Which Revolution Do You Want to Be Part of?
The Month of Microfinance is a time of new understanding. Some are learning about microfinance for the first time while others discovered it over the last few years. Still others are returning from work in the field or are planning their field work this summer.
I first learned about microfinance 29 years ago, before most people who are active in Month of Microfinance were even born. It was 1985 and RESULTS, the anti-poverty lobby I founded five years earlier, had been working to save the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a small UN agency based in Rome, that was caught in a funding squabble between the U.S. and OPEC. During that campaign IFAD sent us videos of three programs in which they had invested. One of the videos was a Dutch documentary about a small bank in Bangladesh with 42,000 borrowers called Grameen Bank. We sent copies of the video to the 50 RESULTS chapters in the U.S. People were blown away by what they saw.
Over the previous five years RESULTS had lobbied for life-saving immunizations against measles and five other vaccine-preventable child killers that were taking millions of lives each year and lobbied for oral rehydration therapy, a simple mixture of sugar, salt and water that fought dehydration brought on by diarrhea and was taking millions of more lives each year. We lobbied for basic education at a time when 150 million children of primary school age were not in school. Now that number has dropped to 57 million.
But with microfinance we saw an intervention that, if done right, could give parents the ability to pay for their children’s health care, ensure they were in school, prepare healthier meals, and get out from under the grip of the local moneylender. In the late 1980s, Alex Counts, who had been leader of the RESULTS group when he was a student at Cornell University and has gone on to lead Grameen Foundation, was a Fulbright Scholar in Bangladesh writing us letters from a village there. “I now think of development in terms of restoration of dignity,” Counts wrote in his first letter. “Other indices like increased income, better infrastructure, better services, more immunization, more credit may be correlated to restored dignity. But not always. If incomes rise, but dignity is still suppressed (as with income supplementation, e.g. welfare) I am not impressed. If dignity is restored, real development occurs and the appropriate correlates (income, immunization, etc.) do appropriate things. But they play off restored dignity, confidence, and self-esteem.”
Microfinance has changed in many ways since those letters were sent from a Bangladeshi village 25 years ago. I discuss some of these changes in a TEDx talk titled: “Purpose, Poverty, Pitfalls and Redemption” where I decry the move away from maximizing the eradication of poverty to maximization profit—MFIs that ask “What more can we do for our investors?” more often than they ask “What more can we do for our clients?”
I discuss the Compartamos IPO, the largest initial public stock offering (IPO) up until that point which generated tens of millions of dollars in profits for senior managers and where institutions that invested $1 million walked away with more than $100 million profit each from the IPO. And what did the clients receive? Zilch! Nada! Nothing!
As you learn more about microfinance you must decide your own answer to this question: Microfinance for what? Microfinance for poverty reduction or microfinance primarily for investor profit?
And remember these words spoken decades ago by Muhammad Yunus when he was asked what his strategy was in forming Grameen Bank.
“I didn’t have a strategy,” Prof. Yunus replied, “I just kept doing what was next. But when I look back, my strategy was, whatever banks did, I did the opposite. If banks lent to the rich, I lent to the poor. If banks lent to men, I lent to women. If banks made large loans, I made small ones. If banks required collateral, my loans were collateral free. If banks required a lot of paperwork, my loans were illiterate friendly. If you had to go to the bank, my bank went to the village. Yes, that was my strategy. Whatever banks did, I did the opposite.”
Do you see the revolution here? Now answer this question. Which revolution do you want to be part of? I choose the revolution to end poverty.
About Sam Daley-Harris
Sam Daley-Harris is the author of Reclaiming Our Democracy (www.reclaimingourdemocracy.org). He founded RESULTS in 1980 (www.results.org), founded the Microcredit Summit Campaign in 1995 (www.microcreditsummit.org), founded what would grow to become Truelift in 2010 (www.sealofexcellence.wordpress.com), and founded the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation in 2012 (www.citizenempowermentandtransformation.org).
About the Month of Microfinance
The Month of Microfinance is a low-budget (correct that, no-budget) grassroots movement of student and professional organizations with a passion for microfinance and an intense commitment to learning. They invite you to join their community and the conversations they are having about microfinance. Click here to lean more about their work – http://monthofmicrofinance.org