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My Inspiration for Microfinance was Born in Haiti

Published on February 10, 2010

by Chuck Waterfield

All around the world, our thoughts are with the Haitian people, as they work together to overcome yet another tragic situation.  The Haitian proverb – beyond mountains, more mountains – has been so poignantly true for them.

I know Haiti.  I lived in Haiti for three years, and though that was a long time ago, I still find myself slipping into Haitian Creole on occasion.  The language — like the country and people – stays with you.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, I took a job to start up a microfinance program in Haiti.  Actually, the word microfinance didn’t yet exist.  This was the pioneering days, when we were exploring ways to help the self-employed poor to increase their incomes and create jobs. We found that business loans were an excellent vehicle to do just that.  We were inspired at the resourcefulness and appreciation shown by our clients.  We were humbled by the conscientiousness with which they paid back their loans.

Unintentionally, my agreement to spend three years experimenting with micro-credit turned into a long career.  But the roots of my career are embedded in Haiti.  In Haiti, I met my first microentrepreneurs and designed my first micro-loan products.  And in Haiti, I set the price of my first micro-loan products.  From the very beginning, I found myself intrigued by the complicated pricing systems the industry was using, even in the early stages of microfinance.  I even wrote a paper on the topic of interest rates way back in 1988.

Many years later, I’m still in microfinance, and I’m still intrigued with microfinance product pricing.  Last year, I helped start MicroFinance Transparency.  I find some interesting parallels between the Haitians and MFTransparency.

  • Even before the earthquake, those that know Haiti argue that the Haitians are a decent, sincere, disciplined people trapped in a flawed system.  Similarly, most of us in microfinance are dedicated to the vision of microfinance as a tool to empower the poor, but we find ourselves trapped in a flawed system where the true price of our products is hidden due to the lack of industry-wide standards.
  • I am inspired by seeing how the Haitians are working together to recover from their predicament and correct the structural problems of their country.  Similarly, the microfinance community has joined together on a global basis to work in concert to correct the problem of non-transparent pricing.  It is this broad community support for responsible pricing that has inspired me continually over the past year.

Interestingly in life, with disappointment often comes hope, and that hope comes from when a community works together.  We at MFTransparency are a small family of employees, but we are continually supported and encouraged by our larger community of microfinance practitioners.

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  1. gregamos says:

    I ws struck by the vast difference between the quake in Haiti and the quake in Chile. The reasons for this are obvious. Chile is more developed and its architecture is designed specifically to withstand high magnitude earthquakes. The same similarities exist in microfinance and economic development I think. Having worked in economic development (albeit from the fundraising side) in the U.S., I am interested in how microfinance can be adapted to be fully functional in the U.S. I know that scales are different. For example, a $500 loan may be a viable product for a rural entrepreneur in India, whereas the threshold for a microloan to make any sense in the U.S. may be $5,000. But what I have seen is that U.S. organizations (commonly known as community development financial institutions or CDFIs) tend to drift away from the smaller loans as they become more established. So basically, what I am curious about is, is there a means to adapt micro finance to the poor in a developed country like the U.S. where the economic infrastructure is not necessarily designed to promote it.

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