The focus of my work during my first seven months in Colombia has revolved around the locally based non-profit, La Olla Milagrosa (‘the Miraculous Pot Foundation’) – connecting it to the Miami-based micro-loan organization TCP Global, developing and teaching a series of small-business training sessions aimed at entrepreneurs who are single mothers, and coordinating twelve local accounting students as advisors to the project.
Context: Peace Corps Approach to Development and the Colombian Financial System
The feel-good, ‘humanitarian’ aid that Western countries gave to poor countries in the second half of the twentieth century came under intense scrutiny in the academic and international development community in the early twenty-first century – instead of alleviating poverty, charities, NGOs, and governments in fact have created a dependency cycle. Peace Corps is no less guilty of this. However, Peace Corps has altered its approach in the past twenty years to concentrate on sustainability and building local capacity rather than creating a necessity in the communities in which the international development agency operates. The particular academic methodology which Peace Corps Colombia Volunteers are taught is Asset-Based Community Development (‘ABCD’). ABCD defines itself in opposition to the ‘needs-based approach’ to community development which, while well-intentioned, only identifies problems and treats community members more like deprived customers than empowered human beings. Thus, ABCD focuses on identifying resources, strengths, and abilities (i.e. assets) then amplifying them to solve issues.
Colombian people are highly under-banked when compared to Americans. We U.S. citizens are used to financial services industry penetrating every aspect of our lives, having banks/ATMs on every corner, and using digital payments far more frequently than cash. Case in point: I went to high school in Chatham, Illinois, population of 12,000, which has five banks, numerous ATMs, and almost every business accepts credit/debit card. I did my pre-service training in Polonuevo, Atlantico, Colombia which is identical in size to Chatham yet did not have a single bank nor ATM, and not one business accepted plastic. There are many reasons for this including wealth and security differences, but the contrast is stark. Adding to Colombian’s difficulty with financial institutions are high interest rates – the Colombian central bank target rate is 7.25% in order to combat rampant inflation while the U.S. Federal Reserve’s is 1%. High interest rates and lack of access creates an enormous market for Colombia’s notorious ‘pagadiarios’, or illegal loan sharks, which charge ~20% monthly interest (700%+ annually!) with required daily payments.
Fundación La Olla Milagrosa
Upon my arrival in Fundación on November 5, 2016, I began to identify assets in the community. By late December, I had met several locally based NGOs, and I learned their histories, priorities, and challenges. The energy and desire to help others in these non-profits are strengths of Fundación over other municipalities. However, the groups I met displayed the textbook definition of a ‘needs based approach to development’. They were strictly focused on handouts (i.e. gifts at Christmas time, meals on Sundays) in low-resource neighborhoods. Moreover, despite ostensibly wanting to help vulnerable populations, several of these non-profit leaders were more focused on raising their own respective profiles in the community for political purposes.
I first met Yasmila Altamar, founder and director of Fundación La Olla Milagrosa (‘Miraculous Pot Foundation’), in early December 2016 through a mutual friend and community leader, Joaquin Villa. Yasmila is a 46 year old single mother and successful entrepreneur running a distribution and warehousing business which supplies ‘tiendas’ (small corner stores) with typical food and household items. In 2014 while on a community service trip with her church Yasmila first went to the neighborhood ‘1 de mayo’, a very low-income neighborhood in Fundacion’s southwest corner. Yasmila was deeply saddened by the hunger she saw the children suffering there. In her own words, “tuve que hacer algo” (“I had to do something”). In 2015, despite her busy schedule, Yasmila founded the Olla Milagrosa, purchased a piece of land in the neighborhood, and built a small event area where she, family members, and community-oriented friends hosted events for children, cooked meals on Sundays, and led prayer services.
Yasmila readily admitted that she had no real non-profit management background and that her NGO was not developing sustainable change through its activities. However, she wanted to do something to amplify the Olla and take it to the next level.
TCP Global is a micro-finance program which provides small sums of money to locally based and led NGOs which is to be distributed to small businesses as low-interest loans. There is no risk to the local NGO, and it is eligible to keep earnings for its already established community projects. TCP defines its ideal organizational partner as one that is committed to serving an underserved/marginalized community where there are few resources and where there is an existing informal economy – a community largely beyond the reach of many services as well as regulations, where the people are too often on their own. TCP is led by Helene Dudley, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who served in Barranquilla, Colombia from 1968-1970 and the majority of TCP’s board members are former Peace Corps Volunteers.
Formando Líderes Empresariales (‘Forming/Educating Business Leaders’)
With Yasmila’s desire and connections in the community, I thought a partnership with TCP Global, could be a great way to shift the Olla to an ABCD paradigm while helping small business owners in Fundación. I facilitated contact between Helene and the Olla which ultimately led the Olla Milagrosa signing an agreement with TCP Global on April 6, 2017 which will lead to a $1,500 (USD) micro-loan pool. This pool will create 10-15 loans of $100,000-$500,000 Colombian Pesos (i.e. $30 – $160 USD) at rates of 3% monthly starting in July. As a requisite for obtaining a loan, the business owner must complete the Olla’s business training program that I developed which covers topics ranging from entrepreneurial attitudes to SWOT analyses to marketing to accounting to budgeting.
A different aspect of my work is with SENA and its program within high schools which is sort of an additional class offered to 10th and 11th graders. The program is the equivalent of an American high school student taking an additional community college courses while finishing high school at the same time. As SENA has a large focus on employment and practical experience, each student is required to do a lengthy internship. I work with a group of twelve 11th graders in SENA’s technical accounting degree within the high school ‘Tercera Mixta’. I learned that it is highly difficult for students to find and to complete meaningful practicum projects, and as a result only three students graduated from Tercera Mixta with the SENA degree in 2016. This is significant because, given the region’s lack of a university, many of these lower-to-middle income young adults’ only opportunity for some sort of higher education is through this program. After many meetings with the students, teachers, and principals, I helped them obtain internships with the Olla Milagrosa as business advisors.
From May 10 to 24, 2017, the Olla Milagrosa conducted ten training sessions for small business owners who primarily sell food products in Fundacion’s bustling open-air market. The SENA students attended all the sessions, and then helped the business owners to write and to present their business plans during the graduation ceremony on May 31. The business plans consisted of Mission/Vision statements, histories of the business, competitive analysis, target markets, marketing strategies, administrative plans, and budgets. A large part of my job as the primary teacher of the classes was convincing the participants not to be intimidated by the esoteric business terms; they are savvy business owners who already have implemented a majority of these strategies.
The ceremony on May 31 is definitively the highlight of my Peace Corps experience thus far. Ten small business owners (nine women and one man) presented business plans and graduated from the course with their 11th grade accounting student partners. Video and photos of the event and training sessions are available at the link below.
None of these entrepreneurs have bank accounts and all have past experience with ‘pagadiarios’ (the loan sharks charging 20% monthly interest mentioned above). These businesses are in the process of applying for a micro-credit from the Olla as the Olla waits for the $1,500 to clear the numerous anti-money laundering hurdles involved in sending money from the U.S. to Colombia. The goal is to distribute the loans on July 1 with the students continuing to advise the small businesses, especially on accounting principles. More and larger business administration classes are in the pipeline for July with grander plans of forming new businesses in the impoverished neighborhood that Yasmila has her locale using the earnings from the micro-loans. The partnership of the Olla Milagrosa, Peace Corps, TCP Global, SENA, and the Tercera Mixta high school is just beginning.
Further reading on the unintended consequences of Western countries’ humanitarian aid and hand-out based charity: