Spreading Knowledge, Fostering Sustainability Abroad: U of U Students Join Global Brigades

The U of U global brigade in business and microfinance, on-site in Honduras this spring.

The U of U global brigade in business and microfinance, on-site in Honduras this spring.

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

For many students, spring break was a time for relaxing, catching up on homework, or partying. Not so for a group of 20 U of U students and community members, who spent the week off from school—plus a few extra days—teaching community members in rural Honduras the ins and outs of community banking and small business management.

Alyssa Corbett, co-president of the business and microfinance brigade, explains to small business owners a set of profitability guidelines her brigade prepared.

Alyssa Corbett, co-president of the business and microfinance brigade, works with a translator to bring to small business owners a set of profitability guidelines her brigade prepared.

The group’s departure marked the U of U’s first mission with Global Brigades, a 12-year-old international organization that aims to build sustainable, holistic communities through development projects in Ghana, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Today, there are about 450 active Global Brigades chapters, in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland. Almost 40,000 volunteers have participated in more than 2,000 trips since the organization was established.

The organization operates under the hope that after a few trips to a given site, the brigades will have worked themselves out of a job.

On May 9, a second brigade, including 15 students from the U of U and 10 from the University of Miami, Fla., will depart for a yet-to-be-determined site in rural Panama. They will spend seven days providing community members with basic medical and dental assistance and health education.

Austin Gamblin, co-president of the U's medical brigade, tables at an event to raise funds and awareness for his group's upcoming trip to Panama.

Austin Gamblin, co-president of the U’s medical brigade, tables at an event to raise funds and awareness for his group’s upcoming trip to Panama.

It’s a trip that the medical brigade’s co-presidents, U of U students Austin Gamblin and Kenneth Butler, have been planning for more than a year. Gamblin is a sophomore studying chemistry and biology, and Butler, who already has a psychology degree from the U, is pre-med.

Gamblin says he is looking forward to the insight he will receive from visiting a developing country for the first time. He is also interested in seeing how doctors and dentists in Panama perform procedures without relying on advanced technology.

“I’m really looking forward to providing help where help, in regards to healthcare, is hard to come by,” says Butler. “I don’t pretend to be a hero, but there’s something special about serving others and teaching them how to live a higher quality of life. We doon’t want to change their way of life, we just wantto help them improve the quality of it.”

For the recently returned members of the business and microfinance brigade, the trip was an eye-opening experience. The students spent 10 days in Guaricayan, Honduras, a rural town of 185 residents. It was the first time abroad for many of the brigade members and the first time most had visited a developing country.

Guaricayan is near Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in the province of Francisco Morazan.

Guaricayan is near Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in the province of Francisco Morazan.

Kids, Guaricayan, Honduras.

Kids in Guaricayan, Honduras.

The students participated in two main projects: offering business advice to the owners of two small, family-owned enterprises—a chicken farm and a tamale producer—and helping to promote and develop a small community bank, which Global Brigades had established at the site several years prior.

Chickens from a farm in Guaricayan

Chickens on a farm in Guaricayan.

Parker Scott, a junior studying finance, and Alyssa Corbett, a junior in business entrepreneurship, served as co-presidents of the brigade. Both were inspired by the community members’ receptiveness to their instruction.

Corbett says the residents’ reactions were “extremely positive.”

“The people there wanted to learn, more than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” she says.

The students went the extra mile to produce clear and useful aids for the business owners. During the day, they audited the businesses’ cost structures, scouring them for operational or structural inefficiencies. Back at the Global Brigades compound, they worked late into the night to produce business plans, balance sheets, and profitability guidebooks, based on the analyses they had performed during the day. They were then able to sit down with the business owners and explain each document face-to-face, with help from a local interpreter. All documents had been translated into Spanish.

Global brigade members and translators customized business advice to local entrepreneurs.

Global brigade members and translators offer customized business advice to local entrepreneurs.

The brigade’s recommendations were wide-ranging. Students encouraged business owners to adopt the following changes:

  • Adapting production schedules to match the twice-monthly pay days of their customer base
  • Eliminating sales on credit
  • Considering expansion into neighboring communities.

While the brigade’s small business advice was well embraced, Scott says the community bank was a harder sell. Previous Global Brigades groups had established a small bank in the town, capable of holding interest-bearing savings accounts and granting loans. The U of U brigade was tasked with encouraging more community members to invest in the bank.

But the bank, says Scott, was suffering. Students found gaps and discrepancies in the books. Only five savings accounts had been opened, and multiple borrowers had defaulted on their loans. The bank officers were unwilling to collect any collateral, knowing that to do so would financially destroy the borrowers, says Scott.

“At the end of the day, their culture is not as ruthless as ours,” he says.

In short, he says, the residents of Guaricayan weren’t quite sure that a bank was something they needed, or believed in. At the very least, it was a concept that they didn’t fully understand.

In addition to their three main projects, the students had the opportunity to visit other Global Brigades work sites, to see other brigades’ projects, and to witness the organization’s success in gradually transitioning out of communities.

Global Brigade volunteers visiting local school children.

Global Brigade volunteers visiting local school children.

Overall, the trip was “a huge wake-up call for everyone,” says Scott—a life-changing experience, a demonstration of privilege, and a chance to steep themselves— if only briefly—in a different place, a different language and culture, a different way of living.

So far the U has just two brigades—the recently returned microfinance and business brigade, and the medical brigade. In addition to these, Global Brigades solicits groups that target water issues, public health, environmental issues, architecture, and human rights. Organizers of the U’s two chapters say they would like to see one of each type of brigade represented at the U of U.

They believe it is a reasonable goal.

“Students at the U are adventurous, generous with their time and resources, and eager to volunteer,” says Butler.

Interested in joining a brigade in the future, or in heading up a new chapter? Check out the business and microfinance brigade’s Facebook page, or e-mail brigade leaders at desbglobalbrigades@gmail.com. Contact leaders of the medical brigade at kenbutler6@hotmail.com or austingamblin@gmail.com.

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Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

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