It’s not about the money

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Last April during my first visit to site, I helped my counterpart Sebastian proofread his application for a loan through the CEEC (Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission) Micro Finance program. The CEEC is trying to boost development in one of the poorest parts of Zambia, and one area in particular they are focusing on is small-scale rural aquaculture. What a coincidence, I remarked when Sebastian told me about the loan program. That’s what I’m working on too! He chuckled nervously, hoping that this muzungu actually did know why he was coming to Nshinda. Don’t worry, I reassured him, I’m really a very funny person in my head.

Fast-forward nine months, after several CEEC site inspections to determine feasibility of project success, countless attempts at corny humor, and numerous 40-kilometer round trip bike rides to the boma to harangue the powers-that-be at each step along the way, my counterpart and I are thick as thieves and the loan request has finally been approved. Sebastian biked into town yesterday to open an account with the bank, and within a few days the lump sum will be deposited. He’s about to receive a windfall: a loan of 80,000 kwacha, equivalent to about $16,000 USD. To put this in perspective, an average day’s wage in my little slice of sub-Saharan Africa is 10 kwacha, or around two bucks. This is basically like winning the lottery. And this is where the real work begins.

Ever since I was posted to site, I’ve been lecturing my counterpart and anyone else who will listen about the importance of expense accounting, budgeting, and financial planning. (Why yes, I am that guy who likes to pore over personal finance blogs in his free time. Might not win me a ton of dates, but dammit my investment portfolio will thank me for it later.) It’s important for everyone, I admonish, but especially for small-business owners. You need to know what has gone into your farm and what you’re getting out of it in terms of time and resources and money. And because time and resources can also be quantified in money, it’s pretty much all about the money. Sebastian listens raptly. He’s one of the hardest-working and most motivated people I’ve ever met, but he isn’t super strong on the accounting side of business management and I worry that in the long term, listening might not be enough to reverse an entire culture’s worth of conditioning.

It’s the blessing and the curse of living in an aid state. Donor dependency is a real barrier to sustainable long-term development here in a part of the world where people have grown accustomed to watching money flow from the coffers of well-intentioned muzungus. Because of the way that typical aid agencies operate, with too much overhead and too few boots on the ground, aid tends to stick grease-like to the places where the wheel squeaks the loudest. Big ideas and grandiose schemes that can be encapsulated in ten-second sound bites are given more weight than unsexy business skills training and capacity building for long-range planning. And as a result, bright, motivated individuals like my counterpart have learned to play the game.

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Sebastian is the squeaky wheel personified. He invests a lot of time and effort in making and maintaining connections with various government and non-government organizations dedicated to development in Zambia because he’s realized that, for better or for worse, this is what works. He gets things done in a country where things rarely get done because of his singular assertiveness and persistence in follow-through, qualities lacking in so many of his more reserved countrymen. And now this squeaky wheel is about to get more grease than it’s ever seen in its life.

It’s not about the money, I tell Sebastian. A successful business doesn’t use a loan as a gift but as an incentive: an incentive to turn this money into more money, to dig more ponds and branch out into more agricultural ventures not to provide growth statistics for aid agencies but in order to increase profit margins. I point out the 12% interest rate on the bank agreement. I make sure that he notes the 60-month loan tenure. You’ve got five years, I warn him. Let’s make them count.

My counterpart already has big plans to expand his farm outward. To hire men in the community as full-time employees and eventual new fish farmers. (His current 20-pond farm has been entirely dug, renovated, and maintained over the past eight years by the one-man force of Sebastian Lubinda.) To purchase more supplemental feed. To integrate his fish farm with goats, pigs, and ducks. To train many of his 13 children in the family business. Even to build another house in the village, with a mindful eye on accommodating the second and third generations of Peace Corps volunteers after I leave.

Something that I greatly admire in Sebastian is that he has the gift of farsight. He has the desire and determination to create a better future for his children, and his children’s children, and by extension for Zambia and for the world. He has the ability to imagine the life that he wants for himself and his family, and the knowledge and skill to achieve this vision. And now he will have the financial resources to help him realize his dream, too.

It’s not about the money. But I concede that it does help. No big venture is without its risks, and building a stronger future is a risk well worth taking. As I sit here in my mud hut writing this blog post, a wave of pride for Sebastian washes over me. For my counterpart, for my community, for my country of service. And I can’t help smiling to myself.

So this is what development feels like.

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8 thoughts on “It’s not about the money

    • Well put. That amount of money can do a lot of good, or a lot of bad. Sebastian sounds like he’s got a good head on his shoulders; I’m interested to see what he does with it. Does he ever read your blog, by the way?

      Also, I didn’t know that micro-finance programs put out loans at that scale!

      • Haha nope, Sebastian doesn’t have access to internet so he can’t read the blog. A lot of my posts originated from conversations we’ve had though.

        And yeah, I didn’t know microfinance loans were quite this large either. Micro Finance is in the name, but this is a Zambian government initiative and not organized by an NGO, so maybe they have a different idea of what constitutes microfinance.

        By the way, do you have a blog or is that just automatically populates the ‘website’ field when you comment?

      • Huh, I guess you can only nest comments three-deep. I comment from my WordPress account, which is why my name links to my profile. I don’t actually keep a blog, but I have an account because of a class project a couple years ago.

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