George spent about a month in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, as the first Wokai Fellow. He is now back with Wokai in Beijing.
The prospect of living alone in Daban, Chifeng for over a month didn’t immediately strike me as daunting, but what kept me up at night as my departure became imminent was how to make the experience successful. Having never done something like this before, I didn’t understand what this would mean. I was theoretically prepared but had actually only booked a hotel and bought a very expensive but very warm jacket.
During my first few days in Chifeng, I had to explain myself and the purpose of the program on many more than one occasion to both Huo Zhuren, the head of CZWSDA, and Cao Zhuren, the Youqi branch director. (Chifeng is the region's central city, Youqi is a rural district within Chifeng, and Daban is a town in Youqi.) Although I knew I was unprepared, this was a very unsettling start. I knew that the fellowship’s success depended on a “mutually symbiotic” relationship between myself and the MFI. By this I mean a relationship from which Wokai and I would derive as much from CZWSDA as I would be able to give in return.
Without this equal standing it’s very easy for the fellow to be seen as a burden, and that’s certainly how I felt when I arrived.
One of the main problems facing the permanent establishment of a fellowship at the Youqi branch of CZWSDA is that they have absolutely no need for a foreign worker. The branch is very rural and the work they do is only concerned with the issue and collection of loans and their repayments. They have an adequate supply of loan officers that means that there is no need for any further assistance, least not from a foreigner who speaks middling Chinese!
The Youqi / Daban microfinance team. From right to left, the Youqi branch accountant Liu Qingxia, the Chifeng branch accountant Han Xueqiu, and Youqi branch director Cao Budao. Here they are in a taxi going to a center meeting.
There was no need for me to help them in the office, and no way in which I could repay them for all the help they were giving me. Since the work I could do was trail them to borrower meetings, usually one or two three days a week, this had the added effect of making my days far less full then I had hoped. With a lot of time on my hands, I found myself questioning the value of my presence there.
In the only ethnically Han Chinese village I visited, the borrowers asked me why I was there. Without waiting for an answer, the women lurched on to say I was there to see how poor they were and to take pictures to show the world. Without being able to be productive, the fellow becomes little more then a reporter, prying into the lives of the borrowers to ask how poor they were, take pictures to show that they have nothing, and return home patting myself on the back under the illusion that by being there I had made some sort of difference.
The other barrier I faced as a fellow was the level of contact I was able to have with the borrowers themselves. Prior to my arrival I had rather naively thought that I would be granted license to limitless contact and would be able to meet with the borrowers freely, when I wanted. Apart from the logistical problems with this, another issue is the impact that kind of visit might have.
During the short time I spent in Daban I found the villages to have been incredibly warm and generous. At each household we were served milk tea and some food, all completely unnecessary as far as I was concerned, but for my hosts essential for even the most basic level of hospitality. Even with the loan officer I had to almost force my way into the taxi amid protestations that we stay and eat with them.
After one visit to a local village I asked Cuye, the loan officer I was with, if it would be possible for me to spend a day in a village with one of the families (who had invited me to visit). That way, I told her, I would be more able to fully understand the way they lived. The answer she gave me was categorically no. She noted that even on the few occasions that I had gone with her to borrower meetings, our hosts had done more, and provided more food and drink then they would have had she gone on her own. If I were to visit alone they would feel obliged, no matter what I said, to give me a banquet and treat me as a special guest, which would be unfair and unreasonable to ask of them.
On my first day in Chifeng, Cao Zhuren, the local director, also made it fairly clear and understandable, that the only contact I could have with the borrowers would be when I was accompanied by a loan officer. The loan officers are very protective of their customers, with whom they often have strong friendships (having grown up in neighboring communities or worked together for a number of years). They don’t want to see them exploited, and at that time Wokai had only began to help a small handful of their well over a thousand customers.
They perhaps didn’t completely understand the full reason for a fellow being there. This limited what I was able to achieve, since loan officers make only three days of visits a week, and visit each village only once every two weeks.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s worth having a fellow in Daban. I think there are many benefits that can be drawn by establishing a presence there. I think the big issue is trust and understanding. Many of the problems I faced might have been easier to overcome if the loan officers weren’t so suspicious, and more fully understood the reason for my presence there.
In fact it’s been asked of Wokai that everything I write here be first translated into Chinese and shown to the head office in Chifeng before publishing on this blog. Toward the end of my visit, however, the loan officers had begun to relax and grow more comfortable with me. Hopefully over time, as Wokai helps more of their customers take microloans, they will realize that as an organization we are sensitive to the impact that we have and are working toward the same goal.
As for my fellowship, I think it was a success but there is still a lot of work we have to do.
Me and the gang; our visiting Cameraman Chris (middle) and infamous That’s Beijing reporter Alistair (left). The last few days I spent in Inner Mongolia, the three of us visited borrowers and explored Daban together.