Posted by: Sanette | July 20, 2010

Part III: Understanding Our Place

Note: As my internship in Guatemala comes to a close, I would like to use my final blog post to reflect on the Social Entrepreneur Corps program and analyze the work in the field. The post will consist of a background piece and three parts. Thanks for reading!

The Big Picture

I realize that many of the challenges I faced are inevitable in this line of micro work. University of Connecticut senior Komal Sandhu, one of my teammates, said she needed to take a step back from the intricate details in order to see the larger impact we made.

“The hardest thing for me was losing track of the effectiveness of what is actually going on in the campaigns,” she said. “You are so busy keeping track of how many glasses are being sold, how many people are waiting for an exam. Everything seems so trivial at the time, and it seems like you’re not really making a difference, but we are.”

At the end of the day, the asesores earned a profit and people have valuable products. Over the course of 16 campaigns, 70 asesores administered 1,234 eye exams, sold 1,540 products and earned 14,807.50 quetzales—$1,850.94. The women earned $7.25 per hour in a country where the minimum wage is $0.88 per hour. In Guatemala, a machismo society, that impact is huge for women entrepreneurs and for rural consumers.

“Overall, we are getting products to people who need them,” said Brooke Prouty, a junior at Miami University. “I don’t think it’s going to change the world, and we didn’t change their entire lives, but maybe we changed a piece of it.”

Question of Choice

If I could return to Ciudad Vieja and offer direct relief once more, I don’t think I would have quite the same uneasy feelings upon leaving. Back in May, I pitied the residents like no other. I was fairly certain that their lives would be permanently changed for the worse.

In my journalistic mind, I wished the tumultuous conditions of Ciudad Vieja would be deemed “sexy” news and hoped for influxes of services and help. After all, without us, without the gringos, could the people manage?

By the end of the summer, I finally realized that while the relief would be good and welcome, the residents can manage both with us and without us. As of now, the most I can do is invest and trust in this country.

The key word of this summer was “access,” creating awareness and providing opportunities for Guatemalans as the method of assistance. But another word I would use to describe my work this summer is “choice.” In the end, the choice of how to sell the products belongs to the asesores. The choice of whether or not to buy remains with the people. For example, during several campaigns people wanted to purchase reading glasses even though their vision seemed fine. We told them the information, including the fact that wearing unnecessary glasses could harm their eyes, but some insisted on buying the products anyway. Whether they distrusted our diagnosis or believed too strongly in the power of magnifying reading glasses, I had to hold myself back from asserting my own judgment. Although we volunteers, like journalists, have the responsibility to inform the public, we cannot control their actions. And we shouldn’t, for it is not our place.

Leaving it up to them

I didn’t solve world poverty this summer (a shame, I know). But I do have a better understanding of addressing the issue through an effective use of the MCM.

There is a time and place for direct donations and relief, but such methods cannot work in the long run. The MCM is sustainable, bridging the gap between charity and business, and makes a tangible difference in people’s lives. And finally, the model invests in Guatemala’s most important asset: the people.

I think my changed perspective is illustrated by the way I view our base city of Antigua. When I first walked around the town, I noticed the cracked sidewalks, the drunken borrachos on the streets and the faded paint on the building walls. I saw the city’s faults and failed to recognize anything picturesque. By my final week, however, I actually stopped and gazed at the immense churches and ruins, the towering volcanoes surrounding the city. From my very core, I believe Antigua is simply beautiful, and words cannot do it justice.

I love the United States, but I’ve grown to love Guatemala, too. I see enormous potential and spirit in the people who live here, and I am confident in their ability to bolster their families’ situations and their nation’s economy—as a gringa, I’m happy to take the backseat.

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