Author and microcredit expert shares lessons in sustainability
Marilyn Fitzgerald, right, meets with Muhammad Yunus, who wrote the foreword to her book "If I Had a Water Buffalo." Fitzgerald serves as microcredit adviser and economic and community development coordinator for District 6290.
Years ago, Marilyn Fitzgerald learned valuable lessons about sustainability from an impoverished rice farmer in Indonesia.
Fitzgerald, a past-president of the Rotary Club of Traverse City, Michigan, USA, was visiting a community to which her club was sending money to enable the children to attend school. But the farmer she encountered didn’t want money; he wanted a water buffalo.
The events that followed became the subject of her recently published book, “If I Had a Water Buffalo,” and have shaped her thinking about sustainability, a key principle of The Rotary Foundation’s new grant model. Fitzgerald now shares those lessons with Rotary clubs she visits, which recently included the Rotary Club of Evanston Lighthouse, in Illinois, USA.
Water buffalo, piglets, and hens
Fitzgerald relates how she persuaded her family to give her money as a Christmas gift so she could buy the farmer a water buffalo. The result was that he was able to triple his crop yield, increase his income, and therefore send his children to school.
The next year, women in the village wanted 20 piglets to raise, breed, and sell. Then the children wanted hens so they could make and sell an egg snack popular in the area. Eventually, many community members increased their self-sufficiency.
“For less than US$1,200, they were [able to send] their own children to school,” Fitzgerald says. By contrast, “I was up to a $72,000 budget on the school project. I had never even asked them what they wanted.”
The most important thing any Rotarian can do to make a project sustainable, she says, is to listen. The local community has to be involved in all stages of a project, from identifying a need to coming up with a solution to implementing that solution.
“At the end of the day, they have to feel good about themselves,” Fitzgerald says. “They need to feel so good about themselves that they can go on with the effort themselves.”
She defines sustainability as the ability of a project to continue once the donations end.
“A lot of people tell me a project is sustainable because they have long-term donors or they have all these clubs involved,” she says. “But that’s not true. If the donors walk away, what happens to the project?”
Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist, is a board member of the Rotary Action Group for Microcredit and serves as microcredit adviser and economic and community development coordinator for District 6290. She says she likes microfinance projects because a well-run program lets the beneficiaries come up with their own business plan, while Rotarians provide the capital and act as mentors.
What they really wanted was cell phones
During her Evanston appearance, Fitzgerald relayed another story, about visiting a village to pursue a sanitation project for her club, only to discover that the villagers really wanted cell phones.
“I thought, no way is my club going to go for cell phones.” But when she probed further, she discovered that the villagers wanted the phones so they could relay business decisions – such as what color fabric is really selling well – to their markets more than a day’s journey from the village.
“If we provide cell phones and [villagers] increase their income, then they can buy these other things,” says Fitzgerald. “We absolutely have to talk to our beneficiaries and ask them what they want. We need to educate them about the possibilities, then let them determine the solution that’s right for them.”
She says she used to believe that any charity was better than none, but she no longer feels that way.
“I believe we can cause great harm when we build programs that people become dependent on,” she says. “Charity robs people of choice, voice, and dignity.”