I spent a summer volunteering at a Grameen microcredit bank in Resistencia, Chaco, Argentina, called Asociación Civil Lapacho, thanks to the student organization A Drop in the Ocean (ADITO) and grants from DRCLAS. Lapacho was founded in 2001 in response to the economic crash in Argentina, which had serious ramifications nationwide but which devastated especially areas already affected by poverty; Chaco is Argentina’s poorest province.
For the past eight years ADITO has been sending at least two Harvard students to spend a summer working for the bank. Lapacho’s founders and current operators are local academics and professionals, who work there in their spare time; the bank runs entirely on volunteer work and donations from religious groups, government institutions and individuals. As an institution, Lapacho benefits from the diversity of knowledge and professions of its board members as well as its status as a non-profit institution operated by volunteers. That the life-blood of the bank flows entirely from the good hearts of its founders and managers is evident in close personal relationships that the managers formed with the women who receive loans—the prestatarias—and is ultimately a very wise way to run a bank which offers loans without any collateral besides the promise and honor of each prestataria.
While Lapacho’s main office is in Resistencia, the bank has six centers in poor towns in the vicinity of Resistencia. In each center approximately forty women receive loans from Lapacho to engage in “productive enterprises and projects.” According to its website, Lapacho “holds the unique distinction of being the first Grameen replica in the Chaco province and, further, as being the first microcredit institution in Argentina to employ the Rural Grameen model,” in which loan recipients—in the case of Lapacho, always women—form team-like groups of three to five women to keep the networks of support and fiscal accountability among friends, rather than leave these responsibilities to the bank.
A detail I loved was that each group gave itself a name, always very uplifting, such as Esperanza (hope) or Nueva Vida (A New Life). The ingenuity of the Grameen system lies in how it brings women together, giving them confidence in their own work at the same time as creating a friendly system of accountability.
Every week, all the groups in each center have meetings. Loans are paid and minutes are taken while successes, grievances, concerns and questions are all aired among the women. Current and future events are discussed while mate is passed around. If there is a new woman joining the bank, she reads out the pledge in front of the other women, who applaud and welcome her into the fold. Often, the meetings end with a prayer circle of thanksgiving.
My work involved attending meetings, talking to the women, and arranging to visit their homes and businesses (which were often in the same building)—an incredibly fun and life-changing experience for me. The ostensible purpose of the visits was to take pictures of the women with their businesses for the website, but the deeper benefit came from talking to the women about their lives, their concerns and hopes in the present and for the future. We drank mate; they let me play with their children, dogs, and cats; bakers fed me delicious pastries; seamstresses dressed me in intricate sweaters; the sound of futboland chickens in the background mingled with laughs and tears.
At first I had no idea what to expect from my time with Lapacho. I worried that I might be number crunching in a corner and not really making a difference. I soon learned that the most important way in which I could help was to listen to the women. I was only there for nine weeks; it would have been foolish to think that I could implement some incredible project with everlasting effects. While I may not have effected a meaningful change for the women, I will never forget their stories and the faces I encountered that summer; they did leave an everlasting effect on me, and have inspired me to pursue development economics and international affairs. More importantly, however, the spirit of community I felt among the women—for each other, and for the managers of the bank—gave me a great deal of hope for microcredit as a means of rural development. Any institution that creates meaningful change on a local level through the sole mechanisms of trust and hope foreshadows a promising future indeed.