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21/01/2014 16:13:14 PM

The unique experience of an English student at STU

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As a prospective undergraduate economics student in Britain, and having just completed half a year’s work at a management consulting firm in London, I am very interested in microfinance and curious to see how it works in the developing world. After several months,  having applied and been accepted by CFRC, an NGO specializing in microfinance in Vietnam, I started my two week exposure in Tuan Giao (Dien Bien province) where CFRC’s new project, Standard Transaction Office (STU), is located.

The journey, from the old capital of Hanoi, through the dramatic mountains in the North West provinces of Vietnam, took  me and the two microfinance practitioners accompanying me, into rural Vietnam in its most rudimentary form. We were moving in the opposite direction to the recent trend of rural-urban migration in Vietnam. The infrastructure standards clearly deteriorated the further we got into the countryside; most obvious were the the roads, where flooding caused us to be delayed. Eventually we arrived at the Community Finance Resource Center’s (CFRCs) new office for the Standard Transaction Unit at around 8pm.

Upon arriving at the STU office, I was greeted with the big smiles of very enthusiastic practitioners, led by the fervent Mr Tuan. 
My first morning was taken up by a presentation given to me by Lien Pham, who operates the Business Development Service Unit, briefing me on STU’s operations, procedures, the personnel, business environment and the wider view of CFRC as an organization. Every day after that, I accompanied a credit officer and the unit manager on their daily rounds, including: visiting prospective clients, doing appraisals of new members, training, meeting etc. I spoke to many clients, got to know their stories and their businesses, and to understand how their lives have changed after taking out microloans. 

From the outset, one thing that became clear--a thing which is often misunderstood about microfinance-- is that they are not just pure financial institutions. The additional value of microfinance is the education and training it provides which in turn changes attitudes and habits, and also contributes to social cohesion, which I discovered in the case of STU, is very profound. In almost every activity undertaken by the office, and every interaction with the community outside, one underlying motivation shone through:  its willingness to try to create a better society, not just the provision of some basic financial services. 

I was visiting and talking to a member of STU

On a free day, I helped give an English lesson as part of a village project that Lien and Ha, another project officer, had set up called the Village Bookshelf. Armed with a football, guitar, a lot of English phrases and some food, we went into Bông Village, where Lien and other officers had been going regularly to give lessons to the children.  Rain on the day before had made the road very muddy and slippery so I had to walk from the main road to the village. Right when we entered the village, we were greeted by a group of excited children. 

I was teaching English to the children in Bông Village
The bookshelf is installed in a tiny thatch house hosted by Ms. Hinh, but no one seemed to mind about that. We soon started the lesson with the kids. They ranged from 7-13 years old, but all got on well as a group, encouraging each other and helping their friends learn. Most importantly and pleasing to see, was that the children genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, and this can be put down to the project officers who seem to have invested a lot of time in the children and built up some strong relationships with them .  We learned English, sang, danced, played games and laughed a lot. Some of the children are very bright and in the 2 hour lesson we gave, they picked up some English phrases with pretty accurate pronunciation. The afternoon was very meaningful to both the children and to us, the organizers. 

The 2 week intern period at STU was insightful, fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. In terms of my development perspective, I can now understand where microfinance fits into the puzzle. It fills one of the many capital gaps suffered by the people living here in poverty. STU functions as an effective financial institution, despite the backward regulatory environment they are faced with, and they act as an excellent springboard for other fantastic initiatives.  From what I could observe, this could be attributed to the operational model, whereby there’s not only an intimate relationship between the members and the credit officers, but also the passion the practitioners bring to what they are doing and to the wider social aims of the project is remarkable.

Robert Marks,
September 2013