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Thứ Năm, 18 tháng 8, 2011

If my 4 years in university teaches me anything at all, it is "always try to be critical". To be an intellectual means you don't take things at face value, but instead must utter all your strength, mind and effort to maintain a distance from reality and be able to criticize it.

As I work in a start-up social enterprise with like-minded people, young and enthusiastic, it always looks like what we are doing is definitely good, if not amazing. Here are some of the benefits that are cited most often:
- Our unique model can tap in the enormous potential of tourism and bring benefit directly to people who most need it
- But unlike community-based tourism, where local people are trained to provide services, we don't make the people we work with depend on tourism (build restaurants, hotels or home stay program), therefore if tourists ever decide not to come to this particular area anymore, it won't pose any serious problem
- Loans provided to women can help them develop their business at home, and less involve in risky jobs, thus their children can benefit as well
- Tourists can experience the most authentic experience and feel good about themselves for knowing that they have contributed to make a difference, while local people can access credit with a low-interest and avoid the trouble of paperwork they usually deal with when apply for loan in government's banks.

But everything has its two sides, even the best model with the most genuine and altruistic intention. I don't mean to find something to criticize and make myself look smart, but there are some serious concerns that shouldn't be overlooked, even if they are unavoidable

1. The power relation: As a rule of thumb, power stays with those who have money. We (a.k.a a group of foreigners) have the power to decide who get the loan, and who won't. We assess them, ask them questions, look into their house, evaluate their belongings and keep checking on them after the loan has been disbursed. The borrowers are put into a skew relation, where they don't have a say. Of course they can always refuse a loan, but if they desperately want it but someone decides they are not eligible (that "someone" can be anyone participating in the screening process before us, i.e. the Women's union, heads of village or our local partner), they have no power to change that decision.

2. Related point: Exposure. Having strangers walk into their house, ask them intimate questions about their life, their family, their past, their choice, accident, bad luck, mistakes, problems, things they like, hope, want and feel sorry for, demand honest answer from them and record almost everything they say, is quite intimidating sometimes. Even though shyness is usually explained away by the women's little interaction with foreigners, something natural and will go away as they get more used to foreigners, but it's not necessary so. Everyone has something they don't want to talk about, and to expose their poorness, their small house with no furniture, and their pants-less, shoes-less son and paralytic old mother to people they know for sure are much wealthier, and they are very much a source for curiosity as well as sympathy, is certainly not so comfortable.
A crucial part of our work is to take regular updates from borrowers who already get their loans. This keeps the relationship close, and allow us to interfere in time if something goes wrong, but I suppose some borrowers will feel like they are being kept in check, especially as we don't call them beforehand but just drop by. The logic behind is if we call, they may stay home wait for us, while we don't want to bother them or stop them from working. But on the other hand, though no one ever says it, I don't know if some borrowers ever think we appear out of blue so that they can't hide anything from us.

3. Dignity: Some try to negotiate the amount of loan, because frankly, with the crazy inflation rate, 2 million is not enough for any serious investment. We all know that but we can't afford to give out bigger loan at this stage. But some others, when asked, hesitate to tell their problems, because they don't want to look like they are asking us to feel pity for them.

4. Some women are single mothers, but some are with their husbands. We have seen women doing tough labour from morning to evening in the fields while their husbands drink around the village. Our principal is to loan to women only. For single women, it is easier to handle this money. But for married women, we have cases when their husbands interfere with the loan, for example they don't let their wives take it, because they say it is too little, but the worst case is the husband drinks away all the money. And because they are the one who sign the loan contract, the burden again rests on their shoulders.

5. Psychological burden: to be in debt, no matter how small the interest rate and how understanding the lenders are, they still can't be at peace, especially this loan involve local authority guaranteeing on their behalf and again, foreigners. I just imagine it should be much less pressure if they lend the same amount of money from their relatives or friends.

6. To welcome foreigners in their house means they will be the centre of discussion for their neighbours in a long while, because in rural areas everyone knows what happens in everyone else's house. People will gossip about them, or they will even demand a free meal, because the borrowers must have received a handsome amount of money from those rich white people, and they might not believe if these women deny. Vietnamese, especially Vietnamese women have a tendency to avoid attention, and having a big group of guests from different countries to their house do exactly the opposite. You have just brought yourself to the spotlight, lady!

7. After receiving the loan, they will be monitored. Their information is kept on file. Their pictures will be sent to people. Why their daughter has recently dropped out of school, for our genuine interest in helping, they must explain. To get the loan is to be in a commitment, and they may find themselves under control more than they would like to be.

8. Ideally, after finishing the first loan, all borrowers can reinvest with the profit they make and apply for another, higher loan. But many times they spend all the profit made on children's tuition or something more urgent than a reinvestment. With no money on hands, they start from zero again and the whole model fails because a sustainable impact must last longer than three months, and it's only possible if the profit is reinvested and produce bigger profit for the next round. With no surplus, the borrowers get back to the first point and no difference is made.

That's it for now. I will come back and add in more if something else comes later

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