Monday, December 3, 2007

Victory for Venezuelan democracy!

I am very happy this morning that Hugo Chavez's proposed socialist/authoritarian rewrites to the constitution were rejected by the electorate, that Chavez is accepting the results, and, mostly, that a lot of chavistas were savvy enough, "unpolarized" enough, to reject these reforms even though they continue to support Chavez. Democracy works; constitutional constraints on power hold; I'm enough of a politics geek to feel all warm and fuzzy about this kind of thing when it plays out in practice.

Key to this election were the NiNis and the moderate chavistas who still like the guy, but are beginning to worry about his more radical positions. (NiNis, from "neither with Chavez, nor with the opposition," are often described as "undecided voters" or "neutral," but that's not quite right. It's more like if you had to choose between George Bush and those weird neo-Marxist ANSWER folks to run the country - both choices are so terrible that you might just abstain in disgust.)

When it came down to a vote, not on personages but on political principles, on "do you want your country to inch ever closer to a dictatorship?" many people were able to put aside their (well-founded) dislike of certain individuals in the opposition and their affection for Chavez, and vote on principle.

Mazel tov, Venezuela. It's a good day.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

While in line at the coffee bar...

...I was waiting behind two women, one of whom was advising the other that she really needed to fire her nanny since the nanny had gotten pregnant. "Oh, it creates so many difficulties, and then she'll be worrying about her child all the time and resenting the fact of spending time with your child. Really, it just *doesn't* work. You just can't work as a nanny and have a small child... she needs to find another line of work.

The other woman protested weakly that it didn't seem fair, after all the nanny had been working with them for several years and doing a good job. (She didn't mention wanting to apply the same standards and legal protections to her employee as she would expect to receive from her employer... no, that bit was all in my mind... but it was in the air. It could be inferred by someone with an active imagination.)

"No, no, it's just messy. Emotions, you know. You're upset, the nanny's upset. No (tone of finality) it's really just best to let her go at the beginning."

I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn't magically been transported back to 18th century England where the scullery maid was getting fired for being knocked up.

You know what's great? Is how women have entered the workforce at a professional level, and their bonds of female solidarity with other women have totally erased all the obstacles to having a job and children at the same time, and everyone is so much more enlightened now, and women would never treat their "sisters" with the disrespect that they've faced in the past. Just like those early feminist theorists said would happen.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

A very special souvenir

Well, I'm back in the USA, but Nicaragua wasn't going to let go that easily. Yep, it's every developing country traveler's favorite intestinal bug - Giardia lamblia! Giardia is a cuddly little critter that likes to show its affection via fever, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and general can't-leave-the-bed-all-day full-body exhaustion. Do try never to get the stuff.*

The treatment for Giardia is arguably just as bad as the disease. The experience of taking Flagyl, aka Metronidazole, aka Something Scraped from the Bowels of the Guardians of Hell, is like being alternately kicked in the brain and the gut, a weird, woozy, free-floating nausea that percolates up to the brain and evokes thoughts of psychiatric med withdrawal.

Erica's Happy Morning Anti-Nausea Shopping List:

Reed's Ginger Brew
Ginger tea
Probiotic capsules
Probiotic goop in dairy culture
Papaya (Since it was Whole Foods, of course, I couldn't just buy a plain ol' papaya. Instead I got a sort of decorative papaya centerpiece, filled with raspberries and limes and presented for my viewing enjoyment. Very elegant.)

Celebrate your healthy digestive tract today! Go, Lactobactillus sp., go!

*No, I couldn't possibly tell you which of the many nasty "food" or water products I consumed in Nicaragua gave me giardia. One particular morning in Leon, however, shines in my memory. We had to be at the office at 7:30; my hotel didn't start serving breakfast until then. The only place in Leon where you can eat before 7:30 is the outdoor market, which is every bit as unappealing as you might imagine, sanitation-wise. I watched the lady behind the food stall stir instant coffee crystals into some boiled milk with a skin on it that she'd ladled out of a big pot, swatted the circling flies away, nibbled on my stale slice of poundcake that for some reason tasted vaguely of garlic, and thought, "I can't believe I'm about to drink this."

And then I did.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


We-re done! (Sorry, can-t find the apostrophe key on this computer!)

After one last bit of Nicaraguan craziness, we finished our final report yesterday and made a presentation in Managua. We were up till 3 a.m. dealing with computer problems and general sleep-deprived, last-minute formatting, then got up early and worked up until the "ultimo momento" and beyond. There was no way we were going to make it on time with the bus, so we took a taxi to Managua - not cheap, but que suerte that there are three of us. On arrival to the FINCA office we had a joyful reunion with our colleague Amelia, who is another FINCA fellow working as a "business analyst" in the central office for the summer. Apart from the fact that she-s a lovely person, it was unexpectedly wonderful to hang out with 1) another American who 2) understands exactly what we-ve been doing these past weeks and does not make stupid comments about how we are all on vacation!

We-ve actually been quite fortunate to have timed our Managua/non-Managua travels when we did, because apparently the electricity outages have been really bad in the last few weeks there, whereas in the other areas where we-ve been they have been much less severe. Our presentation was thus in a dark room by the romantic light of Jeanette-s laptop, but went reasonably well considering we were all hallucinating from sleep deprivation and I could barely think straight in English, let alone Spanish. But our main finding - that the majority of FINCA clients would not be officially classified as poor by either the Nicaraguan or the international standards - was, I think, well received. The program director asked about the best way for them to carry out a low-budget impact assessment, and Jeanette gave a quite good explanation of how they could take advantage of their credit officers regular trips to the field to avoid most of the costs of such a study.

Then it was back on a bus to Leon. Jeanette and Lauren leave tomorrow for Guatemala, and I-m heading up to a rainforest lodge in the mountains called Selva Negra for a few days of R and R before returning to DC.

We-ve been in a nice backpacker place in Leon called Lazybones Hostel for the last three days. Oddly enough, although the rooms are certainly nothing luxurious, basically a wooden box with a bed and a fan, I-ve noticed that backpacker places have the highest standards of customer service in Nicaragua. Maybe this is because the staff include foreigners, maybe because ALL the guests are foreigners. Regardless of the reason, it-s very nice to deal with friendly and helpful staff. The place has a (clean) little pool, hammocks, a garden, free halfway decent coffee, and lots of internet stations, so we-re all enjoying kicking back and indulging in some well-earned relaxation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

On the beach - now with photos!

My beautiful beachfront room. $21/night - que ganga!


Yet on further reflection, not perhaps the best choice for productivity. Poor Lauren had to work in this airless chamber. I just asked the staff to pop my laptop in the fridge every now and again as it severely overheated in the constant 100-degree humidity.

You will have to open this one at full size to see anything. This is a photo of the drywall peeling away from the wall just below my window to reveal a bat nest inside. I like bats (they eat mosquitos!) but thoughtfully refrained from mentioning anything to my travel companions until just now.

Alas, I do not have any pictures of the fireworks (yes, fireworks!) We shared our hotel with a large church group from the US... and since the 4th of July fell during our stay, and they were not only religious, but Texan, and thus ultra-patriotic... they commissioned a fireworks show on the beach! Unexpected, but cool. As a matter of fact Lauren and I felt so touched we just had to sing a round of "The Star Spangled Banner" to Jeanette in our hotel room.


We are now in a beautiful beach town (I'll call it "Playa Escondida" in hopes of forestalling waves of high-rise hotels) writing our final report. It is lovely, exactly what you dream about when you're dreaming of Central American beaches: frothy white waves, turquoise blue water, palm trees, friendly dogs, and just a few simple cabins scattered among the fishermen's houses.

Yet because it is so small and undeveloped, internet access is slooooow, so no photos until we're back in the city!

P.S. There's an old Nicaraguan saying that goes, "You only know who your true friends are when they take the time to comment on your blog..."

Transaction costs

A future client at our last village bank meeting in Nicaragua.

In grad school, we read Robert Chambers' “Voices of the Poor," which book and its sequels later sparked a World Bank initiative by the same name. Chambers’s point was that even in countries that are extensively studied and researched, the very poorest people tend to be excluded from study and consultation, and rarely heard from by outsiders. Why is this? Well, imagine you are a study team with a limited amount of time and money to spend in a country. You will probably focus your work in large cities; if you do get out of the city, you’ll go to areas that are reachable by paved roads; if you get off the paved road, you’ll go to areas where the roads are passable in rainy season; etc. The poorest of the poor tend to live in areas with much worse transport infrastructure. That’s part of what makes them poor. So reaching one such person for a survey or consultation requires ten times the effort of reaching someone else with a similar demographic profile, but living near a paved road.

The tradeoff between a large sample and a representative sample became very clear to us yesterday, our last day of interviews in Nicaragua.

Although we had thought we’d be going to bank meetings in the city, there was a last-minute change of plans and we ended up going out to rural areas. We got to the office at 7:30, but didn’t end up leaving until 10:00, when the FINCA driver became available. Because the credit officers had left before us, the driver dropped us off in the truck, with the branch coordinator riding along to help find the way.

City girl Lauren does not know quite what to make of this strange, green, growing stuff...

First, we drove about half an hour along the paved highway. Then it was time to turn off onto a dirt road and follow the “directions” to the client’s house, where we promptly got lost. As I mentioned earlier, the “two blocks below Pulperia Martinez, turn left at the mango tree, then ask around” method doesn’t work much better for Nicaraguans than it does for us. First we had to find the pulperia - the first person we asked said (with total certainty in his face), “Ah, yes, two blocks to the right.” We drove - no pulperia. The next person we asked, equally certain: “Ah, yes, two blocks to the left.” We finally found the pulperia and drove, twisting and turning and asking directions every few meters, up a road composed of thick black sand to a small house at the end of the road. “FINCA? What finca? You mean our farm?” Eventually we figured out that we were at the house of the wrong Dona Mercedes Gallo, and headed back, where the truck got stuck in that thick black sand for about 20 minutes before the driver finally figured out how to engage the 4WD. (Just in case you were wondering: Sand acts just like snow, and “gun the engine and spin the wheels real fast” is another approach that doesn’t work any better in Nicaragua.) Finally, we found our first bank meeting. Because most of the clients lived far away, and we had no transport, we could only interview those clients who actually showed up to the meeting: Lauren did 1 interview, I did 2. After a few souvenir photos of New York City Girl Meets Pig, it was off to get lost again, this time waiting at the empalme of something-or-other for a while before giving up and hiking along the highway to the pueblo entrance. After hacking our way through a forest of banana trees dotted with isolated houses to the second bank meeting, we had time for just 1 interview each before the credit officers left for another isolated meeting and we had to return to Leon.

5 interviews, 7 hours of 2 people’s time. Average time spent per 1/2-hour interview: 4.4 person-hours.

There’s just no way to contact poor rural people efficiently. It’s a huge investment of time and energy. Which is why it’s so important that when it does happen, the survey should be extremely well-designed, and some sort of education or outreach should take place along with it. It seems such a huge waste of effort to spend so long reaching these people, only to ask them 100 questions of dubious statistical value. We are all trying to at least act as FINCA “goodwill ambassadors,” and my personal goal has been to make sure every client I talked to understood the concept of an interest rate.

Extrapolating wildly from a single experience like the good statistician I am, I´d guess that the actual work of data collection occupies a relatively small proportion of most researchers' time in rural areas, because most of the work is in getting there in the first place. Given that, wouldn't it make more sense to always do data collection as part of some other project? The UN, World Bank, etc. invest so much money in data-gathering every year. Imagine if, oh, basic sanitation training went along with every such effort. Perhaps a naive thought - but at the moment it makes sense to me.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lovely Leon

If I had to live in one city in Nicaragua... this would be it. There is lots of public art here and man, had we missed that. Yesterday we went to the Fundacion Ortiz art museum, a beautiful colonial mansion full of gardens and fountains that has been turned into a museum. After a foreboding early start of unremarkable European religious art, the collection proved to be actually quite interesting, with lots of modern work from all over Central America. We were particularly enthralled by one work, a stylized "map" of Nicaragua's Pacific coast with each church, skyscraper, etc. in Leon, Chinondega, Managua, Masaya, and Granada represented as a silver metal cutout, with large fields of green and blue showing the land and the 2 lakes. It was clear, simple, and well-executed, and for literally the first time in a month we knew where we were on a map!

My new advice to travelers: if you are seeking a good map, skip the tourist office and head straight for the art museum.

Just for my own amusement

Think I was exaggerating about Managua? Don't take my word for it:

“Markus” from Berlin writes:

“Managua is the worst city I have ever seen, a place without a soul. The lake is polluted and foul smelling, next to it is an awful slum area, the governmental area (monument area) is virtually deserted and somewhat eerie, the so called centre is just for cars, it’s life threatening for pedestrians. There are a few good clubs but they are far between. There’s no street life, in the night you’ll mainly meet hookers and vendors. In my opinion it’s not worth to spend even one night there, if you don’t have to.”

On Flyertalk, Managua wins the vote for Worst City in the LatinPass program:

NicaraguaTravel.Biz - a promotional site for Nicaragua, mind you - says this:

"The climate is tropical which means constant high temperature and high humidity… The more or less exploding development of the city has left its infrastructure sort of a mess and most of both the air and Lake Managua is severely polluted. Steps are being taken to transform the city into a more hospitable place for visitors and the people living there but so far with unsatisfying results….

… Today nature rules much of which should be the centre of Managua, there are no parks or monuments but just pure jungle, a few ruins and some squatters leaving Managua with no actual centre at all….

...Although Managua is the capital of Nicaragua there is very little there to entertain the common tourist. The city is noisy, crowded and suffers from a high crime rate, the air is very polluted and the sights are few and far between. There are some sights worth seeing such as cathedrals, both new and in ruins, and the government buildings but not much else. The recommendation for most tourists is to visit their home embassy, if necessary, and then move on. Managua might not be the worst city ever but there sure is not much to stick around for. "

Friday, June 29, 2007

Enduring Juigalpa, enjoying Leon

(The greater Juigalpa metro area)

We arrived yesterday in the university town of Leon, which is definitely my favorite of the places we have been so far. Not so artificial as Granada, but still with a fair sprinkling of ex-pats and veggie cafes, the town is cheerfully active at night as throngs of college kids hang out near the filthy but still picturesque cathedral. (The number of squeaky, grating pieces of metal I have had to listen to throughout my trip so far - somehow I always end up sitting in the least lubricated part of the bus - makes me want to take a giant can of WD-40 to the entire country; but the Granada cathedral will require a copper scrubby pad the size of a Volvo…)

I got to take a motorcycle ride to Chichigalpa, a pretty little “peri-urban” town, and my credit officer this morning was very nice, introducing me with all manner of details about the project and generally going out of his way to make my life easier. Such a contrast to Juigalpa, our last post. The town itself is a small cowboy town with fantastic views, but the office was overwhelmingly unhelpful and all too clearly NOT psyched to have us there. (How do you say "passive-aggressive" in Spanish?) They left us behind in the office, sent us off alone to change buses for blink-and-you-miss-it towns helpfully named “The Crossroads” and “The Intersection,” and told us that the bus for X city left an hour earlier than it actually did in hopes of scaring us off. Not a chance, cupcake - you’ve only succeeded in making it a question of our honor versus yours. Don’t mess with the tired, pissed-off chelas* with only our North American work ethic to keep us going…

So after three days of introductions that either didn’t exist or consisted of “This is Erica. She’s going to interview you,” today’s thoughtful and reassuring presentations were a delightful relief. The folks I talked to here were really enthusiastic about FINCA. They were also really talkative - every simple question elicited a half-hour of life story - but we’re in the home stretch now and I just kicked back and went with it. It still startles me how unconcerned people are about telling a total stranger all about their finances, food situation, and love life, not to mention casually welcoming everyone who happens to wander by and show interest to listen.

*Chele/a means “white,” deriving from leche, milk. It’s sometimes used for light-skinned Nicaraguans, but also means “foreigner” - what Nicas say rather than “gringo.” Locals who chase after foreign tourists are known as cheleros. Jeanette, who is a medium-tan Chilean, is all kinds of annoyed to be called chela all the time, but frankly, Santiago is every bit as different from Central American reality as is Washington, DC, so I think it’s fair enough.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The second stage of culture shock

(Lauren zipping through the treetops on the de rigeur Canopy Tour. No, this photo has nothing whatever to do with the topic of this post. But I had to put it somewhere.)

A few years back, I read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," in which she describes her experiences working various dead-end jobs in a sort of year-long immersion expedition into American poverty. While I didn't find it all that earth-shattering in its observations, one commentary really rang true: that people who've never lived in poverty imagine there is some sort of shadow economy of the poor, where things are somehow cheaper, perhaps at a lower quality. And in fact this is not the case; the people she got to know were paying standard rates at the hotel where they stayed (because they couldn't afford a security deposit or qualify for an apartment). They just had to suck it up and not spend any money on anything else, or cram five people into a room.

I think many people have a similar misperception of developing countries. After passing through the first, naive stage of shock that things work differently in a foreign country than they do in the States, it's all too easy to fall into the opposite trap of assuming that local people have their own solution for every problem the tourist encounters. But it's not true: the paucity of transport means that the vast majority of people, who don't have their own cars, rarely go anywhere. The lack of street signs and reliable directions means that FINCA credit officers waste hours every week wandering around strange neighborhoods asking everyone they meet, "where does Doña Ana live?" and getting six different misinformed opinions until they finally find the place. And what did I see in a client's house this morning but a BIIIIG bottle of anti-amoeba medication, smack dab on the mantel - help yourself, kids!

We spend a lot of time wondering about the fatalism that infuses so much of life here, and what seems to us to be a pervasive fault of problem-solving will, a lack of dot-connection from "there is a problem" to "steps need to be taken to solve the problem." As just one example: Lauren and I stayed a night at a fairly upscale hotel in Pochomil (upscale is relative, but this is the sort of place vacationers go, with transport from the airport and everything.) In the morning, the electricity and water were not working in our room. She went downstairs to the front desk: "Excuse me, but I was going to take a shower and we don't have any water in our room." The laconic fellow behind the desk: "Oh yes, sometimes that happens." Long pause. "Okay, um, well, is there anywhere there is water?" "The first floor has water." Long pause. "Ok, well, could I take a shower in one of the first floor rooms?" "Sure, I guess so." It wasn't a Soviet-style hostility to customer service - they were perfectly happy to accomodate Lauren's request once she pulled the teeth to get there. It's just that in Nicaragua, 1+1 often doesn't equal 2. It just equals 1+1.

"You can take the bus to Rincon del Olvido that leaves at 8:00 and meet the credit officer there."
"And when does the last bus get back?"
"But as we mentioned before, our interviews will take at least four hours."
"Oh, then I guess that won't work."

Followed by the patented Nica LONG PAUSE BLANK STARE - until one of us starts digging away for a possible alternative. Nothing will be volunteered, no brainstorming will take place, because what we think of as premises that lead to conclusions are just random facts in the Nicaraguan mind, none more meaningful than any other.

"So, is there another way to get there?"
"Is anyone else from the office going there?"
"Well, the driver will be leaving around 7:30."
"Um, so can we go with him?"
"Sure, that would work."

One more example: about half of our survey questions have to do with expenditures over the past year. "How much did you spend in the last 12 months on the house?" "How much do you spend per week on food?" "How much do you spend per month on utilities?" The first question always elicits a response of "Oh, a lot," or "yes," and then we explain that we want an estimate, in cordobas, of how much they spent. OK, fine - we've explained this concept which might be strange to them. But then we have to go through the same explanation for every single question.

Where does this resistance to connecting the dots come from? Is the concept of a number, as opposed to "bastante," really so hard?

Some of it is surely the despair of poverty, leading away from an active approach to shaping one's own world. But it's more than that - reasonably well-off people, credit officers and hotel staff, drive us crazy with this pulling-teeth deficiency in logic. I think it stems from having to deal, day in and day out, with an irreparable lack of things and processes that really shouldn't be lacking, a society-wide learned helplessness in which the fix-the-problem impulse has withered for lack of opportunity.

It's true that a naive religiosity suffuses the Nicaraguan countryside. Sure, liberation theology swept over the country in the Sandinista times, but FINCA's more religious clients are not talking about social justice; they're talking about "follow the rules and don't complain, and you'll be rewarded in heaven." Vatican II might as well never have happened here (OK, OK, mass is in Spanish.) But hey, if people believe with good reason that their lives are unlikely to change substantially here on earth, can you blame them for seeking solace in heaven? It's easy to dump on religion, but ultimately, I think the "pie in the sky" mentality is a symptom and not a cause of people's hopelessness.

Another explanation for the logic gap is that chronic parasite infections, plus heat, plus malnutrition, lead to both a constant level of apathetic tiredness and sub-par cognitive development. However, the real cause must be the lack of education. Before this trip, I took a certain level of critical thinking for granted, basically feeling that while one learns *about* things in school, smart people will be smart and stupid people, stupid, regardless of their level of education. I am now seeing that this is not true.

In training, we were warned that we would be shocked and saddened at the poverty of the clients. Honestly, though, while many of FINCA's clients are indeed poor, the vast majority are not destitute. Since I'd traveled in Central America before, the material standard of living was sometimes sad to me (not always: many clients are doing just fine) but not shocking.

What was a shock was the lack of education. This is my first experience dealing primarily with people who have mostly not completed secondary school, and many of whom have not completed primary school. I was reading another traveler's blog in which she asked a front desk clerk about hotel prices. He said "it will be $25 for the double room and $15 for the single." She said "So $40 total," and he looked confused (LONG PAUSE BLANK STARE); her traveling companion speculated that he wasn't able to do the math that quickly. That's the sort of thing that would never have occured to me.

FINCA clients can do math (they're all vendors, after all) but the literal-mindedness, the failure to extrapolate patterns, is so foreign to my experience that it's taken me this long to connect it to nineteenth-century rants about the inherent slowness and stupidity of the poor, none of whom had much schooling.

Education matters. Who woulda thunk it?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Routine medical care

Thursday night I went to the doctor to get a diagnosis & drugs for the low-level yet persistent intestinal parasite problem that's been dogging me for the past week. The doctor (a public hospital employee who was very clearly seeing me under the table) was taking a quick history:

"Any sore throat? Pain in the stomach? Do you have a fever?"
No, no, and no; at which point he paused and politely asked, "And when was the last time you were de-parasited?"

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Masaya, and photos

I have posted a few (completely random and disorganized) photos on Flickr, at:

I wish I had the bandwidth (in both senses) to do a better presentation, but our connection here is reaaaaaallly slow, so any more uploading/arranging will have to wait. Meanwhile, enjoy the randomness.

Today was our first day of interviewing in Masaya, Nicaragua’s “Cradle of Folklore.” We did not have the best impression of the town yesterday when we arrived, since the electricity and water was out all over the city (apparently, all over the country.) It gets dark here quite early, around 7 pm, and since we did not know the city our general sense was of threatening, lightless streets. With streetlights, everything now seems much safer and more cheerful. The first hotel we tried was not working for us, but we are now in the best hotel in town, which is every inch a Central American “best hotel in town.” That is, the front room and street entrance is luxurious and impressive, radiating colonial privilege with its elaborately tiled lobby, fancy furniture, gold drapes, and chandeliers; the interior patio is lush and befountained, but more Nicaraguan in style, with ceramic floors, hammocks, plants and rocking chairs; and the 3-person room itself, where we guests are actually staying, is basic, cramped, and adequate, with mismatched cartoon character sheets adorning twin bunk beds with foam mattresses. But it’s one of the few places in town with an electric generator, so - overall luxe factor high! The electricity is still out in some of the town (including where we are) although most sectors have regained service for the time being. I am writing to the gentle sounds of splashing water and the not-so-gentle pounding of the generator.

Today, by chance, I ended up going to San Juan del Sur, which is one of the most touristy spots in Nicaragua (famous for surfing) about 2.5 hours from Masaya on pockmarked, intermittently paved roads. Although the FINCA clients were still poor, with overall fewer consumer goods than in Managua and similar per capita expenditures on average, they seemed generally, well, happier. People smiled! In fact, everyone was uncommonly warm and welcoming. Perhaps I’m projecting a bit, but it felt almost like being in another country. This is what I remembered from Nicaragua 2 years ago. Today, I was genuinely happy to be here - and doubly happy when I could take half an hour to stroll along the beach.

One lady I interviewed, who makes “enchiladas” to sell to schoolkids at lunch (these are more like Argentine empanadas than anything you may be thinking of from a Mexican restaurant, and contain about 400% of the USDA recommended daily dose of fat in each tiny, tasty greasebomb) told me that her house, and the entire street, now have plumbing and indoor bathrooms courtesy of an American who is installing a hotel at the very top of the street. He is also paving “his” street - I guess this is what you call corporate social responsibility. A nice contrast to the scads of real estate agencies that infest the town, buying up land from naïve campesinos for $5000 an acre and selling it to foreigners at $50,000 a plot.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In Granada

We have 3 days off and are spending them in the lovely colonial city of Granada, all candy-colored Spanish architecture and cute little ex-pat shops. NicaraDisneyLand, for sure, but so pretty I really can't object. My lungs and heartrate have more or less returned to normal.


One of our survey questions is "Over the past twelve months, how much did your household spend on taxes?" The conversation all too often goes like this:

"Over the past twelve months, how much did your household spend on taxes?"

"Taxes? What does that word mean?"*

"You know, money that you give to the government, maybe from a paycheck or for your house every year."

"Ahhhh... (smiling indulgently) no, mi'ja, we don't have any of that around here."

Vicious circle, anyone?

*Yes, we are using the locally correct word - believe me, we checked.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Reader questions

My dad writes in with questions:

1. Why should repaying members of a group pressure non-payers? As long as an individual member repays her loan isn't she off the hook? (I can understand in the grand scheme of things that lower repayment rates may influence the probability of future loans, but surely this can't rank very high in a single borrower's mind.)

This is actually proving to be more true of FINCA Nicaragua than I expected. However, the "classic" model of microfinance, as pioneered/disseminated by the Grameen Bank, founded in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunus (who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year), relies on group responsibility rather than individual collateral. The idea is that since extremely poor people have nothing to leave as collateral except their good name, the village banks are run on a joint and several responsibility principle, in which all the members of the bank agree to be responsible for repaying the loans of anyone who defaults. The Grameen Bank has many more solidarity-building activities than FINCA Nicaragua, with a very strong emphasis on teaching poor women that they have the power to make decisions and change their lives. Grameen borrowers pledge, among other things, not to pay or receive dowry for their children's weddings, not to honor traditional caste prohibitions, and to build sanitary latrines.

The idea is that the group will be very careful about which new members it accepts, because everyone is responsible for everyone else.

Here in Nicaragua, FINCA requires collateral, and (very anecdotally) this decreases the rate of repayment. The loan officers are also given financial incentives for each new bank they organize, which could also undermine the selectivity of the process.

The New Yorker has a good (10-page) overview of the current state of play in the microfinance world (especially focused on the tension between the for-profit and non-profit groups):

2. Who are the "loan officers" and what's in it for them?

About $330 base salary monthly, plus incentives. Many, but not all, have post-secondary education.

3. Who (other than FINCA investigators) pays $60/night for a bad (or even a mediocre) room in Managua?

I haven't the foggiest idea. Deeply misguided tourists, perhaps?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Managua, failed city

Don't be fooled by the ratio in this photo; there are a lot more horsecarts than Land Rovers in Nicaragua.

There is a political-science concept of the "failed state," that is, a place like the Congo or Iraq, where the institutions of government have either collapsed or never properly existed. A failed state lacks infrastructure, and cannot build any because there is no tax collection (and who would want to pay, knowing that the government is impotent at best and completely corrupt at worst?) It's a vicious circle of anti-development. If there is any organization, it's at the hands of warlords and thugs. Otherwise, the country will have simply unraveled into a series of small, isolated villages.

Analogously, Managua is a failed city. There was never any central organizing principle as in Granada and Leon, which benefitted from a logical Spanish grid. What infrastructure there was was destroyed in the 1972 earthquake, and Somoza embezzled virtually all of the aid that the world gave to Nicaragua for rebuilding. The anger at this act triggered years of war, as the US and USSR fought by proxy and further shredded what civilization remained. Nicaragua is now at peace, but in the midst of a harsh recession. The city has dis-integrated* into a loosely affiliated sprawl of small neighborhoods, each with its corner shop and pharmacy, and the city government has minimal power or money to do anything.

No city maps. Land is dirt cheap; a frontier mentality as people gradually trickle back into the city to rebuild houses on abandoned land, some 35 years late. Sporadic collection of taxes and utilities. No central square, no city-sponsored events, no architecture, few statues. The water seems to work well, but the electricity, privatized a few years ago to the Spanish firm Union Fenosa, goes out in most parts of the city for most of the day. Even the people who live here have trouble finding their way around; I spent an hour this morning while my credit officer asked the people in the new-ish neighborhood she was visiting how to find the place she had "directions" to (from the bus stop, two blocks south, a block and a half west - she was interpreting "block" to mean only intersections with streets, her direction-giver was meaning also intersections with alleyways.) The magic of big cities, their ability to bring people together and catalyze gatherings, depends greatly on people being able to find each other in a downtown, a known place for strangers to meet. When that is subtracted you have a place with all the drawbacks of a big city, and few of the advantages.

So, is there hope for improvement? Hard to say. On the one hand, there is always hope - on the other, investment isn't exactly flooding into the country. Ortega is still (as always) a question mark...

*Yeah, I know this whole using-a-hyphen-to-draw-attention-to-the-original-individual-significance-of-both-parts-of-a-compound-word thing was played in the late 90s. What can I say, I'm kicking it old school.

Jeanette's blog

Unlike me, my teammate Jeanette has managed to post some photos of our trip; us at the beach, and a few (out the window of the bus) of the type of houses FINCA clients typically have...

Blog in Spanish, at:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Porque no todo esta tan lindito como en las fotos

Some things I have learned about FINCA Nicaragua that surprised/saddened me:

1) Collateral. In the main office of FINCA there is a medium-sized room filled with tables, sewing machines, a refrigerator, and many, many televisions.* (There is also a sign taped to the window of the room listing prices.) These objects are the collateral left by clients who did not repay their loans. "But wait!" you say, "I thought the whole point of microfinance was that the clients don't have collateral and rely instead on social capital to develop credit." Ah, how naive, how innocent you are... this leads us to the second point...

2) Repayment. I don't know where FINCA got the 97% repayment statistic in their brochure but it is certainly not from the credit officers. According to one credit officer I talked to, many people do not repay the loans, and the women who make payments on time have their savings accounts confiscated to cover the debit. This understandably makes them less willing to establish savings accounts. The basic village banking idea is that the good payers will pressure the bad payers, but, as "my" officer explained, they do not want to make enemies out of their neighbors.

The worst part is that (segun mi informacion) FINCA continues to give loans to those who do not pay, undermining any culture of good credit. That said, right after we had that conversation I interviewed by far the poorest client I have talked to so far. She and her two daughters had no bed; they slept on concrete blocks. She was going to have a growth in her eye operated on at a free Cuban-run clinic, but slipped out of the hospital at the last minute because she couldn't afford to miss even one day of sewing (on a manual machine, in a room illuminated by a single light bulb with electricity given to her from the neighbor next door.) I have to ask people if they have all kinds of domestic appliances - blender, refrigerator, rice cooker. She said no to everything, then shyly volunteered, "the only thing I have is a thermos." That thermos broke my heart. I wanted to repay her loan then and there.

3) One of Lauren's clients, who was the treasurer of her banking group, said she was leaving FINCA for two reasons: first, the Managua slums are basically small towns, where everyone knows everyone's business. Unfortunately, they're extremely dangerous small towns filled with armed robbers. So when she walks out of her house after a village bank meeting to deposit the money in the bank, everyone, including the robbers, knows she's carrying a huge amount of cash. Then when she gets to the bank - they don't let her in the building. She has to make the deposit in the parking lot.

For some reason, she objected to this treatment.

*If you want to look at things in the most positive light, you could say that FINCA's job is to convert the excess TVs of Central America into working capital for small businesses... a worthy goal, from a certain point of view...

Monday, June 11, 2007

The worst question

The questionnaire we are supposed to administer to our clients has about 115 questions. Depending on the client’s response, we end up asking 80-90 of them. The worst/silliest question, however, is the following: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life now? On a scale of one to ten, where one is very unsatisfied and ten is very satisfied.” I imagine this has something to do with FINCA’s desire to participate in happiness research, ( (no I haven't figured out how to make links on blogger yet) but it just doesn't work in Nicaragua (in case anyone out there still thought happiness could be reliably measured!) For one thing, the concept of a 1-10 scale is completely foreign to ALL the clients, even those with secondary education. We will all spend several minutes painstakingly explaining the idea: "So, one is really, really, miserable, two is a little bit happier, five is in the middle, eight is pretty happy, ten is everything is perfect..." and they will listen patiently and then say, "Si," or "Satisfecho." The bizarre gringo idea of categorizing one's life satisfaction on a 1-10 scale is literally impossible to convey, although sometimes the heavily Christian ones will say something like, "Well, I'm a Christian, and with God everything is good, and I cannot complain, so 10."

Not only is the question silly, it's also an unpredictable heartbreaker. It follows immediately after the question about food insecurity. Having someone who's just told you that she and her family often go without food respond "10, because I have God," can be infuriating. On the other hand, Lauren had a client who said "everything is fine" to the food security question, but then burst into tears and said "1" to the life satisfaction question - she was 17, with three kids, daddy nowhere to be found, and had had to drop out of school - and of course, she and her kids went hungry much more than she had admitted in the first question. Jeannette had a client who said "10" because her situation had been miserable before, and now her pulperia (little corner store) was doing well, her husband who had left her for another woman had returned (so that he could die in comfort, but let's not split hairs) and she had even been able to take a vacation, something she'd never dreamed she could do.

Field realities ~= arcane social science concepts. Happinesss ~= possible to measure.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


The next time anyone loosely affiliated with your workplace arranges lodging for you at a distance, ask this simple question: "Is the owner a friend of theirs from secondary school?" And if the answer is yes... RUN.

Today we moved to Hotel Los Cisneros. It is a nice place. Not so nice, however, that in normal circumstances we would have spent the first half-hour of our stay literally *cackling* with glee: "Look! There are decorations!" "Plants! Amazing!" "Wow! There are restaurants and stores around here! It's incredible!"


The contrast to our previous hotel ("Carcel San Sebastian") - where we paid exactly the same price, $60 a night for the room, for a single dank chamber entirely filled with six single beds so that we had to clamber over each other and our furniture to do anything, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by barking dogs and gunning motorcycles - is incredible. We couldn't walk without stepping on a bed, and the bathroom smelled of mildew and despair. Here, on the other hand, they have mastered the art of decor. We all suddenly like Managua MUCH better.

Jeanette's quote of the day (in an email to another FINCA worker who is coming to Managua for a month to stay):

"Hello Alicia. We need to tell you that the other place was really bad, and now we are in another hostal which is almost the paradise...we are paying the same amount of money, but we have a kind of apartment with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a table, a "patio" with hamacas and wireless,...ufff, much better..."

Thursday, June 7, 2007

First day of interviews

Today we met with the FINCA Nicaragua credit officers for the first time and began client interviews. "My" first bank meeting was out of town, a bit in the countryside, with clean fresh air, trees, birds - all a lovely gift after being stuck in Managua for five days. This area was not the poorest area. It was the typical Central American countryside, where people do not have (or seem to value) many material possessions, but they have enough to eat. I think this is the hardest thing for me to communicate to people who haven't been here: the order in which possessions are acquired is so different. One finds people with color tv, mobile phone, and DVD player, but no inside toilet, rooms separated by a plastic curtain if anything, and dirt floors. I met people with running water and electricity, but no clock. The first client I interviewed was a older lady who lived up a steep embankment, mostly cooking with wood outdoors. She’d been sick for the past month and therefore didn’t end up working at the business for which she had taken out the loan, and was worried. The second client was from a relatively prosperous family with a large, tile-floor house (my interviewee was the daughter of the loan group's treasurer) and used the money for her family’s bakery. People have large things here: heavy, dark, ponderous furniture, wooden shelving units with elaborately carved spindles (and in one house, burgundy crocheted cozies for the spindle-tops of each chair), a TV, a washing machine; but no small things - no books, no papers, no pens and CDs and clothes and tennis rackets and salad spinners piling up in corners. It is a much, much less consumerist society and one with a good deal less paper. (I imagine it is very easy to mop.)

In harmony with this prevailing ethos of simplicity, Jeanette, Lauren, and I have dialed down our eating habits to the most basic (since we have very little time to cook and shop, and only simple ingredients are within walking distance of our hotel). I highly recommend chayote squash, prepared according to the following elaborate and traditional Nicaraguan recipe:

1. Cut squash in half.
2. Boil.
3. Add salt.

We all go out with a different credit officer each morning (starting at 6:30!) and follow them to the "village bank meetings." We interview two or three randomly selected clients at each bank. I put "village bank meetings" in quotes because neither I nor my teammates have encountered what we had previously thought of as a village bank meeting. Instead, a few clients (out of 15-20) come and make their payments, often bringing payments from other people. Definitely many people do not pay on time! But it seemed that my loan officer was chasing them down and nagging them, at least by proxy.

Also, it seems quite common for women to have to leave collateral such as a sewing machine or TV to guarantee their loan. This confuses me - doesn't it undermine the whole point of village banks? True, I was in relatively well-off areas, but my teammates found the same system. Lauren visited one house in which she asked for the bathroom and had a bucket pointed out to her, while Jeanette was cordially invited to use the river.

The best part of the work so far is the names of the village banks groups. There are very few the same: apart from the religious names (“Jesus is Savior,” “With God’s Help,” etc. - about 10%), and the expected optimistic ones (“New Future,” “Flower of Happiness,” “Light of Day,”) the more inventive group names include: We Will All Pay, My PC, Taking Advantage of the Loan, Simplifying, Fantasy, Elegance, The Punctual Ones, Texas, and Women United With Hillary (Sen. Clinton paid a visit about 10 years ago).

The interviews run about half an hour to 45 minutes, and so far all my interviewees have endured with great patience and good humor as I quiz them on “how much does your household spend each month on deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo,” and “how much schooling does each member of your household have?” I must confess that, contrary to instructions, I have begun skipping the questions beginning “Have you given birth in the last five years?” when interviewing women in their 50s. If I encounter a Nicaraguan Sarah I am afraid the miracle will go unrecorded. Question 49, on the other hand, can always be relied upon for a moment of hilarity: gazing out upon the city streets, I inquire politely whether the client owns a boat or canoe.

Lauren's quote of the day:

"I was walking with my credit officer in the street and walked too close to traffic. Miguel Angel pulled me back and said, 'No, no, you can't die until you've done 94 more interviews.' And at that moment, I was kind of thinking, 'Which would be worse?'"

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

So, what are you doing in Nicaragua exactly?

To give the promised context:

I'm in Nicaragua for five weeks with Finca International, ( a worldwide microfinance organization founded in 1984. Microfinance got an (additional) burst of publicity last year when Mohamed Yunus, "father of microfinance," received the Nobel Prize; basically, it consists of liberating the working capacity of poor people by offering them small loans to improve or start their own businesses. Instead of collateral, they work in a group-guarantee system (essentially, substituting social for financial capital.) FINCA follows the traditional path of focusing on women (there are some men that have FINCA loans, but they are a very small, exceptional proportion).

We are administering surveys to characterize FINCA's clients and ensure that the group being served is the "lowest-income entrepreneurs." These first two days we're working on creating a statistically representative sample of the clients and deciding which branches and clients to visit. (Our trainers emphasized that it was very important to track down the exact client chosen at random; otherwise there would be a tendency to avoid clients living in inconvenient areas... shades of Robert Chambers...) We'll be in Managua for another week or so, following credit officers on their daily rounds and interviewing clients here, then off to other branches (Matagalpa, Masaya, and Juigalpa - although not necessarily in that order - for those of you following along at home with a map of Nicaragua.)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Memories of underdevelopment

Welcome to Managua! Arrived this afternoon, checked into a hotel of the classic Concrete and Ceramic Tile interior design school - redeemed somewhat by a pink-purple bougainvillea tree overhanging the patio and by an only slightly underfed and tick-infested spanielish puppy - and set off with Lauren and Jeanette to explore the city. Lonely Planet cautions that the sights of Managua are "few and far between," but, having failed to find anyone who would admit to us that the city even has a center, let alone direct us there, we opted to ask a taxi driver to take us to la Plaza de la Republica. If a village's degree of development and prosperity can be judged by the health of its dogs, perhaps the health of a city can be judged by its Plaza de la Republica.

I had forgotten about the scrum of garbage that swirls through the streets and parks of very poor countries; a twisting scurf of plastic bags and paper scraps that there is no municipal budget to collect, and thus no thought in the minds of the city's residents to do anything wiith garbage but throw it on the ground. Not that they could if they wanted to. Litter is disliked the way mosquitos are: unpleasant, yes, but what can be done? What can be done, also, about Lago de Managua, a lake so polluted that its distant horizon, in broad daylight, is a sort of colorless brown, a negation of blueness more than a shade in itself? Surely the most rational thing to do is tune out the pollution, wade through the accumulating trash as if nothing, live, in other words, exactly like a North American; we segregate our postponement of the waste problem physically, they draw a much neater, efficient psychological barrier right there on the spot.

In the crumbling plaza there are boys of eight or ten trying to make money by selling us eight-cent flowers made of green folded palm fronds. We decline, but they tag along anyway for a while for entertainment purposes.

Managua really doesn't feel like a capital city. We're at the southern end, admittedly, but it feels almost more peri-urban than rural. People have horses, and there are long wild weedy patches of nothing much but tall grass and uncertain fencing, when suddenly a large concrete building annouces itself as the Ministry of Social Insurance or some such. It reminds me of a (less violent?) Detroit, slowly being reclaimed by nature, patches of broken concrete and industrial debris laced with the increasingly bold incursions of raccoons and pin oak and white-tailed deer.

Tonight I made coffee for four, sans coffeemaker, via an elaborate process of origami coffee filter and water in a saucepot. I chatted for a while with the front desk clerk, who, on a salary of four dollars a day, makes too much to qualify for a FINCA loan, but was interested in hearing about the program. He told me that the Sandinistas started cooperatives that were similar in some aspects, although not, I believe, in terms of individual profits, and perhaps also not in terms of choosing one's partners. The idea of group financial accountability is thus very familiar in Nicaragua.

As we talked, an absurdly flamboyant birdsong unscrolled over and over. There were large leafy trees overhanging the concrete & rebar architecture of every Central American city, and the air smelled of lush tropical greenery and gasoline and heat.

Tomorrow, I promise - context!