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Twitter “Chat” on Microfinance

Published on February 22, 2010

#mifimon (Microfinance Mondays) is a biweekly Twitter discussion group that aims to host an exchange ideas about issues relevant to the microfinance industry. Every Monday, for about two hours, a group of tweeters interested in microfinance discusses a wide range of topics such as Microfinance and Technology, Women and Microfinance, and many more. The challenge, however, is that all posts are constrained by twitter’s 140 characters limit.

Last week’s #mifimon topic was “Microfinance and Higher Education” featuring a panel discussion led by MFTransparency’s President and CEO, Chuck Waterfield (twitter: @chuckwaterfield), also a faculty member at Columbia University. Chuck’s course at Columbia is titled “Planning a Microfinance Institution” and focuses on business planning, decision making and financial modeling that underlies the successful launch and operation of an MFI. MFTransparency’s Vice President, Alexandra Fiorillo (twitter: @alexfiorillo), also participated in the discussion.


Here is a overview of some of the dialogue that took place:

What are some education programs that highlight microfinance? What schools offer these programs?

There are various graduate programs in the US that either focus specifically on microfinance or include it in their curriculum. Graduate programs in the US with specialties in microfinance include: SIPA at Columbia University and SAIS at Johns Hopkins. Programs for microfinance and social entrepreneurship are also offered by business schools at Columbia, Harvard, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, the Evans School (twitter: @evansschool) at the U. of Washington, and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Anthropology programs focusing on microfinance are offered through the University of Colorado at Denver, University of Oregon, and Brown University.

Some international programs were suggested as well. In Europe:  “University Meets Microfinance“;  European Microfinance Programme at the Solvey School (Belgium). In Africa: The School of Applied Microfinance (Kenya).

What about programs teaching only microfinance? Do they provide good professional training?

There are some educational programs that focus exclusively on microfinance. One prominent example of this type of program is Boulder MFT. While a strong program, Boulder MFT can be very expensive unless you can find a scholarship. Like many microfinance-only programs, this course does not offer a degree. It consists of just around 3 weeks of scattered classes that focus heavily on commercialization of microfinance. Programs like MFT Boulder provide practical exercises to supplement academic classes. While a graduate degree offers a more broad based and comprehensive educational experience, short-term program like Boulder offer a crash course in the industry. Both can be very useful and potentially complementary depending on the individual student’s needs and prior education and experience set.

Can you give us any suggestions on getting hands-on experience in microfinance prior going to graduate school?

The best option is to find an internship opportunity, especially overseas. These types of opportunities are offer a good learning experience that will complement classwork: “books give foundation, but internship gives substance.”

A program suggested by one of the participants as a good way to explore microfinance before going to grad school was The Kiva Fellowship Program. This program, as with many internships, is unpaid and so it can be difficult to deal with the costs of funding an overseas experience on one’s own. However funding may be available as long as you do not expect to find support equal to a paid job. And unlike coursework, these opportunities are free and offer a good educational experience! Another suggestion to help budget for an internship is to pick a country where living is cheap. And be sure to look in to the possibility of organizing or participating in fund-raising events or raffles to help raise money.

Is it a must to be a business generalist in order to be successful in microfinance?

For some practitioners it is better to get experience in accounting, finance, law or other specialties before seeking a career in microfinance as understanding business is essential. Adding courses in some hard skills like finance while in school can help tremendously when it comes to on the job work in microfinance.  Another essential skill for those entering the field of microfinance include language skills. For example Spanish for US  and South American organizations; French for West Africa, etc. Spanish and French are a good start, but additional languages beyond these can also be very helpful.

Is there a such thing as a “B.S. in Microfinance”? Should microfinance be a major at the undergraduate level? Would such a degree be too narrow?

An undergraduate microfinance degree might be too narrow and the undergraduate level might prove too soon for a student to focus their studies to such a specific field. For undergraduates it would usually be better to get a broad-based education in economics, development, finance, or a business degree while also including some microfinance courses in their studies. While a narrow focus may be too much, there are numerous reasons why it can be helpful to include microfinance related courses in the curriculum. Undergraduate years are good time to build a foundation in microfinance and look for relevant summer internships. Another approach can be to explore the principles and impact of microfinance through other (non-economic/business) disciplines such as women’s studies, community development, etc. This integration can work both ways, bringing beneficial principles from community development and women’s studies into microfinance. It is also important to mention that work in microfinance does not necessarily require an MBA; there are many other ways to get involved in the field.

Good examples of ways to integrate microfinance into school programs were mentioned by some participants, one notable example being the Social Enterprise program at Seattle Pacific University Business School.

What is your experience with education networks and microfinance groups (student groups , faculty groups, etc.)?

Student networks have great energy and are an excellent way to pull in outside experts, share job/internship ideas and build long-term relationships. SIPA at Columbia University has a very active and large student group studying microfinance. Check out Microfinance Working Groups (MFWG) for more information. However, a potential problem with student networks is that they can tend to be short-lived as students graduate and it can be difficult to establish continuity in the work done. The MFWG at Columbia University decided to create a great system of 1st year Board members to deal with the continuity issues and this method has proven to be successful. To find out more information on resources for students visit NetImpact, a national organization that provides great resources to students interested in social entrepreneurship via college chapters. Student groups are also encouraged to look for faculty sponsors. This can be critical for momentum and for students to have an ally lobbying for curriculum.

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