Lessons from a Cowboy Town: the Importance of Good Institutions
There is a saying here in the cowboy state of Olancho: “Come if you want, get out if you can.” The phrase, I believe, originates from two primary facts: 1. Olancho is quite removed from anywhere else in Honduras, and 2. Olancho has, unfortunately, become known in the last few years as a place for violent family feuds and deadly drug crimes.
For me, however, the saying (thankfully!) has garnered a different meaning all together. Juticalpa (the capital of Olancho) is a place I never would have visited had I not been a Kiva Fellow. In fact, I’d been to Honduras twice before and didn’t make it within 100 miles of here. I have yet to meet a single tourist who’s even heard of it. For me, the journey has been a chance to see the “real” Honduras. I’ve gotten an inside glance into Honduras’s education system (one high school has no set schedule and the school year appears to end on a mystery date that no one knows). I’ve been to a birthday party hosted by the governor with seven different types of fried meat and plantain products. I’ve been on at least 3 broken down busses. I’ve drifted off to sleep to the sound of gunshots more times that I would like to admit. I’ve been infuriated by the slow pace of Honduran life and the seemingly illogical business practices almost daily. I mean, who doesn’t post regular hours on their store or have a working telephone? What sort of place charges you twice the original estimate just to wash a bathmat? How come “hot donuts” man does such good business at crime scenes? (Seriously, as most incidents draw a large crowd, street vendors make some major sales.) Finally, why does no one ever carry change? Ever? Even the large hotels?
The upshot to this is that I’ve gotten really good at taking deep breaths and counting backwards from ten. And I’ve seen what small town Central America is truly like. Working at FAMA has afforded a rare and wonderful opportunity to peek into lives that your average American is hardly aware of. Aside from the trivial frustrations mentioned above (which, of course, only serve to build character) life in Juti has been more fun and more interesting than I ever expected. As the phrase predicts, it will be hard, and sad, to leave in a few days.
Working at FAMA has taught me lessons that I never anticipated. I have become aggressive to get the Kiva agenda on the table. I have worked to start a cultural shift to get loan officers on board with Kiva loans. I have developed a much more profound understanding of development—of where microfinance is valuable and where it fails. Although many Fellows come away from their experience taken with borrower interactions, I find myself far more interested in how institutions in Honduras work (or more often, don’t). FAMA is a rare example of an organization that is professional, hard working and has a proven track record of success in a country that is known for violence (they experienced a coup just last year), corruption (don’t even get me started here) and a lack of systems to support its population (for instance troubled health and education systems). After having witnessed what I am sure is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of problems a country can experience, FAMA gives me hope. It is living, breathing proof that despite the factors set against it, an institution can triumph–or at least do a lot of good–in a place that can certainly use the help.
I’ll miss you Olancho! (Assuming I manage to actually make it out of here….)
Betsy McCormick is pumped to be extending her fellowship and will be moving to Medellin, Colombia in early November.