Tales of a Microfinance Intern – Cochabamba, Bolivia (Part III)

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(This series was originally written in email form during the summer of 2009.  Here is the third installment finally in blog format.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 11:10am

One of Bolivia’s two official flags

There were two topics of conversation this Sunday at lunch with my host family. The first was related to Evo Morales, Bolivia`s leftist president. Everybody has an opinion about this controversial character and, along with the unusually cold winter weather, he is the topic of most dinner conversation. Most of the graffiti in the country is also dedicated to Evo and the coming December 2009 presidential elections. Evo is a staunch supporter of rural indigenous rights, and this is a point of consternation for urbanites and those that do not identify with indigenous culture.

Today, June 21st, is the winter solstice which marks the New Year for the Aymara people of the Andean region of Bolivia and Peru. In an effort to respect the culture of his supporters, Evo has declared the day a national holiday. Luckily, the Aymara New Year fell on a Sunday this year, and everything is closed anyways, so it`s not such a big deal. The debate however, rages on in my host family. Some of them argue that indigenous rights need to be respected, while others insist that there are ways to do that without bringing the entire country to a halt. Politics in Bolivia is always a heated topic. Everyone has their opinion about Evo, and more likely than not they`re going to tell you about it.

Political graffiti can be seen all over Cochabamba

The second topic at lunch was the issue of Bolivian wages, which I discovered are pitifully small. My family told me that the government established minimum wage is 600 Bolivianos (B’s), or about US$85, a month. Wow. I knew it was low, but it was still surprising to learn the harsh facts of reality in a society plagued by poverty. My host brothers and sisters are all professionals, so they obviously make more than the minimum wage, but during the course of conversation they told me that about 2000B`s a month is a good salary for the professional class. That`s about US$285 a month for lawyers, architects, and bankers. It gave me a new understanding of my co-workers to know how little they make for how hard they work.

The project that I am currently working on at Pro Mujer, the microfinance institution that I`m interning at for the summer, is a None-Monetary Incentives Plan for the Human Resources department. I have no previous HR experience, but it is a great way to really understand the internal workings and challenges of a development NGO. The organization has undergone some drastic restructuring in the last year due to the discovery of massive employee fraud at one of the nine Pro Mujer branches in the Cochabamba region. All of the staff from that center were let go, the Regional Director was dismissed, and a large number of staff were redistributed amongst the other centers. The 85 or so employees in the region were left without a sense of organizational community or job security.

I am currently helping another intern develop the None-Monetary Incentives Plan and implement it throughout the region. Since the wages are less than stellar, the organization looks to other incentives to motivate their staff. In a survey done by my partner intern, it was found that most employees wanted recognition for their hard work. To these ends, I am working to help put a few programs into place to recognize and reward the hard-working Pro Mujer employees. These include an Employee of the Month program, a Center of the Quarter Award, and a Performance Competition between the nine regional centers.

The overall goal is to increase the performance of the employees so that they can provide better service to the women that come to Pro Mujer for microcredit. With better quality services, the competitive edge of the organization will also be enhanced. Another project that I am working on is organizing a leadership workshop for the heads of each center, and the staff of the regional administrative office. I am using a US$200 grant from the Foundation for Sustainable Development, as well as some of the money that people donated for my trip to fund these programs. Thanks to all who donated, it means a lot to me, and even more to the cash strapped Pro Mujer organization.

A typical breakfast spread in my host family’s home

I have been doing some exploring around Cochabamba, and have developed a routine of sorts. I get up at 7 am and have breakfast with my host family. Usually it is still below freezing that early in the morning, so I drink a lot of tea. I have some quesillo, a local unpasteurized salty cheese, with the bread made by my host aunt and some fruit.

In order to get to work by 8.30 am, I catch a trufi – the main means of public transportation here in Bolivia. A trufi is a 12-15 passenger van with about 15-20 people squeezed in. There are no stops; I just wave one down on the street and hop in. Hopefully there is a seat free, if not I just stand hunched over by the door. To get off I just yell at the driver to stop at the corner, crawl over all the people between me and the door (personal space is a myth in Bolivia), pay the driver 1.5B`s (US$0.21), and hop off.

After I make a mad dash across the highway to arrive at the Pro Mujer office the productivity of my day depends on a variety of factors and how they combine. The number of people in the office varies. If there are too many people, there isn`t room to work, but hopefully the people you need to work with are present, or the day can turn into a futile search for a key player. The state of the technology at Pro Mujer is also erratic, and it is a rare instance when the computer, internet, printer, and copier are all in working condition.

Usually I eat lunch with my host family, which involves going home on a trufi #260 (a half hour ride), eating a big lunch of meat, rice and potatoes, and returning to work via trufi. After work I go to the gym with another intern to work off lunch. The complete contradictions of Bolivia are starkly apparent at the gym we go to, which always has hot water, and even uses fingerprint reading technology to monitor members’ activities. At night, I either go out for drinks with some friends or watch telenovellas with my host family.

An antique sewing machine, no doubt still in use, on a street outside of La Cancha open air market

Yesterday I went to La Cancha, the largest open-air market in South America. It is crazy busy, and you can find just about anything – if you know where to look. It’s almost a certainty that I get turned around, lost, and board the wrong trufi in La Cancha, but I love it. It makes buying anything an adventure, as there are blocks and blocks of everything from bananas to socks to supplies for supernatural rituals. To enter La Cancha is to self-induce sensory overload with the variety of sights sounds, and smells. It`s quite the experience.

The seemingly only tourist attraction in Cochabamba is the Christ statue that overlooks the city. It is the tallest in the world, measuring 5m taller than the one in Rio de Janeiro. Today, I climbed the 1,399 stairs leading up to the statue from the park by my house. The thin air made it a little hard to climb, but the view was pretty from the top of the mountain, although the mixture of smog and smoke blurred the horizon substantially.

The Christ Statue above Cochabamba
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