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When “Stay at Home” Means “Starve at Home”

An Update from Aris Alip, CARD MRI, Philippines
March 28, 2020
Illiquid Contagion
April 1, 2020

Over the last few days, Marin Burt, President of Fundación Paraguaya has been on the phone with the President and leaders of Parliament, convincing them to provide relief for informal sector workers who lost their jobs when the government issued a stay at home order. 

“It’s like an atomic bomb has hit our street vendors and micro entrepreneurs. Police and military are patrolling the streets.  Seamstresses and shop keepers cannot operate.  These people, if they do not sell, they do not eat.”

Martin Burt

At the same time, Martin and his Fundación Paraguaya team have been working to extend help to their 70,000 clients located in every city and town in the country.  He outlined the steps they have taken:

  • No payments required from borrowers for the months of March, April and May
  • Loans still be made to those who need them, including those borrowing to buy food for their families
  • Refinancing available without penalties
  • Loan officers in daily contact with their clients via phone and WhatsApp

The day before we spoke Martin had been in a rural village distributing food and seeds to clients.  “The government programs won’t last,” he said.  “Meanwhile we are starting massive vegetable garden initiatives.  In 40 days, our clients can be harvesting beans, tomatoes, and cassava.”

Dual Focus

The dual role that Fundación Paraguaya has taken on during the coronavirus crisis sets an example for other microfinance providers and promoters of savings groups and self-help groups.  Facing the client, Martin says “We must be compassionate.  We have to put ourselves in the shoes of a single mother with two children and her mother living with her, who needs to generate $10 a day to feed her family.  We don’t want to add any pain to what they are already suffering.”

Fundación Paraguaya also turns to face the government, representing the needs of its clients.  “We are assembling lists of all our self-employed clients by location to make sure they have access to the government programs,” Martin told me.  “We are telling the government that they cannot serve only those with tax returns.  Don’t ask people to stay at home unless you also tell them where their food will be coming from.  Otherwise it sounds like a diabolical joke.”

In addition, Fundación Paraguaya’s advocacy lets the government know how its clients can be part of the solution.  “We tell government to take a holistic approach,” says Burt.  “Ask neighbors to help neighbors.  Don’t treat people as dormant receivers.”

“Put Every Chip on the Table”

Martin knows the risk the organization takes with these steps.   Cash and support will continue to flow out, with no payments coming back for three months.  A liquidity crunch looms.  “We made a commitment to never fail our clients.  They were there to help our institution grow and prosper.  We will be there for them till our last cent.”

Martin urges other financial service providers and promoters to make the same commitment. “I really hope that the microfinance industry puts every chip on the table and says that we are in this boat together.  We can’t be more worried about the equity in our portfolio and the health of our investors than the health of our clients.  Let’s show the world who we really are, and why we got involved in microfinance in the first place.”

“We’re gonna leave our skin on the barbed wire, but that’s why we came.”

Martin Burt

You can view my full 20 minute interview with Martin below.

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