Water, Water, Everywhere
Anyone familiar with Samuel Coleridge’s Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner? In particular the famous lines:
Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink
Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink
For some reason the memory of this poem from school days long gone was resurrected during my first taste of life here in Cotonou. The difference is that here I found myself replacing “water” with “money” as the central theme.
Let me explain. I signed up to be a Kiva Fellow with certain preconceptions about the environments I might be working in: Basic, struggling, deprived, and definitely low economic activity. Not only that, but there would be hundreds (if not thousands!) of Beninese lining the streets clamouring for some capital to start their businesses.
Money, Money, Everywhere
Well, I was in for a shock. You see here in Cotonou, Benin, entrepreneurial activity is RIFE. I mean it’s everywhere – in fact you can get anything, anywhere, anytime. Every street is lined with row after row of street stalls selling food, petrol, electronics, car parts, clothes, furniture, and so on and so on (see photos). The entrepreneurial drive is as inspiring as it is astonishing.Click to view slideshow.
And so it was that, clinging desperately to the back of a moto taxi dodging its way to work on my first day, two thoughts struck me:
- Great, there’s an economy up and coming, this really is encouraging
- But hold on, in a country with such an active micro-enterprise economy, where is the need for Kiva funding? Aren’t our borrowers trying to help the poor?
Well, as I sit here at ALIDe (Kiva’s partner MFI here in Benin) three weeks later I begin to glean some understanding. While accompanying loan officers to visit their clients a whole new side of the city was revealed to me – Well off the beaten economic track, marginalised communities reveal themselves in all their splendid poverty.
And Not A Drop To Drink
We all know these communities since they exist the world over, particularly in major cities: pockets of population struggling for inclusion on the economic ladder. Back home in the UK these certainly exist but we are fortunate to have a social welfare system in place to provide support and opportunities to these, even if it is sometimes found wanting. However in a place where the baseline wealth is already low (Benin ranks 134 out of 169 in the UN Human Development Index, just behind Yemen), a struggling community faces very real dangers on a daily basis, with no place to turn for help.
Where social welfare cannot provide for the needs of the most marginalised, the theory goes that there is hope in self-improvement through economic activity and income – my understanding of the American Dream.
As noble as this theory is, the communities I have visited have no such chance at participation. The barriers to entry to enterprise, although small in dollar value, are monumental to a family barely able to feed itself every day.
Rewriting The Story
A Kiva microloan enables this breakthrough. With mechanisms relying on social collateral rather than material, these people are able to join the thriving economic activity and have a chance to pull themselves out the poverty trap.
In the Ancient Mariner, the ship’s crew dies of thirst despite the abundance of water around them.
Let us hope that microcredit can provide much needed cash to the marginalised communities around the world and stop the needless deaths of the poor, despite the abundance of money around them.