Preconceptions, Misconceptions & Pleasant Surprises: Kiva Fellowship in Beirut
I’m just starting my 3rd week as a Kiva Fellow with Al Majmoua, one of Kiva’s partner MFIs (Micro Finance Institute) in Beirut, Lebanon.
This morning (15th November 2010) I sat down at my desk and discovered that a loan request for $1000, that I had posted onto Kiva’s website last Friday, had gone live & been fully funded over the weekend – by just 2 funders!
I cannot help but feel a little lighter in my seat with a big grin forming on my face, having played the tiniest of roles in linking two lenders, from Dallas & New Orleans in North America, with a painter from the Lebanon who needed to repair his van. A single, wonderful act of solidarity between 3 people, via Kiva and Al Majmoua.
Now obviously, as a long´ish term lender on Kiva myself, I realise that loans are posted & funded in huge numbers, every day, from all over the World – business as usual in the field of micro finance. So all the more surprising to experience such a buzz at reading “This loan has been FULLY FUNDED by 2 lenders!”, in this one particular instance.
However, since coming to Beirut 2 weeks ago, I’ve come to realize that the Kiva Fellowship program can be full of the most unexpected surprises.
As Caroline, another Kiva Fellow in Beirut, wrote (Phoenix from the Rubble), I also had quite a mixed bag of emotions upon discovering that I was set to spend the next 4 months living & working in Beirut. On the one hand, the excitement of being a step closer to working for Kiva and one of their partners abroad, on the other hand, a certain amount of trepidation that it was in an area which elicits quite fraught associations, based on the limited exposure in the international media & consciousness that Lebanon receives, often based solely on the regional conflicts of recent years.
However, a little bit of research revealed that Lebanon had been nominated in the top 10 destinations to visit in 2009, by both the Lonely Planet & New York Times, which went a long way to allaying my initial concerns & those of my friends in the UK.
The reality I have found upon arriving in Lebanon has been even more enlightening, a different “kettle of fish” altogether (or “pot of prawns”, as our Kiva Fellows Program Coordinator, Julie, might say).
From my first night celebrating Halloween in Gymmeze, dancing with numerous Beirutis dressed as Vampires, bloody Mummies & killer Zombies, to the overwhelmingly awesome & beautiful caves of Jeita, I have found numerous sides to the Lebanon that I had never anticipated.
In Lebanon, & even within the city of Beirut itself, there is an amazingly complex racial, religious & political demographic which I can expect to only superficially comprehend, even by the end of my time here 3 and a half months from now. But in the streets, markets, security barricades, cafes, bars, offices & taxis, I have been lucky enough to meet the most friendly, chatty people you can imagine, the ubiquitous “Welcome to Lebanon” being uttered with almost comical frequency.
The city itself seems to be a patchwork of smart new housing & business developments, older French colonial & traditional Arabic architecture, semi derelict buildings pockmarked by bullet & shell holes, hastily rebuilt neighbourhoods with minimal facilities and whatever else I’ve yet to encounter. The sight of which, gives some clues as to the varied & extreme circumstances people have experienced here, in recent & not so recent years.
However, as will be no surprise to most people, other than perhaps those who, like me, have had the luxury of living in countries where stability & security can be largely taken for granted, the country and the people here seem to strive onwards with immense energy & resilience.
The MFI I am working for, Al Majmoua, has gone from strength to strength since it’s inception in 1994 as a Save the Children micro finance program, becoming fully autonomous in 1998. Al Majmoua now has somewhere in the region of 25,000 active clients, maintaining a portfolio of well over $10,000,000 USD with a resolute & dedicated team of 125 employees working in 14 branch offices across Lebanon and their head office in Beirut.
Aside from Al Majmoua’s internationally recognized successes as a micro finance institute, facilitating the inherent entrepreneurial spirit of the people living in Lebanon and their desire to grow, recover & develop both their lives & the country, Al Majmoua performs many more social roles for the communities within which it operates.
Aside from the fashion shows, trade fairs, business development & diagnosis workshops, networking forums, personal development courses and other non financial services Al Majmoua offers, they have also been able to utilise their skills, local knowledge, contacts & facilities to assist with post conflict recovery and emergency response and distribution.
As a result of the 2006 war, 30% of it’s clients had sustained damage to their businesses and/or lives with whole communities facing considerable difficulties. In partnership with international aid organizations & NGOs, Al Majmoua opened 15 safe spaces in the most affected areas to host children for a few hours a day, offering sports, educational & cultural activities helping more than 1,000 children cope with the stress of that summer & the tense atmosphere at home.
Another partnership resulted in Al Majmoua being able to replace equipment for 353 of their micro entrepreneurs who had had their businesses heavily damaged or destroyed. Yet another partnership saw the distribution of emergency kits to the families of 150 clients who had been displaced by the conflict.
During this time, Al Majmoua maintained it’s full repayment policy, rescheduling loans for those most affected and granting grace periods of 1-6 months where necessary. Incredibly, in the year following the conflict, Al Majmoua had managed not only to recover without any external financial assistance or subsidy, but to attain 40% growth, that same year they became a partner MFI with Kiva.
If you would like to support the work of Al Majmoua & their borrowers further, you might like to join the Al Majmoua Lebanese Assoc. for Development lending team, a group of Kiva lenders funding Al Majmoua borrowers.
In fairness, these first couple of weeks as a Kiva Fellow have not been a complete “bed of roses” (or a “sofa of cyclamens”, Julie?). It has taken a lot of energy & resources to move country; finding accommodation was a difficult, protracted & worrying affair; trying to shake Caroline’s colleague by the hand, only to have her jump back a few feet made me feel like a cultural idiot; being a temporary worker in a new organization & trying to get to know a new team can be tricky at the best of times; and the occasional moments doubting my own ability to be a useful addition to the office were quite disheartening.
However, any difficulties have been far outweighed by the innumerable rewards of my fellowship experience thus far. I am working with great people, for a fantastic MFI, on behalf of an inspiring company, in a fascinating & beautiful part of the world. The sun is shining, the kebabs are delicious and the work is always interesting & enlightening.
Getting used to local customs & practices will be a continual learning process and settling into work will come with time, as it invariably does. But as I come to the end of the first day of my third week as a Kiva Fellow, I cannot help but look forward to what is in store in the coming weeks & months, what surprises lie around the corner, what preconceptions will be challenged & what misconceptions will leave me (&/or those around me) laughing, cringing or shaking heads in despair.
If you are even slightly tempted or intrigued by the idea of joining the Kiva Fellowship program, I would highly recommend exploring further.
Josh Richards is a Kiva Fellow in KF13, working with The Lebanese Association for Development – Al Majmoua, in Beirut, Lebanon.