Are We Making an Impact in Communities?

>> Authored by Tiffany Kao (Global Brigades in Panama)

My name is Tiffany and I work for Global Brigades in Panama, an international non-profit that addresses health and economic challenges in rural communities through 7 different programs: Medical, Dental, Microfinance, Business, Environmental, Public Health and Human Rights.   Pictured to the right are Global Brigades Panama’s 40 full-time staff, and also my family!

Global Brigades’ fundraising model leverages funds from student volunteers. Students fundraise to work alongside GB staff and community members in Panama on a ‘brigade,’ which is a 7-9 day project (or part of a larger project). Part of their funds is allocated to their food, lodging, and transportation for the week; $100 of the funds goes toward the Program Continuation Fund, which supports their specific project; and the remainder supports Global Brigades Panama as a whole.

My position is to prepare both the students and the corresponding communities for the brigades. While students are in Panama, I visit each brigade to check in, obtain feedback, and also hold a reflection session with the students.

In these reflection sessions, many students ask me, “Are we making an impact in communities?” Unlike Medical Brigades, where the students’ impact is immediate and tangible, Microfinance and Business Brigades are about changing habits in communities. This type of impact is challenging to measure and see with your eyes, especially in 7 days.

I remind students that development is a slow process.  “Just because you all delivered three financial literacy workshops on how to save money this week, doesn’t mean community members will automatically start saving money tomorrow,” I say.  Development takes a lot of time, patience and effort to affect even the smallest changes.  Global Brigades utilizes brigades as a way to repeat workshops on financial concepts to community members, so by their 5th workshop community members will understand the concept of  ‘savings’ or other financial terms.  I remind students that after brigades are over, our Microfinance Team follows-up with community banks to ensure meetings are held accordingly, while the Business Team follows-up with businesses that received brigades to get feedback.  Hearing what happens before and after they come for the brigade, the students begin to understand how they fit into the vision and mission of Global Brigades.  They understand the incremental progress of the brigades and how future brigades will continue to build off their work in the communities, eventually making a significant impact.

Even though I help the students understand their role in impacting the communities, I only recently realized the true impact that my organization has. In early March, I was updating three business profiles from Ipeti Embera, one of the indigenous communities that we work with in Eastern Panama.  I noticed all three businesses had existing profiles, indicating that they had received brigades before.  These three businesses showed that they were actually receiving their third brigade, something that I had not seen since I started working in Panama! I was very excited to compare the profiles from a year ago with current updates from the Business Team. I started with Kiosco Rachell, a small shop selling snacks and household items, as seen to the right. The original profile said Pablo and Mayra, the business owners of Kiosco Rachell, were selling items on credit, something very common in rural communities in Panama. The new update, however, indicated that Pablo and Mayra were not selling items on credit anymore. By analyzing their cash flow with the most recent brigade, they realized community members were not paying them back, and the business was losing money. Going back to the original profile, it said that Pablo and Mayra were not part of the community bank and therefore, did not have access to financial literacy workshops, a savings account, and loans.  Fast-forward to today’s status, Pablo is currently a community bank member, has about $3,000 in his savings account, and is looking into taking out a loan to buy a freezer to sell ice cream. I almost fell off my chair.

Kiosco Rachell

The second business was another small shop: Kiosco Yosellin (below).  Last year, Edilberto, the business owner, was also not part of the community bank.  The last brigade recommended that she join one so she can access financial literacy workshops, a savings account, and loans. Since then, Edilberto has joined the community bank, received financial literacy workshops, opened a savings account with a total of $300, and is interested in taking a loan for an investment to plant and sell plantains. By now, I am having an “aha moment.”

Picture 3 - Kiosco Yosselin

I was so amazed and excited by the changes from a year ago that I ran to my roommate and filled her in on everything. “Ali, Global Brigades is making a difference!!” I gasped.  Ali, who has worked with Global Brigades longer than me, chuckled and asked, “Yes Tiff…what were you expecting?”

While updating the last business profile, I reflected on Ali’s question and why I got so excited.  Did I really expect Global Brigades, the organization that I work for, to not make an impact in the communities we work in?

The answer was yes. Since I started working for Global Brigades 8 months ago, I focused most of attention on and got lost in the small details of my job. From meetings with different programs, checking in with students, receiving feedback from presidents, and sending emails, I forgot what the vision and mission of Global Brigades meant for the partnering communities.  While constantly reminding students that development is a slow process, I forgot that ‘a slow process’ did not mean ‘no progress.’

After realizing this, I chuckled to myself because less than a year ago, I had dreams of ending corruption on a national scale to provide rural communities access to basic necessities. I was convinced that international development was that simple.  Today, before my ‘aha moment’ I had changed my expectations so much that my expectations became ‘no changes’. The reality is, yes, development is slow and takes a lot of time and patience.  But even the smallest change in communities, such as a Pablo and Edilberto joining a community bank, is progress! This ‘aha moment’ I had from updating their business profiles is progress that I will remind myself of when I get swamped with emails and meetings at the office. This progress is what I look forward to telling students when they ask me, “Are we making an impact in these communities?”


My name is Tiffany and I currently work for Global Brigades in Panama.  I graduated from the University of Southern California in May 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. I was first introduced to international development after traveling to Honduras with Engineers Without Borders to build a water delivery filtration system. This led me to spend my next summer in rural Kenya to create an economic development project with community members. Upon graduation, I started working for Global Brigades as a Program Associate.  I work with the Microfinance, Business, Environmental, and Human Rights Programs, also known as the Sustainable Development Programs in Panama.  After Global Brigades, I hope to work for another non-profit or NGO to gain more experience in international development and eventually go to business school later on!

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