Laura Sepulveda-Machado : Argentina

Lara was born to a Brazilian mother and a Chilean father. She lives in Costa Rica and is currently finishing her senior year with an International Economic Development major at SU. Growing up in a catholic household family with a global perspective induced Lara to learn Portuguese and French. Nevertheless, she has maintained grass root relationships with her fellow Costa Rican citizens. In High School, she was involved in community service projects dealing with poverty alleviation, global education, global health and sustainability. She also worked with underprivileged and disabled children. Her involvement in CISV –peace and global friendship building– enabled her to understand how important cultural awareness and respect can lead to the betterment of this world.  After graduation, Lara plans to attend Graduate school in Social Policy and Development.

Reflection # 1 (Country- Argentina)

It feels surreal to have already been here for two and a half weeks. My adaptation to this city has neither been painful nor has taken long, and speaking Spanish has been a definite advantage. In addition, living in a house with five other international roommates has eased the process of adjustment. So far, my experience in Buenos Aires has been filled with many discoveries, such as the strong cultural and architectural European influence, its people’s carefree outlook on life, and the hospitality of the Argentines. On a daily basis I am experiencing the bus drivers’ unusual “driving skills”, delicious “parrillas” (read parrishas) and empanadas, sizzling weather and meeting the kindest people I have ever met – who usually assume I am from Colombia, since there is a dominant colony of Colombians working in BA. 

As part of the cultural immersion, I am also working with a great NGO called Mujeres 2000. Mujeres is a grassroots organization led by young volunteers, who strive for social, cultural and economic development of impoverished rural neighborhoods. Mujeres’ main objective is to provide financing to women in specific neighborhoods in the northern area of Great Buenos Aires who do not have access to formal financing sources. It provides four services: i) offers loans and technical assistance for women pursuing to become entrepreneurs; ii) provides loans for construction or house renovations; iii) provides educational scholarships; iv) delivers workshops and courses on finance and business. Currently, Mujeres serves a total of 160 beneficiaries through its programs, which are funded by several international organizations such as Citi Foundation, Prudential, IBM, CEDPA, and The World Bank. 

My work with Mujeres is focused on the area of micro financing and it requires me to perform both field and office work. Three times a week, I take a bus for an hour – it is very common for Argentines to commute for hours– and head out into the neighborhoods with another co-worker. We meet with the Solidarity Groups (groups of five women that meet once a week and provide support and advice through the 39 weeks of loan repayment) and collect payments. Currently, given the time of the year, women are struggling to make ends meet. If an entrepreneur has not been paying, then we have to find her, visit her home, and talk to her to understand her situation and help her move forward. For example, one of the women got her money stolen the day she went to cash out the check. In order to help her, the volunteers gathered clothes for her to sell and slowly have enough capital to restart her business. 

When I’m working at the office, I spend about 45 minutes on the bus to get to the busy area of city, known as Congreso. I spent most of the first week reading documents that have been published by the organization and trying to understand the institutional underpinnings of this NGO’s work. I am also writing grant reports and grant proposals. In addition, I am analyzing surveys with key information about housing conditions, savings strategies, and the level of education of the NGO clientele. This analysis will become the basis to prepare a report that will provide an informative profile of the participants’ living conditions and the NGO achievements and challenges.      

While working in the rural neighborhoods, I have had several experiences that have impacted me on different levels. Many women participating with Mujeres have particular life stories, but the case of Sonia has been on my mind since I met her. Sonia Paredes lives in a trailer home. She lost her oldest daughter a couple of months ago and has not been able to withstand living in her own house. She is unemployed and forced to pay off a loan she took out as a favor for her friend who disappeared with the money. She receives about $70 per month from her retirement fund. Her life has been struck with financial difficulty and emotional stress. As part of the process to grant her a loan, we had to visit her home to ask her about her living situation. She welcomed us to her humble home and proceeded to offer us some mate – traditional South American infusion made of dried leaves of yerba mate (a sort of tea). As I asked her the questions, I began to observe her carefully and I could feel her loneliness and desolation. She began opening up about how her life has molded her into being a strong woman. While she was opening her heart to us, she showed us a picture of her oldest daughter. At this point, she couldn’t hide her sorrow. Both my co-worker and I consoled her and told her that the opportunity we were giving her would provide her the strength she needs to move forward with optimism. She found comfort in our trust and gave us a genuine smile that changed the ambiance. Although Sonia has been through so many difficult times, she still remains with her head held high. This experience made me realize that we live unconscious of our comfortable life, and meeting these kinds of people, reminds us of how blessed our life is and how thankful we should be.

Sometimes I wonder if I got the best or worse placement. To be honest, after much thought, I have decided that it is neither. The key issue is to dedicate ones time, abilities, skills and knowledge to do what one is passionate about it. This is more important than the place you apply it. Buenos Aires has been, so far, a great experience to me and in return, I am helping the city’s most vulnerable people. This act alone provides me with an immense sense of fulfillment, both professionally and personally. The experience that made me feel certain about my decision to change a major to Economic Development was when I was witnessing a women group’s last training session. This group in particular was going to receive its loan checks after the class. I was surrounded by women struggling to survive financially on a daily basis, and seeing their motivation, optimism, willingness to change their lives, and their appreciation for the program was sufficient evidence to prove to me that in spite of the bureaucracy, micro-finance does work. Thus, social and economic development towards more equitable societies is indeed possible.

Reflection # 2

Having gone through a food poisoning experience has kept me away from those women I have formed relationships with, from my co-workers, from a report that I should finish writing before I leave, and from delicious and succulent food – the one that got me sick in the first place. Having dealt with a minor setback has proven to be nothing but just that: a minor setback. Yet, this experience has made me thankful for the people that surround me, and the excellent health services provided by the nearby hospital. 

Even though I was bed ridden for a week, I am excited to head back to work. Currently, I am working on a report that aims to examine the general state of the conditions, resources, human development capacities and social integration of the Mujeres’ clientele that inhabit the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, i.e. Troncos and Pacheco. The main objective of the report is to provide Mujeres with an overlook of the general conditions in which these women live prior to receiving a loan. As a last step in the process before the women receive their loans, volunteers need to visit these women’s homes and research their access to services like water and electricity. For now, the report aims to provide practical information to donors and for general uses within the organization.   Eventually, Mujeres intends to repeat the study to quantitatively measure the ways their lives have changed since receiving a loan. It is important to keep in mind that this will be hard, since only some changes can be attributed to the loan itself. The decisions the women take, how their family relationship changed, if any saving strategies were adopted, and if their children now attend school, are factors that are influenced by the fact that these women have now gained a new source of income, higher purchasing power, and thus a true participation in the household’s decision-making processes. Yet, the actual measurement of these gains will be difficult to attain. 

In order to contextualize the success of Mujeres’ work, it is essential to understand the national public social policies that apply to the population that Mujeres works with. After the social, economic and financial crisis of the early 2000’s, ex-president Nestor Kirchner took the initiative to formulate social programs that would improve the standard of living of the poorest stratum of the Argentine society. One of the most important policies implemented is the “Plan Jefes y Jefasde Hogar Desocupados,” (Plan for Unemployed Members of a Household) a policy that remunerates unemployed parents with children under 18. Initially, the efforts reached two million people. As a continuation, current President and Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, implemented a universal child benefit plan called “Asignación Universal por Hijo” as a way to fight poverty and with the goal to reach approximately five million children and youths. Since its creation, the program has been lauded for having boosted school attendance rates and reduced poverty among families. These policies and two other ones aided Argentina’s GDP to grow, creating employment through improvements in local demand, while maintaining low levels of inflation. 

Mujeres has been a firsthand witness of the benefits of these policies. For some families, their subsistence comes from retirement funds, disability compensation, or compensation per child. Working with Mujeres has proven the effectiveness of social policy. Even though there is still some skepticism about microfinance in the developing world, I have seen the administrative implications, the changes, and the results.

Reflection # 3

As I lie back in my room on the last night in Buenos Aires, my reflection focuses on the experience that is about to finish. The retrospective analysis brings my thoughts back to the women from the outskirts of BA I built relationships with in the past ten weeks. Those women’s expectations about their future, the potential of their small business to generate the complementary income to improve their families’ situation, became the food of my thoughts. 

My life will go on in Seattle in a privileged zone of comfort that will provide me with ample opportunities to contribute to the well being of underprivileged segments of society.  In the meantime, my new “Argentine friends” in Tigre will also be fighting to improve their private and their community socio economic conditions. We both will be engaged on improving societal inequalities.

As a result of these women’s positive attitudes and optimism, they will make their businesses flourish, as well as their lives and they will move on to a better social and economic status. That simple fact will, in turn, improve their children’s chances to climb the social ladder, get an education and have access to better jobs. This alone provides me with an immense sense of personal achievement and satisfaction to know that my contributions to Mujeres 2000 and the work I left behind is indeed a successful one. Although, there were many times that I questioned my ability to actually make a difference in the world, or even in Buenos Aires.

On the other hand and at the personal level, the Argentine experience opened my eyes to the fact that my life is indeed privileged with access to innumerable opportunities to grow as a person and as a professional.  In fact, I was not sufficiently aware about how easy my life has been. My realization came from those women’s life experiences, thus encouraging my future dedication to social policy for development.

These women struggle on a daily basis and more likely do not have – or ever have - the financial resources to provide a decent standard of living for their families.

Usually people think that the solutions to social problems just require giving away money to the less privileged.  Quite on the contrary, it seems necessary to go beyond the “quick fix” that relays on charity. I believe that time contribution is the best alternative you can give to charity. In fact, in many occasions, I didn’t have to ask much when suddenly these women would narrate intimate details of their lives and about the way they have dealt with them. Neither my different background, my personal experiences, my accent nor my perspectives were factors that inhibited them to open their minds and souls to share their problems. They simply wanted to be heard and, as part of our common Latin culture, a hug or a physical contact usually expressed the strongest feelings and “thoughts” and opened the door to long conversations and soul binding.

Finally, I learned that social policy might either encourage or discourage the population to pursue an education, to work, or to sexually reproduce. At times, social policies aid those in need. Yet it also seems that the inefficiency in some policies or the bureaucracy in charge of their execution, could actually hinder the social development of the population I worked with.