First Build Trust, Then Empower

>> Authored by Pablo Garron

It was a very hot afternoon in an indigenous village, 3 hours away to the East of Panama City, inside the Darien Province, one of the most financially under-served areas of the country.

Like every Wednesday, a group of Emberá women begin to arrive swiftly to meet under the zinc roof of the Casa Comunal to participate in their community bank activity. This time, the structure had wooden boards sustained by plastic coke containers that served as platforms to sit on. The members, 16 women and 1 man, arrived. All the women dressing their colorful parumas (traditional skirts) sit in order.

They all seem to be nervous; apparently the arrival of 12 members from three new community banks to participate in the meeting was causing some kind of anxiety amongst the board of directors—a meeting of their friends and local staff is confortable, but with so many strangers they want to make sure not to make any mistakes that would embarrass the group or the community with a poor performance. Since the guests were visiting this particular community, they had to demonstrate the benefits of the community bank, so that their journey would be worthwhile.

Before we continue telling this story, let’s start two months earlier, when in the process of establishing new community banks to expand Global Brigades successful microfinance operation in another region of Darien, I had found an awful truth: that people just don’t trust each other anymore.

People in rural communities, for many years, have experienced frustrations because of promises left ignored and projects left alone—doomed to disappear in the short term and arrival of fake firms scamming to then steal their scarce resources.  Even as I try multiple ways to gain their trust, they still listen to the other voices from the same community expressing skeptical theories or even magical circumstances that will threaten the success of the community bank.

We had a meeting to develop a strategy to change this situation, and decided to bring community members from nearby communities to visit this community—Pueblo Nuevo—to experience the operation, talk to local community bank members and volunteers who were working with small businesses that day. We knew that the activity could change their perception and actually motivate them to speed up the process and finish up with organizing the community bank within those communities.

When the day arrived, a bus was driving through the dirt road bringing the new community bank members to experience what Global Brigades is doing in Pueblo Nuevo. They were exited to visit the community, four of the members had never visited this area, and you could tell by their smiles how much they were enjoying the trip. When we arrived, they welcomed us and took as to the Casa Comunal to begin the activity.

Now that you understand what it took to bring us to this point in the story, let me continue by telling you the awesome turnaround we had in that hot day.

GB organized with the board of directors of that community bank an agenda for the day that included introducing all of the stakeholders participating that day; sharing what volunteers do to support the projects; explaining how Global Brigades operates their various projects; describing the positives (and if any) the negative facts of establishing a community bank; and any other topic that would be of interest to the participants. As always, the host started and three women stood up to introduce themselves in order to briefly explain what role they have within the bank. It was quite surprising for me to actually see the way they performed that day.

Since my tasks that day took me to another region, I was not able to visit that community for another 6 months. When the secretary of the community bank started greeting and welcoming the group upon our arrival, she was able to speak clearly in front more than 50 people, with such fluency it was an incredibly contras to the shy young women that didn’t even want to look at my eyes less than a year ago. Now it was the president’s turn, she mentioned how beneficial it was for the members to be able to save and access their micro-loans.

In that moment, we invited a member of the bank who at the early stages told me that “poor people can’t save” and presented her story to show the amount of savings she has in her account. Everybody laughed at that moment, because with a big smile and a handshake, she realized that she was wrong; she had saved approximately $265 in almost a year. I asked her, “how much was her initial deposit?” She said one dollar. Then the treasurer of the community bank explained her role. She had only 6 years of formal education and currently she was able to keep a daily ledger, a savings book, a loan booklet, and run basic financial reports. But that is not all; she surprised everybody when she told me how at the beginning of this experiment the group was thinking that GB was going to take all of their money and run away. As part of the organizational process, they needed to collect seed capital and open the group’s bank account in a nearby community in order to begin the project. When doing so, the board members – (See photo Secretary, President and Treasurer) – spoke with the cashier at the bank and asked her if GB could take their money away. Of course, the cashier explained that the process to withdraw their account meant that GB couldn’t access it. With a big smile on her face she said how relieved she was to have the bank. She continued her presentation and explained how GB provided them with capital seed and awards for their performance last year, and afterwards she finished by thanking GB for their patience to train and empower herself and the community.

The workshop finished on a high tone, and all the participants went back to their homes feeling especially motivated to continue the process of learning and further develop their community banks. During the final moments of the day’s activities, one of the participants said, “Without trust there is no organization, and without organization there is no success.”


About the author:

Pablo Garron is the Programs Director of Global Brigades Panama. He has an extensive background in microfinance, while not only developing the Microfinance program of Global Brigades Panama, but working for years within the Peace Corps Microfinance programs, and developing Microfinance policy within Panama over the past decades. Currently, he spends three days every week training new community banks, preparing them for their new activities and responsibilities, as they develop their own bylaws and standard operating procedures.

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