When people ask me what I do in Honduras, I tell them I play Pac-Man all day.
I run around the streets of El Progreso and into the communities, but instead of dots, I eat transaction costs (TRCs). A TRC is anything that makes it harder for an exchange to occur; you go to check out at the super market, but the lady at the register is Korean and doesn’t speak very good English. That’s a cost to your transaction, a TRC. Now imagine things like illiteracy, extra fees, proper documentation, and locations that are miles away. For an impoverished woman to gain access to credit, they have to deal with a ton of TRCs. My job is to consume for them as many of those costs as I can, chomping through the streets, clearing the way.
That’s part of the beauty of microfinance: it is simple credit built for impoverished families. Chilo, the Loan Officer of La Ceiba, delivers loans to their doorsteps and writes their deposit slips. That’s eating TRCs so the client doesn’t have to. We take the bus to the communities instead of asking them to come to us. We browse the aisles of the grocery store and pick up refreshments for community building meetings; all day, we chomp on TRCs, one after another. That is until we have to hand it off and ask them to pay the loans back. Then it’s their turn, because we can’t beat the game for them.
I’m hoping to come across a blinky dot – a TRC that’s really hanging people up – one that if I consume will actually make a difference. When that happens I start gobbling up troubles left and right, like blue ghosts, taking problems off the field. La Ceiba members in the past have found blinky-dots before: many clients steered away from credit because of high interest rates. We lowered our rates to sheer unsustainable levels and things got easier for them. Clients felt distant from representatives of financial institutions. We created community building meetings every other Saturday, and I spend every day trying to make contact and get to know people. When you consume the costs associated with credit, it becomes more accessible. I’m always keeping an eye out for that next kink in the hose – the next blinky dot.
But everyone who steps up to the classic Pac-Man machine and takes the joystick in hand, is secretly searching for something else; the elusive fruit; the double cherry. It’s the one TRC I can consume that makes it all worth it. It’s when I really connect with a client. Gringos are ignorant cash-cow targets, and we have been subconsciously conditioned to talk down to people in developing countries like Honduras. These stereotypes are as powerful as they are false, and I spend each week beating them back, hoping I can consume enough TRCs to grab a cherry. It happened last month, when discussing a client’s financials, she leveled with me and the dots seemed to dissolve around us. I wasn’t a gringo and she wasn’t a catracho. Suddenly, we were talking human to human. Suddenly-human.
What makes my job difficult sometimes – distracting me from these moments – is the sheer number of costs to consume. I am one measly Pac-Man in a labyrinth that spans half the globe. I will never beat poverty and, in full disclosure, it’s not mine to beat. All I can do is hope try and consume enough dots to make some kind of difference in another’s life. I have to know when no one wants to play. I have to know when I am full of TRCs. Microfinance doesn’t depend on me; I depend on microfinance. It lets me pursue the double cherry. I only play a part; a quick cameo.
(In truth, La Ceiba is such a small financial organization that our social impact outweighs the economic benefits we provide. Maybe La Ceiba (and the microfianance sector as a whole) should spend more time pursuing the double cherry than putting people in debt. Maybe microfinance is a platform for both parties to grow, in parallel, along cultural boundaries, while providing some financial support in between. Maybe money doesn’t lead to a better life, maybe it’s just connecting with people and being happier. If that is the case, maybe I should spend less time clearing the way for credit and more time clearing the way for conversation…)