Actually I’m in Portland, Oregon today, at the Net Impact Conference at the Oregon Convention Center, and will be on a panel this afternoon at 3:30 “What’s Next for Microfinance?” with my colleagues Mary Ellen Iskendarian of Women’s World Banking and Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation, and will be signing books at the Convention bookstore afterwards. Net Impact is a 20,000 member whose mission is “to inspire, educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.”
The stop in Leavenworth, Kansas was for a board meeting of Cereal Ingredients, Inc., a small but innovative company that makes flavors and colors for cereal companies, protein bars, snack foods and even dog food. Leavenworth is also the site of “Camp Fed” which houses all the white collar criminals and will likely soon be home to former Goldman Sachs director and head of McKinsey, Mr. Gupta, once he exhausts his war chest and all his appeals. As with Martha Stewart, I’m left scratching my head as to why someone who was obviously already awash in dough felt the need to cheat to make even more. Innocent until proven guilty, of course. In the meantime, timely fodder for the gang laying seige to Wall Street.
Seeing the rolls of concertina wire atop the chain fence surrounding Camp Fed I was briefly transported back to Kabul and fortress-like defenses of the embassies, hotels and office buildings there. Oh, and Hamid, such a helpful statement that if the U.S. went to war with Pakistan, you would side with Pakistan. You don’t just bite the hand that feeds you, you take the arm off at the shoulder. But I guess you thought it was a good way to keep the ISI assassins off your trail for another day or two? Whadevah.
Finally, thanks to Kevin Nenstiel for his insightful review of my book on Amazon. I always appreciate it when someone “gets” what I was trying to do.
Had a fabulous soiree for my book launch last night, hosted by my lifelong friend Dave Weisman and his beautiful wife, Jacqui, at their gorgeous digs on Leroy Street in northwest Washington, D.C. Friends from every segment of my life were in attendance, giving it the feel of wedding reception.
This capped a grueling week long jirga with my FINCA management team where we thrashed out some “allignment issues”, e.g., a pretty major investment in IT in the run up to a major expansion. People in Ops are worried that it may take a while for the snake to digest the frog; the IT team just wants to get on with it. I find these kinds of decisions to be the most difficult to mediate for a non-technical manager like myself. I have to go more on instinct than my limited analytical abilities.
To mitigate the stress, Yuriy, my Regional Director for Latin America, shared with us an anecdote from a woman he knew who had traveled to China in search of a cure for her depression. Like all of Yuriy’s stories, it stretches credulity but he tells it so well he makes you want to be gullible.
It seems the woman, upon arriving in China, was taken by mule to a remote, mountainous province, a journey that took several days. Immediately upon her arrival, she was told she would have to perform a number of demeaning, menial tasks, and that — very important — she would have to maintain a permanent smile on her face, or be relegated to even more arduous, demeaning labors.
Her first assignment was to draw water from the river, which was at the bottom of a deep ravine, which could only be accessed via a steep, narrow, winding, rocky trail. While she smiled bravely during the beginning of the descent, she soon grew cranky and tired, and the corners of her mouth settled into an embittered grimace.
Unbeknownst to the woman, her “hosts” were observing her through powerful binoculars throughout her descent. When she returned, she was scolded severely by her hosts, and told she would spend the next two days cleaning latrines. As unpleasant as these duties were, she did manage to smile throughout, and after a week her depression was cured, never to return.
According to Yuriy there is a scientific explanation for this: smiling introduces bio feedback to the pleasure center of the brain, releasing the endorphins which counteract the depression.
Try it! What have you got to lose?
Many years ago, in the early 90s, I travelled to Jinja, Uganda, where I established our first village banks in Africa. Skeptics in the banking sector had told me: “You are wasting your time, Mr. Scofield. First, no one will want your small loans. And if they do take them, watch out, because they won’t repay you.”
I was sufficiently rattled that I called up Muhammad Yunus, who was serving on FINCA’s board at the time, and asked him if I should change the village banking methodology from how we did it in Latin America, since people were telling me Africa was totally different. “Don’t change anything,” Yunus advised me. “Do it exactly as you do it in Latin America. If it doesn’t work, then change it.”
It was sage advice. We didn’t change it, and in those early years, we spread the village banking methodology first to Uganda, then Malawi, and finally to Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo. It has suffered some modifications since then, but it’s still holding up well.
Given the shallacking microfinance is taking in the media these days, it helps to remember why we do what we do, and how, at least in the early days, capital was so scarce in all the markets where we worked that our clients normally enjoyed very high returns to their microbusinesses, if they were among the fortunate few who could obtain access to capital. To be sure, it’s a different world now, and, thanks to the success of FINCA and others, accesss to capital is not an issue for millions of poor people.
I will be convening with the CEOs of a number of other MFI networks and MFIs this weekend at an undisclosed location, somewhere in New York (Beth Rhyne already let the cat out of the bag in the Huffington Post today, narrowing it down from the lower 48). Security will be tight, provided by Blackwater, I understand. Our communications teams are already out there trying to dampen expectations, but we are secretly hoping for a positive outcome. I can’t comment further at the risk of being gift wrapped head to toe and bundled into a windowless Econoline van.
There is a momento from my early Uganda days hanging on the wall at FINCA headquarters, which expresses, better than any PR firm could if they worked for a million years on how to best brand FINCA, how the clients used to feel about us — and hopefully most still do:
FINCA is our Mother
So remember, to those of you in the media. Before you think about attacking microfinance, do you really want to attack your mother?