street and market vendors tend to be in their 50s or older. And for many of them, their wares include no more than a couple handfuls of gum and candy, which can’t possibly bring in that much at the end of the day.

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

Maybe skills training is needed to support these people… or maybe it’s not that simple. Imagine being in your 40s or 50s and getting trained (or competing for jobs) alongside people who are a whole generation younger than you. And the longer you stay out of the workforce, the less confidence you generally have to return to it. One colleague of mine surmised that perhaps self-employment is the way to go for these people.

The fork in the road

Of course, this reflects only one facet of urban poverty here. Another, and perhaps larger, driver is the massive migration of traditional nomadic herders to the capital, as zuuds—extremely harsh winters—have killed off the millions of animals on which they depend for their livelihoods.

Mongolia has gone through some incredible changes over the past several years, thanks to the discovery of the largest unexploited reserve of copper, gold and silver in the world. Roads have appeared where they previously didn’t exist; herders have disappeared from the streets of UB; shiny new buildings have gone up; inflation has gone through the roof. It’s poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2013.

There is immense potential for large-scale economic development and poverty alleviation in Mongolia. Microfinance is helping to tie things over, but how the country handles big issues such as corruption will ultimately determine whether the spoils will be shared by many. So far, everything I’ve taken in only seems to have raised more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of grasping the complex economic factors at work in this country, much less understanding the solutions.

28 March 2013 at 09:00

How the Arab Spring Has Affected Microfinance in the Middle East

” After weeks of headline news about the Arab Spring, we seem to have forgotten the man who started it all: Mohamed Bouazizi, the  [26 year old] Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire after police confiscated his small cart.  It was Mr. Bouazizi, a microentrepreneur, who sparked this revolution in a single act of protest against the same harsh economic realities shared by the majority of citizens across the Arab world.” ~ Elissa McCarter, Vice President of Development Finance, CHF International

Juice vendor in Downtown Amman, Jordan

Juice vendor in Downtown Amman, Jordan

(more…)

10 December 2012 at 06:00

A Mexican Tale of Women and Sheep

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

Who would have thought that my second Kiva Fellowship would teach me just as much about microfinance as about the rearing of sheep? Seriously, ask me anything you want: How do you best hold a lamb? How do you wrestle with a grown-up mutton? How do you treat sheep for worms? Where and how often do you set them a vaccine? How do you determine a sheep’s age? Why does a sheep bite normally neither hurt nor bleed? For what reason does a sheep have four stomach compartments? And how do you compel a lamb’s reluctant mother to accept her kid after birth? I owe this knowledge to UNAM-educated veterinarian Linda Velázquez Rosas, who made a sheep-expert not just out of me, but also out of 200 amateur sheep-owners in and around the little town of San Felipe del Progreso, two hours west of Mexico City. This training was made possible by Vision Fund Mexico (also known as Fundación Realidad or FRAC), a Kiva field partner that excels both at financial and non-financial services (in a previous blog post I documented an artisan fair in Mexico City that was co-organized by FRAC).

Continue Reading 6 July 2012 at 08:00 6 comments

Beyond Financial Services: Mexico’s Greatest Artisan Fair

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

Shortly after arriving at my first Mexican microfinance organization, FRAC (or Fundación Realidad, soon to be called Vision Fund Mexico), I had the joyful task of presenting in the name of Kiva two Social Performance Badges to its enthusiastic staff: one for Vision Fund Mexico’s strong and persistent focus on poor people, and one for the organization’s success in empowering families and communities. The description of the Family and Community Empowerment Badge on Kiva’s homepage immediately piqued my interest: it states that recipients of this badge “implement innovative business practices and offer services in addition to their financial products to meet the needs of the people they serve.” Innovative business practices and additional services beyond financial products? At FRAC? I began to ask members of FRAC’s staff and was soon pointed to some great examples of non-financial services that Vision Fund Mexico has provided in past months and year: they include support in product marketing and distribution given to beekeepers and artisan villages, over 380 free financial literary workshops for well over 4,000 borrowers, and free expert veterinarian training and medical services provided to hundreds of borrowers who are raising cows and sheep in their backyard. While I hope that some of these topics will be addressed by future guest blog posts of FRAC staff members (continuing the series that was started by Rosa’s gorgeous post on her recent field visit), I will report here on FRAC’s selfless contribution to Mexico’s largest artisan fair, the Expo FONAES. In many ways, this is just another example to David Gorgani’s great piece on the wide range of non-financial services that Kiva field partner organizations provide.

Continue Reading 22 June 2012 at 08:00 4 comments

Recycling for Life and Family in the Mexican Countryside

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

I have a confession to make: I love to browse Kiva borrower profiles – even occasionally without any actual intention to make a loan. I believe that reading the stories of borrowers from all over the world and knowing their dreams tells me more about a country and the mentality of its people than even the best of all travel guidebooks. And knowing some of the challenges they are facing in their lives and how they are surmounting them, being aware of the long hours they work every day and their dedication to their families – all this inspires me deeply and on a very personal level: if people can thrive under difficult circumstances thanks to incredibly hard work and a dream, then I should and will be able to do something meaningful and lasting with my own life as well! My Kiva lender profile reads: “I loan because… Kiva borrowers never cease to inspire me with their courage, talent, and dedication!”

That strong sense of inspiration that speaks to me out of every Kiva borrower’s history has been multiplied during my time in the field as a Kiva Fellow in the course of many personal meetings with borrowers. I have met literally dozens of borrowers who have left an indelible mark in my heart and mind. But recently I have met a borrower who is so extraordinary and unusual that even I – one of the more seasoned Kiva Fellows – was blown away. Her name is Ma de los Angeles and this blog entry tells the story of her work and her success.

Continue Reading 1 June 2012 at 08:00 6 comments

The Heart of Kiva – A Guest Blog from Mexico

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

Kiva is all about stories – what draws us all in and inspires us to lend are the stories of courageous micro-entrepreneurs that speak of hard-ship and success, challenges and dreams, love and dedication. But Kiva is not just about borrowers and their stories. It is also about the people behind the scene on the ground – the staff of the close to 150 field partners of Kiva – who screen loan applicants, grant, administrate, and look after Kiva loans, and make sure that Kiva borrowers are treated respectfully and fairly. Their stories are almost never told. Yet, the local staff of Kiva´s Field Partners are those people who make the magic happen – they are the ones who make Kiva possible. If Kiva Fellows are called the “eyes and ears in the field”, I propose local MFI staff be called “the brain and heart of Kiva.” MFI staff has insights on the conditions on the ground, the local mentalities, and the practical aspects of microfinance that can rival (and – I have no doubt – normally exceed) those of Kiva staff and Fellows. Yet, their perspective is seldom heard and their stories are rarely told.

Just how much local field partner staff have to tell and to share with the world I learned during the brief three week period during which I had the pleasure to be the Kiva Fellow for FRAC or Fundación Realidad (soon to be known as Vision Fund Mexico) in Mexico City. FRAC, has over 200 employees – they encompass 200 breathtaking stories and lives from all over Mexico, coming together in FRAC’s vision of wanting to provide financial and non-financial services to those families who do not have access to formal banking services in order to improve their quality of life.

During my work in FRAC’s Mexico City Headquarter, the MFI’s staff turned out to be an endless source of inspiration for me. There was not one person I talked to whose story and motives wouldn’t be worth sharing. Within a few brief hours I felt not just surrounded by close friends, but soul-mates – I discovered that everybody around me was at least as passionate and enthusiastic about FRAC’s and Kiva’s work and the impact of micro-finance as I am.

As soon as I told FRAC’s staff about the Kiva Fellows Blog, I was bombarded with requests of staff members to publish their thoughts and their experiences on it. Many have a particular pet project they feel most passionate about; others have made an experience on the job they are keen to share. Thus grew the idea of creating a little guest blog within the Kiva Fellow Blog. I offered to all staff to publish their thoughts and words on the Fellows’ blog as a way to make readers aware that Kiva doesn’t just connect lenders with borrowers, but that it connects lenders with local staff with borrowers with friends with staff with borrowers with lenders with… stop! Let’s just say: Kiva connects people through lending!

Rosa Gonzalez is the first staff member of FRAC who agreed to share her experience. She was hired by FRAC as their English-Spanish translator a few days after I joined the organization as a Kiva Fellow. Rosa translates both borrower profiles and journals for FRAC borrowers before they are being published or sent to lenders. But let me introduce Rosa in her own words – you will immediately see that they are pure poetry.

Continue Reading 24 April 2012 at 08:58 5 comments

“Sustainable” Tourism in the Quirimbas Archipelago: Sustainable for Whom, Exactly?

Micaela Browning | KF17 | Mozambique

The Quirimbas Archipelago in Northern Mozambique is a paradisiacal chain of 24 verdant islets blessed with the tropical vacationer’s holy trinity: ivory sands, ubiquitous royal palms, and resplendent turquoise waters . Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of visiting Quirimbas, which – I figured – would be a pleasant respite from the toils of city life.

From what I was able to gauge from my guidebooks and conversations with previous visitors, the economic landscape of the Quirimbas is rapidly evolving. Prior to 2006, the islands were largely neglected. There was no electricity, scant provision of other public goods, zero transportation, and little commercial activity beyond small-scale fishing and agriculture. Now that the archipelago has been “discovered” by the “sustainable” tourism industry, foreigners are buying up property, streets buzz underneath the newly installed power lines, and charter airlines and boats are travelling several times daily to the main island.

Continue Reading 30 March 2012 at 02:00 16 comments

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