The following was written for the Kiva Fellows blog. Read the original here.
This job is unique, in that it offers an endless supply of intellectual satisfaction. Every day, I learn something new about something interesting. For the time being, what interests me most is microfinance. My knowledge of microfinance prior to Kiva could be described as purely academic. Experiencing it firsthand has been rewarding. In particular, I like understanding the details of execution, the challenges faced by the institution, and generally how a microfinance institution works. The amount of information to digest is enormous, so I try to focus on understanding a few NWTF (Negros Women for Tomorrow) programs that I think are in my wheelhouse. The downside is that I end up overlooking many fascinating and unambiguously positive programs. The other day my coworkers were telling me about the upcoming Foundation day at one of the branches. Every year, each branch that meets a certain threshold of repayment and performance can have a Foundation Day party with upwards of 2,000 attendees. I was supposed to go to one in Cauyaun on Saturday, but I got food poisoning the day before and was bedridden. At some of the Foundation Day celebrations, NWTF holds a mass wedding. This is one of those programs that I find really interesting for different reasons. Let me explain why.
NWTF aims to serve the poorest of the poor. It is a Grameen-model bank, where the social mission is paramount. In the Philippines, it is expensive to have a wedding, and many of the poorest women cannot afford to pay. There are many couples that have been together for dozens of years. They have children together, a home, and a business, yet are unmarried. This means that they do not receive spousal benefits and cannot necessarily legally claim their children as dependents. NWTF offers insurance to their clients (at favorable rates, given that it is a pool of 80,000 new clients). However, in order to extend maximum benefits, the couples must be married. In a review of NWTF’s social performance by the NGO M-Cril, the practice is discussed:
An interesting side-development of offering insurance is that legal marriage is a condition. Accordingly, NWTF has been facilitating mass weddings, which women appreciate for their security.
This is a great example of how microfinance institutions don’t simply offer loans. The best ones offer as many services as possible that are unavailable to the poor. This might include healthcare, insurance, clean water, electricity, cooking tools, home loans, and scholarships for children. I knew this before, but weddings are one I never could’ve guessed. A newsletter from another microfinance institution, KMBI, contains the best description of these events and their impact:
The mass weddings, to the married clients, answered their long-awaited desires to be legally bonded with their beloved with whom they have been staying for quite some time. This project was not only a special gift to the clients, but it sought to store their relationships to what is accepted in the Bible and in society. The program foresees that, in the long run, these clients and their families will enjoy the benefits of legally-accepted relationships.
I never would’ve expected that a marriage ceremony would’ve been something that is beyond the reach of the poor. Even more, I think that it is one of the best examples I’ve encountered of the interconnectedness of these issues. In order to offer insurance – a financial service – you must first make sure the recipients are married in order to extend benefits to the entire family. So how do you solve this problem? Hire a priest and marry them all at once, in a ceremony they have been waiting for their entire lives. It is the type service that is taken for granted in the West. There are no justices of the peace coming to the poor barangays of Negros. And at the end of the day, its a really nice thing to see happen. It may not fit in with the narrative of entrepreneurship in the developing world, but, as I am learning, it never does. There is always a much more complex network of causality beneath the surface. I am learning new things every day. As I do, I will try my best to share them here.