Having spent two months in Bluefields, Nicaragua now, I have been struck by the near absence of two characteristics common in impoverished areas: illiteracy and child labor.  This statement is based purely on my own observation.  Unfortunately very little statistical data exists for this region.  Nevertheless, what I have seen here in terms of these two particular, yet intimately related, challenges to development is one of very few things that gives me hope and even a little optimism for future development here.

When interviewing recipients of Kiva loans, I often ask the client how many years of schooling they have had.  If they have had very little, I follow up by asking if they can read and write.  In my first placement as a Kiva Fellow in Guatemala, less than half of clients I interviewed were literate.  It was not uncommon to see loan documents full of fingerprints instead of written signatures, as many clients could not even write their own names.  Yet in Bluefields, far more isolated and with far fewer opportunities in many respects, only one client out of the dozens I have interviewed has been illiterate.  And despite the fact that he cannot read or write, he worked diligently with his wife to make sure he would be able to sign his name on the loan documents.

As I realized more and more that ADEPHCA’s (Kiva’s field partner in Bluefields) clients are nearly all literate, I began pondering why that might be.  ADEPHCA does not currently provide loans to start up new businesses, only lending to those that already have a business. So perhaps this requirement rules out the truly poorest of the poor, which are more likely to be illiterate.  Nevertheless, I still got a general feeling that literacy is more common than one might expect in an area as underdeveloped as this.  The Nicaraguan government has had several waves of literacy campaigns, starting in the early 1980s and off-and-on up to the present.  These campaigns have been declared a great success, though some question the reliability of the related statistics that have been published.  Hard data aside, I have observed two specific signs that reinforce my belief that literacy is surprisingly high here. 

For one, there is virtually no child labor here.  Nicaragua is now the fifth Latin American country I have lived in, and I have traveled in many other developing countries in Latin America and other parts of the world.   In all of them, I have seen children working all hours of the day and night, selling local handicrafts, fruits and vegetables, washing windshields, juggling on street corners…  Families often do not have the small amounts of money needed to pay school registration fees and buy uniforms and school supplies.  Instead of going to school, children are needed to help contribute to the family expenses and spend their days in whatever income generating task they have access to.  The cycle of illiteracy persists. 

Yet when I ask ADEPHCA’s clients if their children are in school, I have been told “yes” every time.  And as I walk the streets of Bluefields on weekdays, nearly all of the school-aged children I see are in neatly pressed uniforms and carrying backpacks. 

Kids walking to school in Bluefields

My second source of optimism is very anecdotal, but interesting nevertheless.  I currently live with a Nicaraguan family.  I have a “little sister” here that is in her last year of high school.  Before she can graduate, she is required to spend at least 30 hours tutoring an illiterate person in the community.  I’m still not entirely clear on the details of how she is supposed to find this person or if she is given any sort of guidance as to how best teach literacy.  Nevertheless, the fact that this is a requirement for all students before they can graduate from high school is a quite remarkable indication that Nicaragua cares about literacy and aims to do something about it. 

So while I still don’t know if the fact that nearly all ADEPHCA clients are literate is a reflection of successful literacy campaigns and an understanding of the importance of literacy or if it’s because they are not currently lending to the poorest and illiterate portion of the population.  What I do know, though, is that nearly all children that I have seen in the area are in school.  Furthermore, these children are required to promote literacy among others as part of their school requirements.  These two very basic facts give me hope that the region is making important strides in the right direction to combat poverty and improve quality of life.  And as the general population becomes increasingly educated, microfinance can be increasingly instrumental in providing opportunities for the poor to channel their higher level of education into productive, income-generating businesses.

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