My first day at Contigo

9 May 2007
5:37 PM

I began work this week with an NGO called Fundación Contigo. Contigo, which means “with you” in Spanish, is an organization that works with microcredit and job training to improve people’s quality of life. Microcredit as a formal system is a relatively new development, and it has become more well known in the last several years. In fact last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner was Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh, who won the prize for his application of microcredit in his country.

The concept of microcredit is essentially to loan small sums of money to entrepreneurial individuals or groups who could otherwise not receive loans from banks. These loans allow people to engage in self-employment and run small businesses. It has been especially helpful in developing countries where, for example, lack of $100 in supplies prevents an individual from entering the market. With startup help through microcredit loans, people who couldn’t participate in the economy can.

So far work with Fundación Contigo is very interesting. I went on a couple site visits Tuesday with loan assessors to visit clients and fill out paperwork for new loan requests. Both places were tailor shops, and both women (microcredit is often lauded for allowing women more opportunities) were looking to purchase an extra industrial sewing machine to augment their capacity. One woman manufactured furniture coverings, the other fleece baby outfits (which she said sold like hotcakes at the local market).

My first two projects at the foundation are to redesign the website and research a microfundraising campaign. In the case of the website, I feel up to the task. I’m already developing our strategy to organize and develop the content. For the microfundraising campaign, we’re investigating the possibility of asking a large number of companies (200-300) for a small donation (instead of vice-versa) to further microcredit work. Raúl, the manager of Contigo, says that volunteers should feel that they get to know the organization and how microcredit works during their time there. That’s a great attitude for a volunteer like me interesting in learning about the workings of the system.

According to the Chinese proverb, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Although you might infer that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him fish, both are necessary components of social work; you need to eat today while you learn to fish for tomorrow. It’s dangerous in only seeing one of the two components because it can lead to despair or hopelessness. If you’re always working with people on the ground, solving immediate problems, it’s easy to think the problems will never end, or that society will never change. On the other hand, if you’re always working for structural reform, you can loose touch with the people who need help and lose your motivation for the work in the first place.

Here in Chile I’ve done plenty fish-giving, or help to alleviate the current situation. Last year some of the things were working with girls in the foster home, in the soup kitchen, or visiting the nursing home. I’m still involved in that this year. With the move to Santiago I started working in a meals-on-wheels program run by a Holy Cross brother. Working with Fundación Contigo should be an opportunity to see some work at a higher structural level. Certainly loans serve an immediate need, but there is also some view of more long-term change. I’m looking forward to my Tuesdays and Wednesdays with Contigo.