5 Things Making Me Happy

A round-up of some of the exciting things to cross my desk in the last week:

1. Thriving Business: Brown Ngoma, his wife, Beatrice, and his daughter, Glydess, reported that their “Christ Shop Groceries” is thriving due to high demand for soap, sugar, and Coca-Cola. The 3-month report showed that since they started the business they’ve earned $182 in profit; enough to buy a bicycle!

Brown Ngoma helps customers at his market grocery shop.

Brown Ngoma helps customers at his market grocery shop.

After visiting Malawi last year, I know that having a bicycle will make it much easier for them to travel the long distances between home, the market, and the city. Congratulations on the successful business Ngomas!

2. Seed story: Vegetable and flower seeds donated from Thomsen’s Garden Center in Alameda made it to our volunteer coordinator Godfrey Matovu in Uganda last week!

It’s always a joy to know that the package made it across the world and safely arrived in the hands of our partners. Many thanks to Aileen Gillem, our “volunteer angel,” who sends the seeds from the mailing station in her garage.

3. Giving: “I give so that you may [can] give.” This teaching from the Hindu Vedas is a beautiful counterpart to the Bible verse Luke 6:38, “Give, and it will be given to you.” And both explain the underlying justification for our Sharing the Gift program, encouraging people to pay-it-forward to another person in their community.

Girls with a piglet in Uganda.4. Speaking of Sharing the Gift: This photo shows happy children in Uganda who received a piglet as a gift from one of the local mat-making businesses. The business was started in 2010 with a Spirit in Action Small Business Fund grant and continues to prosper today.

5. Building a better world: This beautiful Mary Oliver poem, “Song of the Builders”, honors the various pathways to a purpose-driven life.

Have a good week! Be well. Spread good today.

The benefits of micro-savings

This week a book review I wrote was posted on the international aid website whydev.org. My review below explores why micro-savings is well poised to alleviate poverty. Micro-savings groups are something I hope Spirit in Action will promote more in the future, modeled on the success of the Manyamula Savings and Loans group.

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Moleen Mtonga gives testimony about her butchery shop (Malawi).

Moleen Mtonga gives testimony about her butchery shop (Malawi).

“Is there any one member of this group going for a loan from FINCA again? No! No! Is there any member who is going for micro-loan? No!” Such was the dialog I heard in Malawi from a local savings and loans group (called MAVISALO) discussing micro-loans. Where I had expected to hear great stories of micro-loan organisations empowering people and solving problems, instead I heard tones of disgust. David Roodman’s Due Diligence: An impertinent inquiry into microfinance finds little compelling evidence that micro-loans alleviate poverty or empower people, two of the most common themes in micro-credit marketing.

In one of the appendices, Roodman poses a critical question, “how far should nonprofits go in misrepresenting what they do in order to fund it? It is not an easy question: what if honesty reduces funding?” (loc. 3859). The marketing success of microfinance, and the surge of commercial, governmental, and individual financing that follows, clearly clashed with my experiences in Malawi.

The marketing of micro-credit succeeds for a number of reasons. On one hand is the appeal, especially in North America, of stories of individual “bootstrap” entrepreneurship. These stories are fed to us through loan agents who are trained to create stories of everyone being an entrepreneur and single loans that lead to successful businesses. On the other hand, the micro-credit fundraising model creates an impression of an “unmediated” loan (loc. 3434), where donors/investors feel they are making a one-to-one, direct human connection.

“If people continue to channel billions to the best storytellers,” Roodman says of investors, “they will continue to distort the very thing they mean to support. But if they recognize how their choices have been part of the problem, then they can become part of the solution” (loc. 3456). Can NGOs use the stories as part of a solution that both accurately represents their relationships with aid recipients and also provides assistance that is beneficial?

Throughout the book, Roodman points to the potential of micro-savings to address the financial needs of the poor, especially for protection against financial shock. Indeed, saving seems to emerge as a bright spot in the midst of tepid evaluations of micro-credit, especially considering that “Whatever credit can do, savings can, too. Both can finance investment, pay for consumption, and help a family through health crises” (loc. 1382). While Roodman’s examination of micro-credit research shows benefits only in very specific situations, “the one high-quality study of micro-savings does find economic gains” (loc. 1857). It seems, then, that micro-savings has the potential to both provide a better poverty-reducing vehicle to the poor and tell a better story to donors.

Let’s consider how can we take the elements of successful micro-credit marketing and begin to market self-help and village savings groups. To start, we have to acknowledge that savings programs have an inherently different narrative from micro-credit; it’s not a story of giving a loan or other object directly to another person. Most likely, the NGO costs for establishing and supporting savings groups are paying for infrastructure to keep money safe, and salaries of savings agents. Yet, several aspects of micro-savings, especially when provided through self-help groups, seem poised to allow NGOs to tell the great “lifting out of poverty” narrative that has been applied to micro-credit with more accuracy. The work of micro-savings has less leeway for misrepresentation – either people are saving, or they aren’t – we don’t have to ever know how people spend their money or if their business is successful.

Here are some points gleaned from Roodman, which help craft an honest story about micro-savings that still lends itself to donor impulses:

  • Savings actually can reach the poorest of the poor (loc. 1190). One of the best lines of the book is a poor woman in rural Niger saying that micro-credit “is for rich people” (loc. 1205).
  • People want to save (loc. 3364) and don’t want to be in debt (loc. 1384). Giving people services that help them do what they want is better for them and a better story.
  • Savings programs seem to help women more than men (loc. 2233; 2809). Women are sympathetic story characters and are chosen for many loans programs.
  • Savings groups, which unlike micro-finance institutions (MFIs) can be flexible and reliable, are more likely to empower members (loc. 2476; 2820; 3616). Also empowering, self-help groups foster a sense of group ownership (loc. 2855).
  • Savings can improve the impact of micro-credit (loc. 1531), improving the stories told by MFIs that provide both services.

Of course, the reality of the world makes it unrealistic to expect that any single service will eliminate poverty. Part of the truth in marketing is not just telling a more real story but also sharing a more complex story. Promoting micro-savings programs and stories alongside the many narratives of micro-credit and entrepreneurs can subtly prod donors to consider a wider context of financial services and a wider understanding of life and economic needs of the global poor. While Roodman shares a discouraging overview of micro-credit, there is a more hopeful story of micro-savings as a way to protect against shock and, yes, cover business expenses for entrepreneurs. I came back from Malawi wary of micro-credit and large MFIs but enthusiastic about local groups cropping up to help people move away from loans and towards saving.

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If you are interested in micro-finance and evaluating its impact, I would highly encourage you to read David Roodman’s book.

Role models that inspire SIA

Preparing for the Spirit in Action 16th Anniversary earlier this month gave me a chance to reflect on the role models that are the foundation of Spirit in Action’s vision. Below is my reflection on three leaders that keep me encouraged and inspired:

We spent three days with Canaan Gondwe in Malawi and it felt like we were there for weeks.

People had told us to prepare for “Africa time” nothing happens quickly or on-time. But Canaan had everything in order; he kept us on a tight schedule, rushing us off to meet with people, see farms, share and listen to people. There were so many in that rural village who wanted to meet us and thank us, as representatives of SIA.

[See photos of friends at our anniversary event!]

Right from that beginning, when Canaan quickly drove us back to his village because our bus was 1.5 hours late, I saw that Canaan was a strong leader. He commanded respect and showed respect to everyone – greeting men, women, and children on the road. He has a warm smile and a booming voice. When he gave his presentation welcoming us, people listened and clapped in agreement. When we went to visit farms, people sought his advice on pig farming and growing tomatoes. People willingly shared their car with him and worked in the office with him.

Serving happens person-to-person

So Canaan is our first role model today. There is a quote by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen saying, “Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.” She is saying that serving is a closer relationship than fixing or helping. Serving is about being God’s channel and letting the service flow, rather than being a fixer or a helper with our own plans.

Serving creates a stronger bond. It is the best way for us to create chance – really allow chance to unfold.

Del’s dream of co-creation

Del’s dream, included here, talks about connecting with role models who contribute to their communities. Canaan is that role model, that leader – serving others by being there in the community, encouraging them, giving advice, modeling spiritual faith and practice. And his leadership is the strength of the Manyamula Savings and Loans group (MAVISALO).

Del was ahead of his time with his dream about connecting with role models already active in their communities. So Del is our second role model of the day. I think that Del really understood that international service is about encouraging others.

Many feel the call to serve others around the world – people who have less than us, people who lack their basic needs. And the challenge is to allow the service to flow through us, rather than expect the service start and end with us. This is the hard part – and yet I thank Del for his vision for an organization that allows and encourages others to lead change in their own communities. Spirit in Action is designed to recognize and encourage self-help projects and help get those started and flourishing. To summarize – we see that more change can come through a local savings and loans group, rather than a newly dug water well by American volunteers that no one uses.

Channeling a higher power

Del talked a lot about being a channel – Christ’s channel for healing and soothing injustices in the world. So our third role model is Jesus. Following Jesus’s model and being a channel for service recognizes that it is not our own power that will solve the problem or save a community. We see power in others and encourage that. In many ways knowing that we are channels, not the only power, is freeing for me. It lifts the weight of needing to have all the answers; instead the answer is to follow my role models.

Now, just because we are channels doesn’t mean we are inactive or passive – in fact our name, Spirit in ACTION, demands we do something. When we find our local role models like Canaan, we are called to manifest God’s spirit of goodness and love – and support and collaborate with Canaan and his community as they organize to assist the most vulnerable people, get more youth in school, help new families build houses and start farms.

So, it is with this spirit of our role models that we celebrate today – celebrate the model of Jesus, the dreams of Del, and the leadership of Canaan. We celebrate that through these 16 years we continue to stay true to the dream of cultivating leaders, co-creating with them, and channeling support to those leaders best poised to serve their fellow neighbor.

MAVISALO: A national model in Malawi

folding cloth from DRC at silent auction

Donna Thomas had the winning bid on this beautiful piece of cloth from DR Congo.

Wherever we go in the world,
we will look for the persons in that area
who can become a role model for their world.
— from Del Anderson’s Dream for Spirit in Action, 2004

This past weekend we celebrated sixteen years of sharing Del’s dream with the world through Spirit in Action. The gathering of twenty-three people was a special time to celebrate our work, bid on handicrafts from SIA partners, and meet friends old and new. Thank you to all who attended and all those who donated time and items to make the day a success!

At the event I shared about the exciting work of the Manyamula Village Savings and Loans group (MAVISALO) in Malawi, which is working to expand their reach. In the process, they are developing into national model!

MAVISALO recently hosted a delegation team from the Malawian Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Community Development, and COMSIP. The team interacted with all the members, learning about the group’s operations, systems, and finances.

Canaan Gondwe, the local coordinator shares of the visit, “it was again superb for us.”

Like Boyd and I, the delegation met with group members that have received loans from MAVISALO. “The comment they left with us,” says Canaan, “was that our group is a success story! Our future seems very bright.”

Not only is Canaan Gondwe a role model, all MAVISALO members are models of people who care about others and share their expertise with others for the benefit of all. This is just one story showing the way we are still following Del’s dream for Spirit in Action.

Thank you again to all who joined us on Saturday and who contributed to help support further growth of MAVISALO.

Click here for more photos from our visit with MAVISALO members last summer visit.

event attendees listen to one of the guests speak

SIA supporters from all over gathered to celebrate 16 years of compassionate service.

Talking the talk: Claiming the label of Christian

This past Sunday, I was baptized at the St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ. During the service, I shared a few words about claiming the Christian faith, portraying a broader array of Christian experiences, and what the baptism meant to me. I share them with you now:

Tanya sharing at SAPUCC I have had a close relationship with God since I was a child. And I have never been baptized. I sometimes tell people that I’m a Christian and yet sometimes I don’t because I don’t want to be lumped in with the “bad” Christians – the ones that see a small God, and fail to see the light in every person.

When I was a kid at summer camp, we sang a beautiful song saying “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And yet, since Christianity has been given a bad name within the liberal circles I grew up in, someone changed the song to, “They will know we are God’s children by our love.” I have no problem with that, I see myself as a child of God. Yet I want to reveal to people a broader example of Christianity, one that has at its core – loving God and loving my neighbor as myself. And this baptism is part of showing that Christians and love are in the same vein.

I asked Pastor Victoria to include “Be Thou My Vision” as one of the hymns today as a reminder that in my life I want to follow Jesus and live with him as my role model.

I want to see abundance. When I get one more request for help from Africa for work I don’t want to be like the disciples and send the crowds away. I want to welcome them, invite them to eat, and know that we all will be satisfied, with some left over.

I also want to stand for justice. Just as Jesus got angry enough to act by turning over the money-changers tables, when I am with people who are gossiping, I want to be strong enough to say – don’t say that, or that’s not the way I see it.

I want to show up at parties and turn water into wine…but never mind about that…

Finally, I take with me the knowledge that the Lord only requires three things of me as I enter into this sacrament. That is to seek justice (like my work with Spirit in Action in the world), love kindness (to be gentle to myself and always seek a solution that is best for many), and to walk humbly with my God (especially as I leave this wonderful community and begin a new life with Boyd in Toronto).

And I pray that as I am baptized, like with Jesus, God will also say, “this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” So I thank you for being here today to witness this public act of faith, and for being a community that had prepared me to say that I am a child of God and I am also a Christian.

I love you and I will miss you when we leave, and yet finding this community, which is so safe and so strong, is like a promise that I will find another such place wherever I am.

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P.S. Hope to see you on Saturday at our Sweet Sixteen Anniversary and Silent Auction in Alameda!

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