For this article we are privileged to hear from MIDP’s Rowena (Weng) Veloso, who provides a wonderfully informative and reflective piece about the experience of her recent Monash internship in Fiji.
‘Bula, na yacaqu o Weng’ (Hello, my name is Weng). This was my usual introduction in the communities I visited during my month-long internship in Fiji. Perhaps it was my funny accent in the Fijian tongue, but I found it amusing that most of the women in the different villages called me ‘Wendy’.
Before ending up at Monash to study a Master in International Development Practice by some twist of faith, I was an accountant and a Master of Business Administration graduate in the Philippines. I also worked at a multinational company for 7 years doing finance and sales. I suppose due to my background, I have always found the subject of financial education interesting and how the knowledge, or the lack thereof, could spell boon or bane for people.
I was one of the 5 students who volunteered for this year’s Fiji Impact Trip. The program is a collaboration between the Monash SEED, a student-run organisation, and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), the largest microfinance institution in Fiji, with branches spread throughout the country. Centre Managers, who are part of SPBD’s staff, are the institution’s front liners and managed the accounts of the members who organised themselves into groups and centres. One of my main tasks was to work with these different managers to visit four to five villages a day, where women held Centre Meetings to make weekly loan repayments and savings. During these gatherings, where the women also socialise and discuss any issues, I conducted member satisfaction surveys using a semi open-ended interview format aimed at gathering data and feedback on the participants’ experiences with SPBD.
My short stint in Fiji provided me with a greater insight into microfinance and financial literacy. Microfinance has become a bridge to financial inclusion for these women, most of whom are housewives, and some of whom are illiterate. It has enabled them to become financially included despite their lack of formal documents, collateral, and their villages’ lack of proximity to traditional financial institutions. I heard multitudes of amazing stories on how these women were able to start their own businesses, turn their skills into income-generating endeavours, improve their household, contribute to their children’s education, and build up their savings. Sadly, these narratives are not reflective of everyone as there were those who have not been able to pay their obligations, leading to a worse financial standing. Some of the women have been alienated from their communities as other members had to shoulder the debts because of the group and centre guarantee clause. Even though microfinance is often hailed as the panacea for poverty alleviation, it can also be a double-edged sword. Does it truly empower women or does it make others more vulnerable? There are no easy answers. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to understand more of how microfinance plays out in gender and development.
Conducting the field work helped me gain a much greater appreciation for the theories I learned at university since I have no prior background in development, notwithstanding the fact that I am from a developing country myself. The field work reinforced the importance of cultural sensitivity, which was not only limited to the physical observance of wearing the sulu (traditional Fijian skirt), leaving my footwear at the door, or sitting on the mats with the women in the villages. Being culturally sensitive is essentially about respect. In this context it was also a celebration of the uniqueness of the Fijians I engaged with and of my own multicultural team. The acknowledgment of differences is also fundamental in practicing reflexivity, which is the awareness of how my own background could inform my biases. I also discovered that in dealing with people, no theory can ever substitute sincerity, empathy, and deep listening. It was indeed humbling to recognise that I came to Fiji not because I could teach something to the women, but because I needed to learn from them. Being open-minded enabled me to immerse myself in the stories of resilience from the ladies who warmly welcomed me into their homes and into their lives, even if it was for just a brief period.
This same kind of openness was what perhaps drove me to feel at home. Midway through the field work, in the villages and in the SPBD branches, I decided to embrace my Pacific Islander name ‘Wendy’, which I could never help telling people without a chuckle. Maybe this sense of having a newfound identity is quite telling of what’s in store for me in the future. A shift in career may not be far behind, who knows. For now, vinaka vakalevu (thank you) Fiji!