Thursday, July 24, 2008

An "animator" asks for a loan

FAVL receives email all the time from people who are in the process or who have already started small community libraries in villages in Africa. Everyone has lots of questions, and I won;t say we are the experts, though we have learned a lot. The most common advice we give is that the hard part of managing libraries is managing people after the library is inaugurated. It is easy to build, easy (and fun!) to buy books or open and classify cartons of books, easy to order shelves and chairs. But making sure that librarians do a good show (show up on time, encourage readers, manage accounts, track inventory) is really hard in places where rural populations have little experience with "office work" and with separating the "office" from their personal lives.

One of the reasons it is hard is that there is a huge discrepancy between the "status" of the typical expatriate library social entrepreneur and the library workers. A case in point. Last week we started to reading camps in the villages. I had recruited a young man who had experience doing similar literacy programs in Ouagadougou. He is a extroverted, fast-talking, talented young man who has his hands in many pots. As we prepared for the camp, he would occasionally mention this or that other activity he was involved in, and there was a last minute "rush" to the bank to receive or cash a check. I tried not to pay too much attention. So then it turns out he received the check but it was destroyed in the huge rainstorm of last Friday. He showed it to me- a semi-washed out check for a sizable amount, and asked if when we returned from the village we could have it delivered to the issuer to get a new one. We did that. Then I got an SMS... can he borrow $600 to cover his other project costs? I replied categorically not. Then he called, and started on the explanations. I was successfully peremptory: "No."

The point, though, is that several years of experience of making bad decisions (trying to help by giving loans here and there) prepared me for this exercise in people management. It is hard to say no, but for the sake of the institution it is necessary. Just like firing people. Very hard to do, but if you don't, the common purpose of the institution is compromised. Easy and glib enough to write... very very hard to carry out in practice.

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