Thus far, I’ve been pretty overwhelmingly positive about the work I’ve been doing with CE Solutions/Soluciones Comunitarias. But that is not to say the work that I’ve been doing has been perfect, nor that the MicroConsignment Model under which we operate is without flaws (or competition). A lot of these imperfections came to light in the past few days in particular, both with our model in specific and with the NGO climate in general in Guatemala. On Saturday, our students held their second campaigns – we split the group of 10 into two groups of 5, and I was in charge of directing the campaign in San Pablo, along with Juana (the regional coordinator), and two of our entrepreneurs, Rosa and Margarita. However, the campaign was unfortunately a complete 180 from the huge success that we saw last week when we sold over 40 pairs of glasses (likely an organizational record). I’m hesitant to call the campaign a complete failure, but it definitely was not a success. Numbers-wise, our sales were extremely low. We sold only 3 pairs of glasses, a few eye drops, and a few lightbulbs, and ended up packing up due to lack of interest. Barely anyone came to our campaign, and though we tried to do some extra publicity by walking around the town and talking to people, the public seemed generally disinterested.
A number of factors came together to create these issues. First, as my co-workers have emphasized, all campaigns are different. Some communities are extremely excited about purchasing SolCom products (“solutions”); others are less so. Timing is also an important factor. Whereas the center of town was bustling earlier in the week when we were in San Pablo to do publicity, it was relatively empty on Saturday morning during our campaign (it’s hard to predict or explain traffic flows in these small towns, but certainly market days and other community events play some role). In addition, as Juana explained to me, San Pablo is an example of a community that is very used to receiving donated products (and many of the same products that we are attempting to sell, albeit at a low cost), and is also a less affluent community than others where we might hold campaigns. There were a number of people who came to the campaign, had their eyes examined, and then expressed that they either did not have the money to purchase their eyeglasses, or explicitly asked us to give them a discount or give them out for free. And finally, as we discovered while wandering the town trying to bring people to the campaign, we were facing direct competition – an official eye exam center had been set up on the other side of town. The eye exams there cost 10Q and the glasses ranged from 200-300Q (whereas our exams are free and our glasses run from 55Q-90Q), but the other center was much more permanent – it’s probably there on a daily basis, if not permanently, then for a certain number of weeks – and boasted the ability to give eye exams with machinery, as opposed to the simple paper/post eye exams that we conduct. Our eye exams are just as accurate as eye exams given with professional-grade machinery but are simply done at much lower cost, however, this is not something that is always recognized by the communities we are trying to reach. I’m glad that I was able to see the contrast between my first and second campaigns, but it was definitely an eye-opening and reflective experience in itself.
The issue with donations came up again last week with regards to water filters – not ours, but rather those that are donated by well-intended NGOs. In San Juan, where we were based, a team from Rotary International came through three years ago and donated a large amount of water filters to members of the community. Like our filters, the candelas (the interior portion that does the actual filtering) MUST be replaced each and every year in order for the filter to actually work. However, as we have come to realize, this information was not disseminated clearly and effectively when the filters were donated…which means that the majority of people in San Juan who received these filters have not replaced their candelas in the entirety of the three years. This brings up important issues with sustainability. Donating products in itself is not necessarily a bad practice – in the short term, it does mean that there is increased access to a certain product or necessity for a community. However, once those filters stopped filtering properly (about two years ago), the well-intended water filters actually caused more harm then they helped, as the families who were using them were convinced that they were drinking filtered water, when in reality, they might as well have been drinking water directly from the tap. And beyond the fact that many families were not aware that they would even need to replace their candela, or offered opportunities to do so (whether through Rotary itself or an external organization like ours), the fact that they received the filter for free initially means that they are less willing to pay for a replacement candela or filter. Think about it: if something was given to you for free just a few years ago, and now you’re being asked to pay for it….wouldn’t you be a little bit confused?
Finally, the need to replace candelas on a yearly basis provides its own issues even just within our own organization. Though we write the expiration date on each filter as it is purchased, and try to follow up with each purchaser by phone as that date approaches, the reality is that our campaigns are held nationwide, and are mobile and sporadic, so it is ultimately pretty unlikely that all (or even the majority) of candelas will be replaced as often as they should be. Ideally, it would be each purchaser’s responsibility to seek out and replace their candela each year, but it’s simply not always possible. In my region, Solola, we are lucky to have a storefront where (hopefully), clients can go at their convenience to purchase candelas or any other products, but this is not true in most of our other regions. This is a problem that I’ve already talked about a bit with some of the other Field Consultants and plan to continue doing so to seek out new strategies and solutions, but ultimately, it’s going to be a continual challenge.
Even with these criticisms and issues, I’m still extremely impressed by the work of SolCom and am proud and excited to be a part of this team. But as I’ve learned from my academic background and previous experiences abroad that a healthy dose of cynicism and criticism is a necessary balance to optimism and realism, and I hope to channel all of this into coming up with new and creative ideas to make SolCom, and my region in particular, function as smoothly as possible and to create the greatest impact it possibly can. No development model is perfect – it’s just the nature of the field – but taking things one day at a time, understanding the good with the bad, and always striving to hone and improve on a daily basis is the only way to discover (and ultimately, to make) the necessary adjustments towards success and progress.