Driving on a main highway in Mexico, I slow down at a stoplight. A man outside my window is igniting a cotton ball on a stick soaked in gasoline and extinguishing the flame in his mouth. He starts approaching the cars to ask for money for his admittedly breath-taking stunt. I don’t give him anything; I don’t want to reward him for potentially blowing his head off. Nor do I want to facilitate the slow but certain onset of brain damage caused by inhaling gasoline fumes. I have the urge to give him 200 pesos if he promises to take the day off, but I know he won’t. The scene makes me wonder how hopeless a man must be to try to earn a living this way.

For six months this year, my family and I lived in a small village in Oaxaca to study hope. Oaxaca is a curious place to try to find hope. It is the poorest state in Mexico, and many of the people in villages like ours are not very hopeful. The same social and political problems that have plagued other regions in Latin America linger here: vast inequality, corruption, unemployment, violence against women. Children in Oaxaca suffer one of the worst educational systems in the Western Hemisphere. Such realities wither hope into a dry fatalism. “Mexico is the country of the future,” say the locals—“and always will be.”

I continue in my mud-spackled Toyota pickup down a dirt road in our village, toward the highway that leads to the office of Fuentes Libres in the City of Oaxaca. The nonprofit is a good example of the challenges we are facing.

Fuentes Libres is a micro-lender affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Its leaders kindly agreed to participate in our research. The experience of Fuentes Libres mirrors that of many nonprofits who offer microfinance: It doesn’t work as ...

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