“Learning is not just academic; it also takes place in your heart”

Scholarship Program

This blog entry is an excerpt of one student’s responses during an interview conducted in August of 2012 with twelve female students in Natik’s Secondary School Scholarship Program. The interview took place in the Puerta Abierta library, a shared space for a community library, preschool and teen meeting room, and was conducted by Anita Smart, Roisin Duffy-Gideon, and Brooke Pike.

Q: Why do you like to go to school?

Mileivy: [Going to school,] we get to spend time with our classmates, we learn a lot from our teachers, and they help us to grow.

Q: Do you enjoy your schoolwork?

Mileivy: Yes. I am studying to be a teacher.  [I have a favorite teacher] and his class is not so formal, but instead more human. We like how he treats us.

Q: Where do you do the service that is required for your scholarship?

Mileivy: [I often do] an hour of service at school or at the mobile library that goes to other classes. Sometimes I come here [to help younger children with homework after school]. I help the children when they need help and help the teachers with what they do.

Q: If you did not have the opportunity to be in high school, what would you be doing instead?

Mileivy: We girls would be working in our homes because we are women and that’s what women do here. That is more or less what our custom is; what a woman does is look after the house.

Q: What does your family think of your studying?

Mileivy: The person who has supported me the most is my mother. Her mother did not want her to continue studying because she was a woman. My mother has always supported me. My father does not support me much because he says that there is not enough money [to pay for school]. My grandparents do not support my education either. I’ve always had motivation to study. Initially, I wanted to choose another track, but I like studying this teaching because working with children is wonderful. They are so caring.

Q: Have any of your family members finished high school?

Mileivy: My aunt did finish. I think two of my cousins have. On my father’s side, though, no one has.

Q: What do you do if you cannot figure out your homework? Who can you ask for help?

Mileivy: When we come here, the teachers help us.

Q: What do you do outside of school?

Mileivy: We work in the house. Embroidery is a lot of work, though, and it’s not well paid.

Q: How do you feel when you come here to the library to help the younger students?

Mileivy: Wonderful, because a child needs motivation and support to understand. It’s good to help them so that they begin to feel like they can do things on their own.

Q: Do you remember your first day of school?

Mileivy: I always wanted to study in the school, ever since I was little. [When I first went to primary school,] I wanted to go, but I didn’t know anyone so I got scared and started to cry. I liked school, but I remember my first good friend was a little rebellious and I was much more calm. She was very shy, and we were very similar, but we told a lot of jokes.

Q: What would you say to someone funding the scholarship program?

Mileivy: I would tell someone that studying is very important for me. In my personal life it has served as motivation because there are a lot of problems in my home and studying has given me a distraction. I can have fun with my friends at school. It is motivation for me. I worry a lot about my younger siblings; I want someone to support them. I don’t want them to lack education and become negative people. Learning is not just academic; it also takes place in your heart. Our teacher Mario tells us, if you are very worried because of your problems, but your problems have solutions, stop worrying!

Some parents don’t let their children study because they think it is a waste of time when they could be working instead. Parents also need to be convinced that studying is good. They have to look at their own situation and see that they are not doing very well, their jobs do not pay well, they have to travel a long way to work and only get paid a little. They have to look at how the situation really is. [Studying] costs a little at first, but later someone who studies can get a better job.

Microfinance 101

Grupo Diaz


Roisin Duffy-Gideon worked as a Natik Fellow in Chiapas, Mexico from August 2012 to May 2013. A few weeks ago, she officially joined the Natik Board of Directors. Here, she reports on Natik’s experiences with microfinance and outlines some of the primary issues facing the sector.

Over the past year, Natik’s partner program, Veredas, has engaged in some critical reflection about microfinance. As public opinion on microlending has become increasingly polarized in the past few years, it’s important to us that we learn as much as possible from reports and studies as well as from our loan recipients and other loan organizations.

First, a little history

Microcredit has had an interesting path, especially in the last few decades. Muhammad Yunus is credited with inventing microfinance when he founded Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1976 (in reality, this type of lending has happened at various points in history and cannot necessarily be pinned down to such a recent start date). Grameen was hailed as a remarkable innovation in that it allowed women to take out small loans without collateral by participating in solidarity groups—circles of other women who held each other accountable for paying back their loans. For the first time, it seemed, people unable to offer any sort of collateral could have access to small loans that would help them begin small, productive businesses.

Microfinance boomed in the intervening decades, but has suffered a few significant scandals in the past few years. In 2009-2010, microfinance clients in Nicaragua simply refused to pay back their loans, fed up with the extortionate interest rates and harassment from loan officers. Then in the fall of 2010, microfinance reached a point of crisis in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh when several loan clients were found to have committed suicide as a result of over-indebtedness.

So what are the primary issues?

Most criticism of microfinance can be grouped broadly into two categories. The first category includes critiques of the implementation of microfinance programs:

  • Conflicts of interest within loan funds and microfinance institutions (MFIs) lead to a lack of transparency
  • MFIs are often overly focused on profitability
  • MFIs become too big and lose their ability to track clients
  • Poorly trained loan officers harass clients
  • Participants borrow from multiple MFIs, using each loan to pay back another

The second category includes critiques that are more philosophical and fundamental:

  • The concept of microfinance itself can never reduce poverty or effectively empower women or families in the long run
  • Microfinance places the onus of development and prosperity on individuals, relieving the state of its responsibility for the welfare of its citizens
  • The expectation that every poor person should become an entrepreneur is unrealistic

Keeping in mind all the difficulties that the microfinance sector has seen, and acknowledging that some criticism of microfinance is nearly impossible to prove or disprove in the short term, Veredas has tried to focus on how to serve its clients best. While working in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Veredas participants and staff have encountered numerous other MFIs, many of which are larger and provide much bigger loans at very high interest rates. At the Grameen Bank branches in San Cristóbal, for example, clients take out minimum first loans of 7,000-10,000 pesos (approximately $558.00 to $797.00). In contrast, Veredas rarely lends out more than 4,000 pesos ($319.00) to an entire loan group of four to ten women.

Over the course of the past year, Veredas has renewed its commitment to providing small loans at symbolic interests rates. Veredas also focuses on encouraging an attitude of community collaboration among loan participants by facilitating initiatives that emerge from the groups, including homework help for young students, donations of books and didactic materials for a study area, and other activities that directly benefit participants, such as low-smoke stoves and product marketing support.

Perhaps most importantly, we believe that by maintaining strong relationships with all the women to whom we lend, we can understand their economic situations a little better, allowing us to make sure they are not over-indebted, track the progress of their business, and provide them with flexibility in terms of their repayment schedules and interest rates.

To read more about the founding and fundamental philosophy of Veredas, read our blog post here. To hear from a Veredas loan recipient on her own experience with microlending, see our blog post here.

What do you think? Leave us a comment with ideas of how we can make microfinance successful and beneficial for our loan recipients. Is this an impossible task? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Recommended reading:

Hugh Sinclair’s 2012 book, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. While Sinclair is deeply disappointed with the performance of the microfinance sector, he does point to particular MFIs and their clients who seem to be successful in helping to eradicate poverty, gradually and conscientiously.

If you’re interested in learning more about microfinance in general, Innovations for Poverty Action has done extensive research on its impact in many different regions of the world. Review their past and current studies on microfinance here.



Puerta Abierta

AmandaAmanda Flayer is the co-founder and director of one of Natik’s partner programs, La Puerta Abierta (Open Door) Children’s Learning Center and Library in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, which opened in 2006. She also serves on the Natik Board of DirectorsRead her recent blog post below, and feel free to check out her blog here.

I am inspired by the network of supporters that we have created around the world.  Throughout the past seven years, the story of La Puerta Abierta, the first community  children’s library in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala,  has reached people near and far. Three years ago I was blessed to cross paths with Carol Hodges, a librarian from Tidewater Community College who by chance, stumbled across La Puerta Abierta while touring Central America. She was moved by our efforts to share literacy and creative learning with the youth of our community and was instrumental in creating a sister library relationship betweenTCC and BPA. Over the years, Carol has collected and donated meaningful and quality children’s books to our library collection.

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Last year Carol connected with Kole Matheson, an instructor at TCC, who was impressed by our commitment to youth and was guided by compassion to help our center as well. Kole and his wife Andrea organized a supply drive in 2012 collecting and delivering duffle bags packed with educational games, school materials and books for our community.

This year,  Andrea’s thirteen year old daughter Julianna, who participates in the Teen Leaders Club at the Great Bridge/Hickory YMCA, shared the vision of La Puerta Abierta with her local youth group and inspired the teen community to donate to our center whole-heartedly.  Donation boxes quickly filled with glue sticks, glitter, pencils, stickers and paint destined for the children of Santiago Atitlan.

Thank you Carol, Kole, Andrea, TCC and the Great Bridge/Hickory YMCA for spreading the story of La Puerta Abierta throughout your community and for sharing your kindness with the children of Santiago Atitlan.

As I reflect on the  trail of support that has been created by one serendipitous encounter with Carol three years ago, I am reminded that La Puerta Abierta truly is a community endeavor, a project that supports the community of Santiago Atitlan and a project that is supported by communities who believe in our work. I am also reminded of the power of one…one person, one story, can make a big difference!

Relationships of Trust – Microlending in Chiapas


MicaelaMicaela Alvarez Perez is the co-founder and supervisor of the Veredas micro loan program. She has a masters degree in social anthropology and has been working in sustainable development in Mexico and Guatemala since 1983. She is currently a professor at the Intercultural University in San Cristobal. Her special interest is gender and the role of women in development.

The microcredit initiative with Natik partner Veredas began in 2010. Our starting point was groups of women with whom I already had a relationship of trust. All of the groups worked in the traditional sector and created products based on corn, natural remedies, and textile artisan crafts. The loans were facilitated as a revolving fund with a symbolic 2-3% total interest divided into smaller payments over the life of the loan. The timing of repayment is decided by the groups; usually between 6-12 months. Occasionally there is a delay in repayment and the agreement is that the women inform us the reason why. Diminished sales, a sickness, death, or other personal reasons are among the reasons for delayed payments. We do not charge late fees for tardy payments.

Although we have named this initiative “microcredit,” I consider it more of a revolving solidarity fund, since up to now the interest feeds back into the initial loan fund. My understanding of this project is that it is about circulating an available fund that would benefit women in situations of poverty who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Until now, the loans to women’s groups have been returned 100%. Only one loan to a program that works with street children was not repaid. We understand that the circumstances that resulted in the failure of the enterprise were beyond the control of the participants and assume the loss of the non-payment without demanding payment or penalties.

The artisans are thrilled about the move toward offering their items for sale on the internet. I see this as being an important step in the journey toward the economic empowerment of women whose lives are defined by the constraints of little formal education and limited access to the highly competitive economic sector.

In the 1990’s I lived in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, and worked on issues of education and health with a group of “returned” women and children; those who had been refugees in México and had returned to Guatemala. This experience allowed me to understand that the social, cultural and economic issues of marginalized communities do not stop at the border between countries.

I arrived in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas in September of 1999, when I had contact with women who produced and worked with traditional herbal remedies and indigenous women artisans who had been expelled from their communities for religious-political reasons. In 2000, I wrote my master’s thesis on the experience of microfinance associated with the normal everyday tasks of the indigenous artisans, and thus began my theoretical reflections about gender issues. That year I participated in workshops between indigenous and mestiza (mixed blood) women, reflecting on the theme of women’s rights and the different ways of perceiving those rights based on the cosmovision of each of these cultures.

From 2001 through 2003, I belonged to a collective of civil organizations in Chiapas (NGO’s) that promoted the design, quality control and commercialization of women’s artisan products. Between 2003 and 2006 I explored themes of human development and leadership of indigenous women in the urban areas through participation in a project that was financed by the government of Chiapas and the Agency of Cooperation of Japan (JICA). I see [my participation in] the Veredas revolving solidarity fund as being a way to weave a meaningful pattern into the different experiences of my life.