Not Glamorous, But it’s Life

What you think I’ve been doing for the last month.

What I actually do every day.

After a small break from blogging, I realized I’d better dust off my keyboard, lest I disappoint my faithful readers (hi dad!). The truth is, whether it’s a result of getting close to my 3-month mark, a continually stalled social life, or a focus on work in the office instead of the field, I just haven’t found much to be blog-worthy lately. My biggest recent triumph is that I found a rugby team to play with! Hopefully, I can put together something about rugby in Samoa, which is the only thing that really feels like home here. In the meantime, I thought I would write a little bit about (yawn) work, since I realized it’s a little bit unclear what I do here besides go joy-riding in yellow pick-up trucks, battle mosquitoes, and expend huge amounts of energy grieving over what to eat.

1. Borrower Verifications. These are both thankfully and sadly completed already. BVs, as they are called, require Kiva Fellows to verify that the client information on record is accurate. Sometimes, this means verifying that the client exists/is alive (not always as easy as it sounds), but also includes checking records on loan terms and interviewing clients about personal information and loan use. This is arguably the best and worst item on a Kiva workplan. The best, because going into the field and meeting borrowers is pretty much the coolest thing you can do while working in a foreign country. The worst because, depending on the situation, it can cause many headaches in terms of coordination, tracking people down, and sometimes unearthing things that you don’t want to find out. A completed BV consists of a Kiva Fellow meeting all 10 clients from a random sample provided to them by Kiva.

Luckily, my BVs were fairly straightforward, and didn’t turn up anything too surprising. However, if I could go back and do them again, I think I’d probably set it up a bit differently. Since I wanted to avoid inconveniencing the loan officers, who already work on a very tight schedule, I tagged along with them to their center meetings (weekly meetings in the villages where solidarity groups meet to make repayments and submit loan applications) and conducted the client interviews then. Unfortunately, the trade-off for ease of scheduling means that I didn’t get to visit most of the clients’ businesses.

2. Borrower Profile Posting. Each Kiva borrower has a profile on Kiva’s website, with standard loan information, but also a small narrative about their loan and, hopefully, life. Compiling and posting this information is part of the cost of doing Kiva–as usual, nothing in life is free, so 0% interest doesn’t exactly mean there is zero cost of funds. Obviously, some MFIs have more resources than others available to dedicate towards this task. SPBD falls towards the “others” end of the category, so for years they have relied on automated templates created by previous Kiva Fellows. In theory, it’s great–like a game of mad libs, all they have to do is select certain inputs, and the profile generator spits out some text. In reality, the tool is troublesome, and profiles often get submitted halfway-completed or not making much sense anyway. This creates extra work for the admin staff, who then have to sort everything out once Kiva’s editing staff sends the loan back.

Enter: me. Due to Kiva’s change in policy regarding these automated templates, and the often low quality of profiles produced, my mission was to come up with a new system and convince the loan officers, most of whom are not particularly comfortable speaking English or typing (in any language), that it’s better to switch over to a manual template, where they will interact with the text and actually ‘write’ the profiles. (I say ‘write’ because they are still following a pretty well-laid out template.) Not my easiest battle, but I think I’m slowly winning it! The first batch of ‘handwritten’ profiles is live on the Kiva site now. Some MFIs have amazing life stories detailing clients’ triumphs over life’s difficulties and the history of their businesses–we have to settle for a little less, but that doesn’t mean our clients aren’t every bit as deserving of support!

3. Repayment Reporting. Wow. This has been possibly my biggest battle, partly because it doesn’t involve struggling with people, but with the technological capabilities at SPBD. Kiva’s partners are required to submit repayment reports each month, detailing repayments made by borrowers. This seems pretty simple, given the fact that any micro-lending organization is bound to keep financial records of these transactions. Of course, the reality is never as simple as it should be.

Despite the fact that SPBD’s database allows them to tag clients as Kiva borrowers, it does not have any ability to export that information in any way. In fact, their database is extremely inflexible and pretty easily overwhelmed, so for weeks it seemed like it would be unable to produce anything that was useful to me, at all. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but the impending vision of manually looking up and entering the repayment status of 800 clients spurred me to fight through my fear of the unknown and become a low-level Excel wizard. The solution I found wasn’t pretty, per se, but it beats the pants off of manual look-up and left me with a newfound passion for Excel. Unfortunately, it’s still not a long-term solution for SPBD, but at least I will be able to leave this task in better shape than I found it.

4. SPI Social Audit. As you all know, the goal of microfinance is not simply to provide access to financial services or create opportunities for microenterprise, but to do so with the result of improving people’s lives. Hmm. The question of how to measure social impact has spawned continually evolving discussions in the development community, and while microfinance may have more hard numbers than other development strategies, the answer is no less nuanced. The social impact of their partners is extremely important to Kiva, so a big project for me has been to implement a tool created by an organization dedicated to the exchange of knowledge between microfinance practitioners, CERISE.

This social auditing tool is called the Social Performance Indicators (SPI), and consists of a thorough evaluation of SPBD’s internal processes. Questions are focused on four dimensions: 1) Targeting and Outreach, 2) Products and Services, 3) Benefits to Clients, and 4) Social Responsibility. The answers are scored, and SPBD can use the results to assess whether they are meeting their social goals, set goals for the future, and figure out what steps they can take to meet them. Scores are also entered into an anonymous database, so SPBD can compare their results to peer institutions.

Frankly, the survey is so hefty, it took me several passes through it just to figure out what questions I could answer with the knowledge I’ve gained upon arrival. After that, it’s just been a series of interviewing staff here, and managing the back-and-forth with Kiva HQ as they look through the answers I record. As I said, measure social performance is such a crucial issue in development work, so it’s been very interesting learning about this method and tool for measurement.

5. Gathering media. I admit, this one I have yet to truly tackle, due mostly to my discomfort with the process. Kiva Fellows can be a marketing team’s dream, with access to a veritable bounty of images and raw footage on a daily basis that would otherwise be impossible to obtain or costly to send someone out for. I’m tasked with gathering images of borrowers as well as b-roll that can be used in the future, but also with shooting video and conducting interviews specifically in support of one of  Kiva’s new social performance projects. Given the language barrier and the fact that I haven’t found many clients to be extremely comfortable on camera, I’ve been putting this one off and will have to dive into it this month.

6. Other stuff. The rest of my work plan is pretty much smaller projects that are even less interesting to read about. Suffice it to say, there’s a variety of things ranging from creating a “how to” Kiva manual, to recording information on loan products offered, to just absorbing as much information about SPBD as possible.

Well, it certainly wasn’t the most exciting blog post, but it’s what I spend my days doing. For those of you that slogged all the way through–thanks, and I promise the next post will be more interesting and have way more pictures!

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