Doing Good…Says Who? A book review

Doing Good…Says Who? A book review

It’s rare that a book about international aid and charity reflects Spirit in Action’s core philosophy of partnership and responding to the needs of the community. (In fact, that’s why I’m working on a book of collected essays about the importance of small grants and true partnership. More details to come!)

When I read Doing Good..Says Who? by Connie Newton and Fran Early, I immediately recommended it to all of SIA’s Board members. This book, which came out of interviews with 430 Guatemalans and non-Guatemalan aid workers and volunteers, features stories that clearly demonstrate the importance of listening to community members and trusting local knowledge. I came away more sure than ever that that is the only way to create lasting change. And it’s also an enjoyable, non-technical read!

The book is organized in five chapters, each focusing on a principle that is, “at the heart of guiding good intentions into productive outcomes.” Overall, good intentions are nice, but they are definitely not enough to ensure the desired outcome!

Respect and value people.

The people in poverty described poverty in terms of powerlessness and voicelessness. In a poignant moment in this chapter, a donor marvels at how their project is like a three-legged stool. The donors raise money in the US. A program director in Guatemala runs the organization and communicates with donors. A woman from the area manages the school lunch program site. A sturdy stool. Then the local woman points out that the donor missed the fourth leg of the stool. The stool would not stand without the mothers who are cooking and making the program happen every day. And it is the mothers who know how to face and overcome the challenges on the ground.

Build trust through relationships.

A woman from the US goes to a remote village to establish a clinic. How successful do you think she is going to be on her own? She quickly realizes that she will only be able to provide help if she is ready to learn, respond to local customs, and work on local time. Her focus becomes, “how can I build their trust?”

When medical volunteers come from the US, she makes sure they also understand the important of trust. The trip is not just about North Americans giving to poor people, it was about a relationship of exchange where they all are students as well as teachers.

Building relationships. COMSIP Sharp! Tanya and Boyd met with the leaders of the national COMSIP organization in Malawi's capital city. We met to share our support of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative.

Building relationships. COMSIP Sharp! Tanya and Boyd met with the leaders of the national COMSIP organization in Malawi’s capital city. We met to share our support of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative.

Do “with” rather than “for.”

“Never do for someone what they can do for themselves.” A group of philanthropists want to help people in Guatemala. Once they get there, they realize that they don’t know the first thing about how to invest in real change! There are a lot of potential negative consequences to giving money without understanding the larger systems in play. I love the stories in this chapter as the group makes a tour of several grassroots organizations. They see that the local organizations are able to challenge the inequalities in their system. This will do more in the long-run than a handout that only covers over the inequality.

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Ensure feedback and accountability.
Evaluate every step of the way.

“I wish those human factors could show up on our spreadsheets,” laments an organizer of a microfinance group. They are getting pressure from donors to keep the program numbers growing. And this means that there is no time to really build relationships and establish the mutual accountability that is key to the group-backed loans.

The last two chapters show that checking in, getting honest feedback from workers on the ground (rather than pushing to match an outsider ideal), and constantly reflecting and trying new tactics will ensure a strong and sustainable program. (Read about our SBF coordinator conferences.)

Let’s Discuss!

The book ends with a discussion guide with some thought-provoking questions. For example: “Think about a time when you had a personal experience of someone doing good for you. What worked? What didn’t? What were your feelings?”

The overall take-away is that programs for lasting change are successful when there is dialog, humility, understanding, flexibility, and a true focus on local leadership. (See the example of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative and their locally led micro-loan program.)

I highly recommend the book to you, both in order to understand more clearly the work of our partner organizations and to see the potential pitfalls of only relying on good intentions. I hope, like me, you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation for SIA’s partnership focus. Once you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought!

**Click here to buy the book.

Training youth to run better businesses

Training youth to run better businesses

We know the value of business training from our Small Business Fund program. Grant recipients are trained in marketing, record keeping, risk management, and planning so that they are well prepared to start their small enterprise. This helps them find the right product for the market and make sure their businesses will be profitable.

Seeing the confidence that people have after the training, I am so excited to announce our new partnership with Junior Achievement (JA) to train high schoolers in Malawi to be entrepreneurs! The JA program is being run in 120 countries around the world, including 16 in sub-Saharan Africa. Nick Vilelle saw the “mind-blowing” benefit of the JA Company Program in Swaziland and is eager to introduce it to students in Malawi.

boy makes samosas in uganda

Youth making samoas for his family’s business in Uganda.

Hands-on Learning

The Company Program is a hands-on way of learning business, teamwork, and creative thinking. Approximately 25 students at the high school learn by doing as they form, capitalize, operate and liquidate their own companies over a 12-week period, using real money raised from “shareholders.” JA uses volunteers as teachers, mentors and role models for the students, keeping the cost low and integrating the community into the program. Since it is an extracurricular, after-school program, it attracts students who are motivated to learn and get involved.

The SIA Community Grant will fund implementation of the JA Company Program at five urban and 5 rural schools in southern Malawi. This will reach a total of 250 high school youth! And  will serve as a test case for expanding the program to other parts of Malawi.

Paying-it-Forward

I really appreciate that JA has Sharing the Gift built into its model. To begin with, the majority of the work is done by volunteers from the community. Often, these are accomplished business people, donating their time to help teach the students these important business basics. This is a great example for the students to see.

Second, as a part of forming these mini-companies, the student teams are expected to build Corporate Social Responsibility into their plans. This often takes the form of students volunteering on Saturdays to help out a less fortunate member of their community. “The learning gained from carrying out this part of the program is powerful,” reports Nick, from his experience in Swaziland.

For Sustainable Futures. A business 12 years later.

For Sustainable Futures. A business 12 years later.

This Saturday we will celebrate 20 years of Spirit in Action. Twenty years ago, in February of 1996, Del and Lucile Anderson, twelve Board Members, and Marsha Johnson (as administrative coordinator), met to officially form Spirit in Action in order to “carry on Del’s loving ministry.”

“Spirit in Action. For Sustainable Futures” declares the heading of the recorded minutes from that meeting. Sustainability has always been and continues to be a focus for our grant projects. We want to support programs, schools, businesses, and social movements that will last long after we send a grant.

In Malawi, this goal of long-term impact is a reality. Since 2004, Spirit in Action has supported 122 family/business groups in Manymaula Village through our Small Business Fund and most of those enterprises are still operating today!

Mulla and Mollen with their six grandchildren, in front of their renovated home.

Mulla and Mollen with their six grandchildren, in front of their renovated home.

Twelve years ago, Mulla Tembo and Mollen Mtonga started Mulla’s Livestock Production with a $150 grant. Their lives, and the lives of their six children and six grandchildren, have dramatically improved since receiving this grant and learning to run a business. They raise pigs, goats, and oxen. And they are able to use the oxen to plough their fields, a big luxury in rural Malawi. 

Mulla and Mollen happily report that they are now food secure. This means they have enough maize to last through the hungry season between planting and harvest. They have built a house with tin roofing sheets, replacing the “very poor housing structure” that they had before joining the Small Business Fund program.

Mulla with two of their six cattle in a yoke for ploughing.

Mulla with two of their six cattle in a yoke for ploughing.

Mulla with their plough in the maize field.

Mulla with their plough in the maize field.

Besides the fourteen family members that have benefitted and continue to benefit from this business, the family was one of the first groups to participate in Sharing the Gift. They offered a piglet to Winkly Mahowe. (Read the amazing story of Winkly and the gift of the pig!) Winkly and his family took this pig and used it to improve their lives and livelihoods. They also continue to raise pigs to this day. In 2014, I saw their full chicken coops. That’s another 14+ people who have been positively impacted by that initial grant.

And Winkly also Shared the Gift by giving a piglet to another family. And on and on it goes…

This Saturday, let us really celebrate that Spirit in Action is living up to our founding mission. Stories of Mulla and Mollen, Winkly and his family, and each of the 122 business groups in Manyamula are real proof that Spirit in Action is indeed helping people to realize the dream of a more sustainable (and prosperous) future.

Jane raises chickens and pigs with her husband, Winkly. They have built a new house with the business profits.

Jane raises chickens and pigs with her husband, Winkly. They have built a new house with the business profits.

All the best of Spirit in Action in one report!

All the best of Spirit in Action in one report!

Paying-it-forward, positive change in a high-poverty neighborhood, knowledge sharing, local leadership, and savings group formation – this update from our local coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya highlights so many of the best part of Spirit in Action.

Here is the exciting report directly from Wambui Nguyo:

Spirit in Action still continues to be a beacon of hope for the Korogocho people. With SIA’s help of the Small Business Fund many families continue to experience a different positive lifestyle. Many lives have been transformed, children can go to school, and they can eat better and even dress better.

Korogocho (called Koch for short) has been in the spotlight in the past for many negative aspects. Crime and unemployment rates are high. Basic services and sanitation are scarce. But the beneficiaries of the Small Business Fund have a lot to be thankful for.

There are 27 groups/families in Koch that have been funded by SIA. The first one was in 2013.

Ann, one of the SBF group leaders, prepares food and sells it to workers along the roadside.

Ann, one of the SBF group leaders, prepares food and sells it to workers along the roadside.

Among the 27 groups, two of them are Muslims. Amid the tensions within the faith divisions, the people have found time and place to spend together in prayer.  As Josephine [who is a local leader and who works with Wambui] puts it, “we all understand we come from different backgrounds, that we come from different religions, and from different lifestyle and upbringing. What brings us together is the enormous poverty that we encounter. That brings us together. Poverty bites really hard. We all know we worship the same God. Some call him Allah while we call him God. We usually say the same prayer because we were created by him.”

A plan is underway for Sharing the Gift. The beneficiaries of the Small Business Fund have each contributed and they are hoping to support another group to set up a business of their choice with $150. This will empower another family and also give them a chance to give back to the community.

Unlike in the rural village, where families live in their own piece of land regardless of the poverty level, Koch is different.  Here, families have to rent out houses. Because of rising standard of living, the rent can go up and then families are forced to move to a cheaper house. Luckily, only one group has left Korogocho area because of rising costs.

Chairs arranged for a meeting of the Small Business Fund groups in Koch. The meet at least once a month all together.

Chairs arranged for a meeting of the Small Business Fund groups in Koch. The meet at least once a month all together.

Plans to start a village savings project are underway! A concept note written by Josephine says, “We intend to initiate the Korogocho Women Economic Fund where women from the community can access flexible loan and flexible repayment model to start or expand their businesses. This initiative will be registered with the government and we shall use a model known as the village banking model.”

Canaan Gondwe from Malawi [Small Business Fund local coordinator and leader of his community’s savings and investment cooperative] has that experience and he can be very useful in helping to start it up. He wrote to inspire the team in Koch and said, “now, when people form a village savings team, it acts like a buffer. It cushions the members in times of eventualities. So I encourage you to unite and have one purpose which is economic empowerment.”

Will you be able to attend our 20th Anniversary Celebration on June 25th in Oakland? Click here for more information and RSVP to me at tanya@spiritinaction.org. See you there!

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in ’til I reach the end and then I’ll start again. No I won’t leave, I want to try everything, I want to try even though I could fail.” “Try Everything” by Shakira

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in,” proclaims Shakira in my current favorite you-can-do-it song, “Try Everything.” When we fall down, it usually helps when someone is there to pull us up again. In Malawi, COMSIP cooperatives are strong community organizations whose members pull each other up to the next level and to a better, more stable future.

COMSIP stands for Community Savings and Investment Promotion. It is a national project in Malawi that is more than a bank. From what I witnessed at a gathering of the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, they were like a support group as well as a catalyst for economic growth – giving each other advice and encouragement in their endeavors.

“Our members of the Cooperative are entrepreneurs,” said Canaan Gondwe, leader of the Manyamula COMSIP, and a member of the national COMSIP Union Board. “The mobilized Savings form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of businesses, such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, baking, pre-school and carpentry among others.”

After 3-4 months of saving money from her business, Beauty was able to use the savings as collateral for a larger, low-interest loan from the cooperative. Cooperative members can apply for loans in proportion to their savings shares. Beauty used the loan to buy high-quality feed and medication for her chickens. She knows that the medications are crucial for protecting her investment in the chickens. 

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Beauty with her daughter.

For Grace Banda, a widow, the COMSIP cooperative was just the kind of encouragement she needed to try again. Before joining COMSIP she had taken a loan from one of the traditional micro-finance lenders in Mzimba, the nearest city and 44km away. When an unexpected event caused her to business to flounder, she was unable to pay back the high-interest debt and had to forfeit her collateral.

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Grace in her shop in the Manyamula market.

COMSIP loans are not only low-interest, they also have repayment schedules that are adaptable to the business cycle – with longer terms for farming and cattle rearing. The local COMSIP leaders can work with the members to give them the highest chance of success. Grace’s Kikumala Shop is still going strong, and is a good source of fresh produce in Manyamula.

These are profound ways that COMSIP helps people start again. And the result is that lives are changed. Ninety-five percent of the 150+ cooperative members have improved their housing since joining. Many more can pay medical bills when illnesses arise. Grace Banda can now pay for school for her three children. “Life is continuing to become simple,” she told me with joy and relief in her voice.

This sentiment is echoed in a wonderful article from the World Bank about the successes of COMSIP groups. Gilaselia Denesi, who became responsible for her four grandchildren when her daughter and son-in-law died, shares how joining a COMSIP cooperative in central Malawi has led to positive change in her life. ““Look at me now!” she says. “God be praised, today my grandchildren, are in school, they are not hungry and even I have some time to have tea in my home. Can you imagine that? I am wearing a new dress today and I have some time for tea!””

For more about COMSIP:

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

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