Category Archives: Microfinance

Stewardship

110126 a016 In conjunction with my January visit to Nicaragua, I also accompanied a delegation from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, the parent organization for The Center for Global Education (CGE).   The delegation included Augsburg’s President, Paul Pribbenow, five members of the college’s Board of Regents (of which I am one), and a number of Augsburg faculty and staff members and spouses.  This occasion marked the first time that a Regents’ delegation had traveled to any of the CGE sites around the world and thus served as an important moment for that governing body.  After all, it’s more difficult to adequately consider strategic direction and investment for an organization like CGE without having any direct knowledge of its work, and the only way to really attain that is by going to where they are.  The visit proved to be invaluable to the Regents as an act of asset evaluation, of prudent stewardship.

The visit also proved to be a special one for the staff members of CGE, affording them the opportunity to demonstrate the transformative nature of their work as they carefully immerse delegates into the difficult realities of Nicaraguan life.  Their work is not to spoon-feed answers, but to cultivate questions for our own deliberation and conclusions.  Our collective reactions over the four days of traveling together suggest that the staff performed their work beautifully.  Within a week, the Regents convened at their winter meeting, in part to share their experiences and feelings about the journey.  Their reflections served as strong testimony to the personal impacts that such experiences often provide, and affirmed the importance of their first-hand observations on behalf of the Board:  in other words, good stewardship.

I remained in Nicaragua for another week after the Regents departed, visiting our current and prospective partners, trying to understand how and where Winds of Peace might make a difference, and even participating in a workshop on cooperatives which the Foundation sponsored.  It struck me that I was performing the same sort of work as the Regents: assessing the work being done and, in the process, being a good steward of the resources being employed.  I noted to myself the similarities of purpose between the two weeks, the first on behalf of Augsburg College and the second on behalf of WPF.  And it dawned on me that there is likely a third stewardship at play during any of the visits made to Nicaragua, the stewardship of hope.

Just as Augsburg Regents are the keepers of the CGE asset and WPF staff are the keepers of Foundation resources, anyone who has the chance to travel to a land like Nicaragua and discern the realities there is a keeper of something valuable: the notion that somewhere in the world there are people who care about what happens in such a place.  For Nicaraguans, knowing that someone else has witnessed the struggles of their lives is a comfort.  To those who daily face the uncertainty of how to survive an oftentimes friendless circumstance, the commodity of caring is priceless.  It is a gift to be given by those of us who can, a wealth which conscious stewardship calls us to share.  It is an accompaniment which transcends material aid, a development not of economy but of the spirit. 

I’m pleased that Augsburg Regents are looking after the “jewel” that is CGE.  I’m privileged to be watching out for the use of Foundation resources for sustainable impact.  But likely the more important work for each of us is being a good steward of optimism and good faith, which our neighbors in Nicaragua so desperately need….

Motives

I recently had the opportunity to review a soon-to-be-published research project undertaken by Grantmakers Without Borders (GWOB), a terrific association of funding organizations whose focus is beyond the borders of the United States.  The purpose of the research was to examine the impact of microlending within poor countries, and whether this highly-touted initiative has really brought about the kind of positive change which its proponents suggest.  The paper is a good and balanced piece, and should be required reading for any funding organization contemplating or already conducting microlending practices abroad.  Watch for it.

The research finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that microlending is not the perfect tool for eliminating global poverty, despite its many virtues and successes.  While it has developed a momentum and a transformational impact where implemented successfully, it has also on occasion created unprecedented indebtedness and divisions within communities and families.  Initially, I found myself perplexed at this second type of outcome, not having experienced that phenomenon in our own work.

It turns out that the celebrity status of microlending has captured the attention of not only those who seek to assist impoverished people, but also those who see it purely as a means of access to an untapped credit market.  In other words, for some lending groups, microloans are just another way for the coyotes, the sharks, to circle their prey.
Sam Daley-Harris, Director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, captures the essence of these profiteers perfectly in a recent presentation.
“This should have been warning of what was to come when microfinance institutions began to run more like commercial banks and what that might do to the soul of microfinance….
“I am fortunate to have been one of the leading advocates for microfinance over the last 25 years. We have been so successful in our advocacy that the field is out of control and now the profit-maximizers, those who want to make big money from the poor are rushing in. This leads me from the poverty and purpose part of my talk to the pitfalls and redemption portion.
“What are the problems that have become pitfalls? There are profit maximizers who charge the poor 85% interest, 100% interest, or more. As Prof. Yunus says, we started microcredit to free people from the money-lenders, not to become the new money lenders.
“I now see that the spiritual dimension of microfinance, the redemptive dimension of microfinance is central to my vision for the field. The technical issues are important, but only if they serve the transformational dimension.”
The findings in the GWOB study shouldn’t be a surprise or perplexing at all.  The essence of the microlending idea is that it is a tool for helping poor people raise themselves from poverty.  It’s not designed as a tool for financial institutions to use in tapping a new market and making a lot of money.  That practice will inevitably create real problems for both the borrower and the lender.
It seems to me as though a good share of the research and conclusions (or at least doubts) about the effectiveness of microlending revolves around MFIs that are in the business of lending. These organizations are quite different from the microlending institutions that exist for the purpose of true development. In essence, it is difficult to effectively address the efficacy of microlending conceptually when both types of funders are considered together; a more effective assessment has to look at the two forms separately since they are so fundamentally different. I am not surprised to read about predatory practices on the part of “Financial-System” lenders, but would be surprised and disappointed to learn of such behaviors coming from a “Poverty-Lending” organization.
At the Microcredit Summit several years ago, I could feel the difference in both intention and tone when the people from Barclays Bank talked about entering the microlending arena “to serve a vast, untapped market.” Those words signaled the contamination that would occur within the microfinance community moving forward. It seems as though any good idea can and will eventually become abused in the name of profits….