Fundación Paraguaya: Family Doctor
It is hard not to notice the children of Paraguay. After only a week in the country, I have come to believe that Paraguayan children are some of the most beloved “creatures” (as they are lovingly referred to in Paraguay) on the planet. Wherever you look, children are being hugged, kissed and sweet-talked by mothers and fathers alike. Whether on the city bus or the front stoop of a modest house in the countryside, children are being tickled, played with, sung to, passed around, and generally doted on, as though there was nothing more precious or more important.
In the same way, children are ever-present in microfinance. One of the guests at a committee meeting I had the privilege of attending on my second day here, was a toddler with a great affinity for the host’s dog, who had accompanied his mother as she discussed preparations for an upcoming Ikatú forum with her fellow group members. At a meeting the following day, in a small community with dirt roads and grazing cows, a baby lay in the arms of one of the women who had come to hear Lourdes Aguero, Coordinator of Women’s Committees at Fundación Paraguaya, discuss the services that the Fundación was able to offer her and her neighbors. One of the most incredible consequences of microfinance is that, whether they are attached to their mother’s hip in a committee meeting, overhearing from inside the house as she talks about her business on the stoop, or simply observing the benefits of her elevated level of financial independence, the children of loan recipients are inevitably part of the transformative microfinance process.
Fundación Paraguaya, however, looks at these children as more than observers. In 2008, through a partnership with Aflatoun Child Savings International, they began to focus on the financial awareness of the children of the women’s committee members. Through the Aflatoun program, loan officers were and are currently being trained to provide lessons in savings to children from ages 6 to 12. Between 2008 and 2009 over 6,000 children of microentrepreneurs were trained by the Fundación, and the goal is to double that number in 2010. Using workbooks, which begin with basic questions about the children’s identities and experiences, the objective is to eventually create savings clubs among their groups of friends, to maintain a personal “piggy bank,” to record deposits and to integrate their financial discipline into other aspects of their lives, like academics, hygiene and environmental consciousness. To accompany the Aflatoun program, the Fundación is taking child savings to an even deeper level. In 2010, they created a new training module – one of twelve that the women’s committees receive each time they enter a new loan cycle – that trains the mothers themselves how to teach their children to save. A workbook which includes a comic strip about buying a new bicycle, a place to draw a picture of their “dream,” instructions on how to create a piggy bank from recycled materials around the house, and a chart to record their deposits, provides the basis for this training, which allows mothers to pass on their own newly-developed savings skills to the most important people in their lives, the people for whom they work and save to provide in the first place.
On the way back to Asunción from an excursion this weekend, an enormous sign caught my attention from one of the city buildings. It read “Family Doctor” and listed its numerous services. It suddenly dawned on me that this, more appropriately, is how I envision Fundación Paraguaya – as the “family doctor” of microfinance. From child savings activities, to programs like Junior Achievement and the self-sufficient agricultural schools that teach microentrepreneurial skills to high school and college-age students, to initiatives like Ikatú that move beyond financial criteria to address indicators such as health, education, and self-esteem as a measure of their clients’ well-being, Fundación Paraguaya takes a holistic approach to poverty. They work to ensure a more rich and productive life for multiple generations of microentrepreneurs. Rather than trying to pin down a generic diagnosis and prescription, they look at the historical experience of their clients and tie it all together. They support the people of Paraguay through every stage in their lives, helping them to grow healthy and strong, and healing the wounds of poverty for both adult microentrepreneurs and their wonderful “creatures.”