Melvin Yeo reports on his trip to Honduras with Global Brigades
In February, Pi Travel gathered opinions on ‘voluntourism’ from students. The general opinion was that such projects can be helpful under certain conditions and caveats. However, this author commented that the projects more often than not they turned into an ‘exercise to massage the developed world’s egos’.
Well, I am willing to eat my slice of humble pie after a week in Honduras that debunked many preconceptions of volunteering. First things first, Honduras is known for being the world’s murder capital and most of its population still live in rural communities surviving on the most basic necessities. I was in a Microfinance brigade to promote the take up of loans and savings accounts by the community bank.
After the initial feel-good wave of Microfinance in its early days, its reputation has been somewhat tarnished by stories of exploitative interest rates. Furthermore, most of the loans were used for consumption that led to spiralling debts for families. In our case, steps were taken to prevent these pitfalls. The community bank is fully owned by the members to prevent profiteering and loans are only used for increasing production during the harvesting season. These loans serve to increase profits and income to improve their standard of living.
Global Brigades advocates a holistic development model to allow the organisation to exit the community in a sustainable fashion. Medical brigades will first address the most urgent needs of the community to gain its trust. Other brigades will proceed to build infrastructure such as sanitation and water systems to improve the community’s living conditions. Finally, the Microfinance team focuses on the long term development of the community by providing loans and fostering a culture of savings for education.
Each brigade has to decide on how to allocate a portion of our programme contribution. To signal our commitment to sustainable development, we came to a consensus to subsidise the membership fee for joining the community bank as a way to encourage new members. Also, we pledged to match 25% of any new savings to nudge the people towards taking the first step.
The main reason why the project was successful and will continue to be is down to a group of incredibly passionate permanent staff. They are the ones who will continue working the ground long after our one week stint.
One of them came from an even poorer community and his is a truly inspiring story. After his parents saved whatever they had for his adolescent education, he worked his way to obtain a scholarship to study at Kentucky State. Now he is using the skills he had learnt to give back to the community. These people know the situations within communities intimately and are in a position to give pertinent advice on the feasibility of our ideas.
I was humbled by the experience as I was able to learn so much from them and the community members along the way. There is certainly no panacea to development and the only way to make meaningful progress is to adopt a ‘discuss, not discourse’ method. We listened to what the members had to say and made recommendations accordingly.
Granted, not all community projects may be as well-run. But Global Brigades have outlined what is necessary for one to succeed even though the process is likely to be arduous and the progress intangible. As a group of student volunteers, we were able to maximise our impact by working closely together with the local staff. The end game is for communities to be self-reliant by giving them the necessary tools to succeed. One such community in Honduras has begun to export coffee beans by making use of loans from Microfinance. The next time you drink coffee, have a look at its origin. It may be the result of a ‘voluntourism’ success story.
All image credits: Melvin Yeo