Inspirational Woman Interview: Mariko Helm

Mariko Helm is the Development & Communications Coordinator of Escuela Caracol, an intercultural kindergarten and primary school on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala that seeks to offer a model for educational reform centered on serving the needs of the whole child. With Escuela Caracol, Mariko supports with the coordination of sponsorships and communications with international donors and visitors. With extensive experiences in international development, Mariko previously worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on projects related to vaccines, polio, WASH, agriculture and financial inclusion as a Senior Account Executive at Weber Shandwick, a global communications and engagement firm.

Can you tell us about how you came to Escuela Caracol and some of the initiatives you have led with Escuela Caracol?

Mariko Helm: I began working with Escuela Caracol in May 2016 as their Development and Marketing Coordinator. I had wanted to work abroad in a developing country for a while, and was able to find this job opening in the beautiful highlands of Lake Atitlán. Since I started, I’ve been managing donor relations and child sponsorships, revamped their marketing materials, coordinated volunteers and visitors, and run the 2016 Annual Campaign to raise funds for the next school year.

What are the biggest barriers to early childhood education in the communities that Escuela Caracol serves?

Mariko Helm: Overall, the education sector in Guatemala is still in recovery after the long civil war during which many leaders of the educational system were persecuted and “disappeared.” To this day, public schools are very underfunded and overcrowded. In some families, childhood education may still not be considered a high priority due to challenging financial circumstances.

Can you share some of your experiences with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and your most valuable takeaways?

Mariko Helm: Consulting for the Gates Foundation as an employee of Weber Shandwick, a public relations agency, was a really great opportunity for me to get involved in international development. I was able to glean insights on the importance of strategic communication and advocacy for key global issues that affect millions of rural and impoverished people around the world. With the changing landscape of international development, cross-sector partnerships are really critical in making progress on the new Sustainable Development goals. It’s really quite exciting to see how many for-profit multinational corporations are creating Corporate Social Responsibility programs to provide assistance to the poor.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges to financial inclusion in underbanked and unbanked communities internationally?

Mariko Helm: There are many reasons why low-income and rural populations have historically been excluded from the formal economy. Many formal financial services require a form of identification and/or financial history to open an account. Many rural dwellers and low-income women in particular do not have this information to provide. There is also institutional prejudice against low-income people, and different countries even have bank regulations in place that restrict financial inclusion opportunities for women, in particular. For those who live in quite rural regions, there are rarely ever brick-and-mortar banks located in those areas, as banks need to be able to foresee a profit before investing in such an office. This means they have to travel, taking time off work, to access these formal financial services.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges to financial inclusion in underbanked and unbanked communities internationally?

Mariko Helm: Women’s empowerment is so important because it holds the key to progress. This stands true for both developed and developing countries. Studies have shown that investing in women and girls helps lift entire communities out of poverty because these women in turn invest in the education and health of their children. Placing restrictions – whether societal or institutional – on women only hinders the growth and strength of economies and societies as a whole. No one – girl or boy – should be restricted because of their gender.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Mariko Helm: I grew up with several great role models, but my neighbor Maike Hall is likely one of the most influential. She was an amazing and strong woman who excelled at everything she tried. In her lifetime she was a nurse, carpenter, baker, photographer, artist and professional competitor in speed bicycling in Germany. More than anything, she was the kindest person and taught me many lessons on patience and love. In her own way, she never saw any barriers for herself – and if she did, she worked hard until she overcame them.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to international development and/or education?

Mariko Helm: Most of my favorite resources are centered on the issue of global financial inclusion. My favorite book is Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven. It provides such interesting insights into the financial lives of the poor in particular countries, and addresses many false preconceptions we may have! I like reviewing databases like the World Bank’s World Development Indicators site, the annual financial inclusion reports from the World Bank and Brookings Institute, and subscribe to updates from Devex, Center for Financial Inclusion, and Chris Skinner’s The Finanser blog.
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