Meeting Mr. Simpson

by carolstigger / Aug 25, 2008 / 1 comments

On a pristine, Jamaican beach, tourists recline on padded chairs and leave their worries to Clive. Need a dry towel? Clive will provide. A frosty drink? It's in your hand. Too hot? Clive muscles your chair under a leafy canopy. When his is not directly serving guests, he is picking up litter and raking the sand.

With an easy, plesant smile, he handed me a fruit punch and leaned over my chair. "Hello, I'm Clive Simpson, the beach boy." he is one of 100,000 Jamaicans who earn their daily bread, and little else, making sure that tourists think they are in Eden.

I was trying to forget a Jamaican sight that tourists rarely see: Kingston's Riverton City, a garbage dump where people build shanties from refuse and forage for food along with pigs. The boy with his amiable smile was obviously poor, but he had a dignity denied to adults whose only work is picking through garbage or standing in charity lines.

Clive I soon learned -- for he was eager to talk -- is a father of twin girls and an infant son. He wants to move to the U.S. so he can take better care of his family.

"My children live with my grandmother," he said. "Their mother took off. It is hard when a family can't have their own home." In America he envisioned making enough money to send home so eventually they could be a family again.

This young man was not a candidate for Riverton City's soup kitchen. He had pride and, it seemed to me, far too much intelligence to settle for a career of fetching towels for tourists.

I asked him why he did not borrow money to start his own business in Jamaica. I pointed out that tourists need taxis as well as towels.

He nodded. A taxi business would, indeed, solve his problems. He mimed clutching a steering wheel and assured me he had keen eyesight and quick reflexes. In fact, he had thought about it, but realized that borrowing money was not an option that was available to him or any poor man in Jamaica. I was surprised he knew the word "collateral" for it was apparent that he had none. Even if he did, the interest on $4,000 (the cost of a taxi) would be an additional $4,000.

"The bank repossesses many taxis," he said. "Then the banker sells them cheap to friends or for a bribe."

I asked him if he could save money for a down payment. He explained a beach boy's economics: food and rent are $49 a week; his salary is $40 a week including tips. A few months ago the resort posted a notice that it was not necessary to tip the beach boys. His salary was not raised.

In years of working with international charities, I had learned that their are two basic ways to help poor people. The first, handouts of food and other necessities is the most common. The other is to make available something we take for granted: business credit. Around the world, poor people are proving credit worthy. With small loans, called microcredit, to start little businesses, they work their way out of poverty. Their initial collateral may be a reputation for honesty and a good business plan, which a microcredit organization will help develop.

I told him that a loan officer from a microcredit organization based in Kingston reguarly visits the island's resort areas looking for men and women like him who are honest, hardworking, and have good business ideas.

He pulled up a beach chair, ignoring a topless young woman waving for a drink. "Fair interest?" he asked. "I don't have to be rich?" I nodded, but he asked both quesitons again. He looked out to the turquoise sea and the curtain of disbelief disoolved. "I could say in Jamaica! I could be a businessman!"

I gave him a name and a phone number. I told him I would tell a loan officer from the microcredit organization to be expecting a call from my friend Clive, who wanted to buy a taxi.

The beach boy's haandshake was firm, but he had a final request. "When you tell him about me, will you call me Mr. Simpson, not Clive?"

"Certainly," I said. "But there's no need to be formal."

"Clive is a beach boy," he explained. "Mr. Simpson is a business man."

(c) Carol Stigger -- originally published in Chrisitian Science Monitor.


After years of working with international relief and development organiztions, Mr. Simpson convinced me that microcredit is a dignified solution to family poverty for adults who are willing and able to work. At the time, microcredit was the new kid on the poverty-relief block, charity's stepchild, to name brand charities. After all, isn't chairty delivering land-sea containers of rice and everyone's old clothes to the grateful poor?

Microcredit became a household word when Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microcredit in Asia. While the debate goes on, the questions have changed from "how can you charge poor people interest?" to "shouldn't microcredit organizations become formal banks?" But that's another story.

I good book on microcredit (that I helped write) is A BILLION BOOTSTRAPS by Smith and Thurman, McGraw Hill, 2007.

As the NGO editor for Wandering Educators, it will be my pleasure to bring you stories of microentrepreneurs and the visionary people who are helping them work out of poverty. I am such a believer in microcredit that I volunteer with a grassroots microcredit organization in India every winter for two months. I will also bring you stories of NGOs with other agendas, because microcredit is not THE solution to world poverty, it is just one of the more sustainable methods.

Vasanti (below) in Nagpur, India, built her house and raised her family on profits from her microbusiness, the little store outside her house 

Comments (1)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    15 years 10 months ago

    that we can hardly imagine, in our own lives. Welcome to Wandering Educators, Carol, as our NGO Editor. Your voice is important, and I am glad your'e here to share it.


    Jessie Voigts


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