By Sloane Berrent, KF8, Ahon sa Hirap, Inc, Philippines

A Center Meeting in San Jose, Antique, Philippines.

A Center Meeting in San Jose, Antique, Philippines.

“How has Ahon sa Hirap, Inc.” (ASHI and my host microfinance institution) “being here in your barangay or in your town helped your community?” I ask the women from ASHI during each Center meeting that I attend. There are a few variations on this question. I ask how their lives have changed and what the Center means to them.

“My husband had a stroke and couldn’t work anymore. I worked as a domestic in town and had to travel very far every day for not a lot of money. I joined ASHI 7 years ago to start a buy and sell fish business so that I could stay closer to home to take care of my husband and help my children.”

“After my husband died, I was so lonely. My children are all grown up and out of the house. I was sad. I joined ASHI 13 years ago and now my life is so different. I laugh. I come here every week to see my friends.”

“My house was very bad and made from old bamboo. When typhoon season came, my family had to run to our neighbors because we were scared our house would collapse. With my ASHI loan, I was able to move my Sari Sari store to a busier corner where workers pass by on their way to the fields. I open at 4AM and close at 8PM but am very happy. Now 10 years later, we now have a house made of stone and we don’t run from the typhoons anymore.”

But has it changed MORE than that? What about an entire town?

I had heard that seeing microfinance in action could be like watching grass grow. So gradual, so slow. How could I say that there is indeed a larger change in the landscape of where microfinance sets up shop?

I turned to the ASHI staff. It was a Saturday night and we were going to go out to dinner together. The two Kiva Coordinators asked me if we could stop in the new local mall that opened so that could grab a few things.

“Sure,” I said. No problem.

We walked to the end of the drive and hopped into a tricycle and took off towards the mall. There was light traffic, the road wasn’t too bumpy, we arrived to throngs of people gathering outside the mall, in the entrance, more teenagers and families gathered.

“This has been huge for our town,” the one Kiva Coordinator said.

As we walked around the mall, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I get at a lot of the malls here in the Philippines (which seem to be everywhere and just about swallow up whole towns). It’s too much stuff, too much temptation, too much emphasis on buying and consumerism and it leaves me feeling slightly uneasy. Like how can a country be expected to rise out of poverty when they are spending their hard-earned dollars on things?

And it’s true, that the emphasis can be on the wrong things. But in talking with the Kiva Coordinators, I learned something else.

10 years ago the roads in this town weren’t all paved and it was hard to find a job and there was only one mall but it was farther out of town and slightly run down. ASHI has been in the Antique region for 14 years and the makeup of entire villages has changed. People now have money to feed their families and many of the borrowers are success stories. With disposable income comes influence, namely politcal influence, especially in a country with such economic disparity as the Philippines. Money flowing in and out of San Jose, Antique, gave the town some leverage to fix up their streets and road conditions, open more stores, have more commerce and finally – just this past June – open a second brand-new mall right in town.

Is it potentially dangerous to have another place to shop and spend their limited income? Yes, I really believe that is a huge threat to rising out of poverty for many here. At the same time, building this mall was job creation. Employing staff and security guards in all the stores in job creation, and steady employment and economic development.

Lastly let me say that they are damn proud of their new mall, a status symbol for this once sleepy drive-through town. There are many steps and layers to breaking the poverty cycle, but surely a sign of real progress can be found here in San Jose, when a road is paved and a mall opens.

Sloane Berrent, KF8, is currently serving her placement with Ahon sa Hirap (ASHI) in the Philippines and falling more and more in love with the Filipino culture every day. When online, you can find her promoting Kiva on Twitter and writing about the cause-filled life on her blog, The Causemopolitan.

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