Thursday, August 20, 2009

Community Development with a Splash of Creativity

Here is our very first guest blog of the year, from Mr. Chester Polson! He would like you to know that the song of this blog is “Waterfalls,” by TLC.  I suppose that means you should either a) find it in your itunes library b) sing it aloud or c) change everything he says into waterfall analogies, or d) all of the above.  Enjoy!  

"Buenos días Friends, Family, Strangers, and most importantly donors!


I’m here to mix things up with a guest blog.  I don’t know if you read the daily life blog or check Manna Project International’s website more than I do but I feel like an introduction is probably necessary.  At the very least, it’s good to have a refresher so you don’t have to nod your head and pretend you know me like we're at a party.


I’m Chester Polson, but all of my American friends call me Chet. Everyone here either calls me Chester or Ché (I mostly get Chester). I recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with a double major in Economics and English. One day soon I hope to get a graduate degree in Economics focusing on Developmental or Environmental Economics. I went on two spring break trips with MPI in college, once to Nicaragua and once to Belize under the Manna umbrella. In addition to those Latin American travels, I spent three spring breaks in TijuanaMexico, building houses in high school and have spent a week in HavanaCuba, at an international youth conference. All in all, it’s a pretty good amount of travel for not speaking or studying Spanish.

 Chet is the Guapo in Blue 

I’ll gloss over the “why I’m here” and stick to the “what I’m doing now that I’m here” (though I’ll give you a hint: the why involves wanting to be involved in community development before spending five years pursuing a degree in it). I am (co)in charge of the microfinance and small business classes, (co)in charge of adult English classes, and in charge of children’s art. I also take out the trash around the house and spend my time hunting for change machines in Quito in order to replenish the bus jar. Just Tuesday I spent 3.5 hours heading into Quito and back to get $80 in quarters. This was the first successful attempt in three tries, but I now know where two broken change machines are.


So how are my programs going? Pretty well, so far as I can tell. I’ll start with Microfinance. MPI is partnered with a local cooperative, Esperanza y Progreso del Valle, or EPV. One of Manna’s overall goals here is to strengthen local institutions and that is really the heart of what our microfinance program strives to do. EPV has two offices, one on the first floor of the building our library is in, and one in North Quito, which was recently opened. Sadly, the new office has been a real drain on the coop. It currently has a very high default rate on its loans which has put heavy financial strain on the whole operation. We come in with two major spheres to work in: capacitación and fundraising. We spend some of our time trying to find international organizations that are looking to either loan or gift funds to microfinance programs like EPV. As you can imagine, the current worldwide economic climate makes it difficult to secure this kind of funding, which just means there is always more for Erik and I to look into. However, if any of you readers have suggestions or contacts, please let us know.


Capacitación, or capacity, is the second and probably more important part of how we work with EPV. We work hand in hand with EPV to try and get them better trained (to strengthen their local institution). The old PDs in charge of microfinance spent a lot of last year trying to get them connected to a larger network of microfinance coops in Ecuador as a way to gain access to more working capital and training. Sadly, after much effort, it turned out that this was not a very feasible option. EPV is currently interested in undergoing courses through Swiss credit, which we fully support. Manna has actually agreed to match the cost of the classes up to $1000 dollars to encourage them to actually get the training. We will check back soon to see if they were serious enough about these classes to register.  While it is exciting to be partnered with a legitimate local microfinance coop in the community and I look forward to getting to observe EPV’s work, it is a delicate balance to find what could work and what they are willing to try. There should be a lot of research involved this year.


In addition to the microfinance, Erik and I are also going to try and run a small business class. This is a much more pressing matter, and much more exciting. There is a University, ESPE, Escuela Politecnica Ejercito, or the Military Polytechnic School, close by that has a business centered local outreach called CIDE. CIDE runs small business classes taught by professors free of charge. Dunc was able to organize a class through them with some success, and we are looking to build upon that. We are currently recruiting people who either have university degrees or are actively pursuing university degrees to undergo an intensive two week training (40 hour weeks) at the end of September. At the end of the course, we will be certified to train instructors for the small business classes, which will have huge benefits to us. Last year Dunc coordinated the class, and due the rigorous schedule they demand I hear it was tough to get students. Once Erik and I are trained as instructors, we will be able to offer the classes in the community at a time and pace which is more accessible to anyone who wants to take a small business class. We still need to find some more people who are willing to undergo the initial training, but this is still a really exciting opportunity to bring small business training to the communities we work in.


Haley and I will be running Adult English classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings starting in mid-September. We will start planning for these classes soon. This should be a new experience for me as well, but as teaching Adult English is one of many avenues for human capital development, which I came down here to do, I look forward to it.


My final program is children’s art. I didn’t originally plan on teaching this class, but now that I am, I'm really excited about it. The art program was one of MPI’s more popular and well attended programs last year, but initially none of us current PDs showed much interest in continuing it. Holly explained how art is not offered in schools, and the kids have a lot of problems expressing themselves creatively. During class, there is a lot of copying from neighbors and making projects look exactly like the example (one thing I have been told is to be sure not to leave the example out so they can copy it)But, the kids still love it and Holly said she saw a lot of improvement in expressing themselves creatively during “free art days” in just a few months. I think creativity is another important ingredient in human capital development, and am more than willing to spend some time each week making caterpillars out of egg crates and gluing dried coffee beans to cereal boxes. I also think that making art projects with kids each week will be a nice balance to what might be slower and more tedious work with EPV and Adult English, keeping my spirits high.   


So there’s the latest. A lot of this hasn’t really begun in earnest yet, because everyone in Ecuador is currently on vacation, but I have a lot of exciting opportunities in front of me to pursue in the next year. I’m learning more and more that grassroots community development is a day-by-day, fly by the seat of your pants (and with a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods, mine get looser every day) kind of work, but hopefully my American “plan it and get it done” mentality will be an asset rather than a roadblock to the kind of problems I’m bound to encounter in all of these programs this year.


Tomorrow: probably more pictures of kids from camp!


Until next time, keep reading and supporting us in all the ways you do.





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1 comment:

Craig Smith said...

there was a change machine at plaza del valle mall in triangulo