Friday, January 15, 2010

Creative Financing

The day before Christmas Eve, I received a call from a Burkinabè acquaintance. His sister was deathly sick in a hospital in Tenkodogo and he desperately needed money to help her. When I asked how much he needed, he said at least 275,000 FCFA (about $550). This is quite a hefty chunk of money in a country where medical services are relatively cheap, so I asked what he planned to do with it. He replied that it was for medical supplies, hospital services, and the hospital stay. I said that I’d call him back.

Calling a Burkinabè colleague with connections in Tenkodogo, I asked him for help in verifying the details of my acquaintance’s story. He inquired at the hospital and a couple of clinics in Tenkodogo that would handle these kinds of cases, but could not find anyone registered under the name my acquaintance had given me. Questioning a doctor friend revealed that the kind of care required for this case would not exceed 50,000 FCFA.

Shortly after this, an expatriate colleague came into my office to talk about some issue. As he was leaving he said, “By the way, I just got a phone call from Mr. X asking for money for a medical emergency.” It turned out to be the same Burkinabè acquaintance who had called me! Now I was beginning to wonder what was going on here.

Further inquiries with various colleagues and friends revealed a disturbing pattern of events. Over the past several years, this man had been contacting a number of them with emotional appeals concerning a variety of medical emergencies or other urgent needs, like schooling for his children, or living accommodations for his family. From some, he was able to borrow substantial amounts of money, promising to pay them back in the near future. None of these people have yet received a cent. From others, he’s received substantial cash gifts.

I honestly don’t think he’s telling outright lies when presenting a need for money. But I’m convinced he’s grossly exaggerating the need and using the excess for some other purpose. Maybe this time he needed extra money for the holidays and a sister’s illness was his ticket to get it.

So how has this man been able to carry on such a pattern of bilking people for so long? Because none of those he approaches for money have been talking with each other about his requests and what they’ve given him. But that’s changing now. I’m talking with people, asking questions, and creating a network of folks who are aware of what’s going on and will keep each other informed. Unfortunately, chances are that none of those who have lent him money will ever get it back. You can’t take money back from someone who apparently never has enough. But hopefully he’ll no longer be able to play that game with this group.

However, it’s a big world out there, and my acquaintance is a pretty friendly guy who knows how to tell an emotional story. Maybe he’ll just learn to cast his net a little wider. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! :)

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