Beating the Odds in Kyrgyzstan

For the summer, I wanted to see what working with a large international NGO would be like. After HBS, I am considering seeking a career as a Country Director of an international humanitarian NGO, and a field internship was an ideal way to see the role of Country Director up close. I got in touch with some senior people in the humanitarian field, thanks to the help of Audrey Choi (OA) and Dan Curran, the Director of HBS’ Humanitarian Leadership Program.

Thanks to those contacts, I found a position with Mercy Corps in Kyrgyzstan. Mercy Corps is an international humanitarian organization that provides emergency relief services to assist people affected by conflict or disaster, and also develops sustainable communities. In Kyrgyzstan, I was overseeing two credit programs for Mercy Corps: a micro-credit program that provided group loans to about 15,000 regional Kyrgyz; and a small business credit fund that provided individual loans to around 500 growing businesses in urban areas. Both groups were chronically underfinanced; the Kyrgyz banking system had been through numerous crises and was not yet willing or able to provide adequate service to small businesses and the poor.

The specific focus of my assignment was creating a path to sustainability for the credit program targeted at the rural poor and launching a marketing plan for the small business credit program. To achieve this I worked intensively with Mercy Corps’ Kyrgyz staff, discussing how to grow their business and how to become sustainable, which was great.

However, I was soon drawn into assisting Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan resist a campaign of harassment by elements within the Kyrgyz government.

Mercy Corps had been subject to an excessive number of inspections attempts across the preceding 12 months. The officials attempting these inspections seemed more interested in gaining access to Mercy Corps cash and resources than in ensuring compliance with legislation!

In early July, the harassment climaxed with Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan’s Country Director being placed under criminal investigation. I came back to the office one day and found 5 armed men outside, and an inspector of the Kyrgyz financial police inside. He wanted to charge the Mercy Corps Country Director and seize Mercy Corps’ assets. Effectively this would have shut down Mercy Corps operations in Kyrgyzstan.

The Country Director and I had a long discussion with the inspector pointing out that he would be shutting down an operation that was helping to develop Kyrgyzstan. The negotiation started going our way when I discovered they had spelled Mercy Corps’ name incorrectly in the legal papers. It was a little tense sitting across the table from an irate Senior Inspector of the Kyrgyzstan Financial Police, and refusing to permit an illegal inspection, all the while knowing that he had the power to interrogate us for 3 days without charges.

We bought ourselves four days before he returned, and the office became a hive of activity as we prepared for the worst. I didn’t really sleep for a couple of days while we shipped records out, cleared outstanding debts and prepared the staff for the worst.

Most of the expatriate staff left Kyrgyzstan. The Country Director and I went to Istanbul and continued working with our Kyrgyz lawyers by long-distance. After a few days of working with the lawyers, I returned to Kyrgyzstan while the Country Director (who still potentially had charges pending) remained in Istanbul. As one of two expat staff in the country, the final month of the internship was largely spent negotiating with the Kyrgyz government and our lawyers, seeking assistance from the US Embassy and brainstorming strategies to resist the harassment without Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan operations being shutdown. It was a little hectic at times -trying to keep up the work on the credit programs while keeping Mercy Corps’ doors open.

The section B experience really helped me make some difficult decisions. As I mentioned, I had to leave Kyrgyzstan and head to Istanbul for a few days at the peak of the harassment. While there, I had the opportunity to conclude the internship immediately or return to Kyrgyzstan to hold the operations together, while at the same time trying to make the credit programs work. By this stage, I was tired of the continual harassment of Mercy Corps by the Kyrgyz government, and I was very tempted to leave the internship right away. I thought back to some of the Section B discussions, and the amazing things my section mates had done. In a way, I felt quitting early would be letting the section down. With that in mind, I decided to return to Kyrgyzstan, which proved to be the right decision.

Something I learned by returning is the effect that simple acts can have. Understandably, the local staff members were petrified by the Financial Police and were distressed when the expatriate staff members had to leave. When I came back, they began to believe that Mercy Corps would pull through and that everything could still work out. The symbolic power of simply returning really surprised me.

My personal goal in the internship was to examine the role of a Humanitarian NGO Country Director as a potential future career. Although the balance between the work tasks was unexpected and not what I would have initially chosen, working intensely with the Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan Country Director in a crisis situation did allow me to see the operations through her eyes, and to develop a strong understanding of the position.

In addition, being able to complete most of the credit program goals and contributing to the development of sustainable financial institutions in Kyrgyzstan was great.

I’m still working through my options for next year but will be returning to the developing world. I honestly believe that HBS MBAs can have a huge impact in a developing context – maybe my career will help prove it!