Book Review: If I Had A Water Buffalo

CGS Publishing, Traverse City – $11.99 – 196 pages

It's not often that I get to review a book written by a local author, so I looked forward to reading "If I Had a Water Buffalo" by Marilyn Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has traveled extensively throughout the world and provides consulting and publication services through her company, Common Ground Solutions.

The book's title refers to Fitzgerald's work in a rural village in Indonesia. Fitzgerald was on her fourth trip to this extremely poor area, working with money obtained back home in the U.S. to fund village children's education.

The book's subtitle suggests that the book is about the process of lending money to individuals or smaller businesses. However, the text is broader than that, addressing the essentials of humanitarian aid that Fitzgerald gleaned from her education and in particular, her experience in Indonesia.

The educational program in the village had been relatively successful yet there were still unmet challenges. Simply collecting more money from donors in the U.S. was becoming problematic. It was about this time that Fitzgerald was given a suggestion that would change her entire approach to fundraising.

Instead of more money for his children's education, a local village man named Nyoman wanted money for … a water buffalo.

Nyoman insisted that if he had the $250 to purchase a water buffalo that he would be able to harvest the nearby rice fields three times a year instead of once, thus tripling the capacity of the rice field and Nyoman's income.

That additional income could then be used to send Nyoman's own children to school rather than relying on donations from Fitzgerald's donors and others.

This breakthrough was a game changer for Fitzgerald who used the water buffalo example as a metaphor to understanding the local landscape instead of blindly solving the problem with money. Sometimes just making a small initial investment can pay off many times over.

In fact, it was eye opening to learn that well-intentioned service clubs and private donors are often mismatched with the actual needs of the community and people that they are intended to serve.

The book is divided into three sections that lay out the essentials to "learn[ing] how sustainability, relationship building, integrative negotiation, and project management are keys to stopping the endless cycle of fundraising and instead have a long-lasting, positive impact."

Fitzgerald focuses much of her book on building giving models that will attain lasting outcomes, which for many novice humanitarian aid efforts is not always in the plan. This process includes serious negotiation, relationship building, and at times conflicts that take considerable time and effort.

In her book, Fitzgerald combines her well-vetted approach for fine-tuning humanitarian aid campaigns with great personal stories. At times her writing is heavy on theory, but that should not be a deterrent for anyone interested in international microfinance.

Since I know Fitzgerald personally, I don't feel I can rate this book impartially. We worked together on a project to bring more financial resources to local small businesses that ultimately was not successful. However, like the book suggests, an experience like ours was just part of the winding road that must be traveled before a successful result is reached.

Chris Wendel serves the Grand Traverse Region as a business consultant and lender with Northern Initiatives, a private, nonprofit community development corporation that provides rural entrepreneurs with access to capital, information and markets.