August 2, 2010 | 6:05 AM
In my last post I described my legal internship at Grameen America, an organization dedicated to combating poverty by providing micro-loans to low-income entrepreneurs.
This morning I woke up before the sun rose to attend a borrower meeting in the far off land of Jackson Heights, Queens. The borrower meeting was at 6AM, necessitating waking up around 4AM. Seeing Midtown nearly empty is a strange sight. It had a certain I Am Legend-style feel to it.
The borrower meeting was located in one of the borrower’s homes. About twenty borrowers meet at the woman’s apartment each week to make repayments to a loan officer who visits several borrower groups around the city each day.
Unfortunately, the branch manager had given me the wrong address. I quickly realized this after the family whose doorbell I rung at 6AM was not too pleased to see me. After that fun conversation, and waking up my supervisor to get accurate directions, I discovered the meeting was in the building next door.
I’d seen the set up before, just not in a room with electricity. I was surprised to see the borrower meeting in Queens was strikingly similar to one I’d seen before in the Dominican Republic. The borrowers sat together in a small room, chatting with each other about their businesses, waiting to make their repayments to the loan officer, trying to keep their bored children entertained. One by one they gave their repayments to a loan officer sitting at a table, a large ledger in front of her. The officer would count the money three times, sign off on the ledger, make small talk with the borrower about her business’s progress, and call up the next borrower. Borrowers who made their repayments stood in the hall of the apartment building, waiting for their group-mates to finish business.
I was shocked to see the similarities with microfinance borrower meetings I had witnessed in the Dominican Republic. I imagined cultural differences or at the very least the microfinance institution’s borrower meeting organization would have made the meetings dissimilar, but the meeting ran as I had seen it before.
The only noticeable difference in borrower meetings was the lack of singing at the Queens meeting. The microfinance institution I worked with last summer in the DR was a Christian NGO, so each borrower meeting included a prayer and a song. While Grameen America is not affiliated with any religious organization, I doubt very much the neighbors would have tolerated a chorus so early in the morning.
“Why 6AM?” I asked the loan officer.
“They have no excuse not to be here,” she replied bluntly. “After the meeting the borrowers go off to run their businesses for the day.”