> Posted by Larry Reed, Director, Microcredit Summit Campaign

On February 5, the Microcredit Summit Campaign released Vulnerability: The State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report, 2013 by announcing that in 2011, 13 million fewer of the world’s poorest families received access to microcredit and other financial services than in 2010. This is the first time since 1998, when the Campaign began tracking this data, that the total number of clients and the number of poorest families reached have declined. We found in our data that the total number of clients fell from 205 million to 195 million and the sub-set of families living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.25 a day, fell from 137 million to 124 million. (Visit the report website to learn more.)

I presented the report at a launch event at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., and Susy Cheston (Senior Advisor at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion) moderated a lively discussion with my co-panelists Wendy Abt (Deputy Assistant Administrator, USAID), David Roodman (Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development), and Alexia Latortue (Deputy CEO, CGAP). Not surprisingly, the most salient exchange of the panel arose with David in the role of provocateur.

Challenging the Campaign, he contrasted simple but powerful messages that communicate well to the mass public—“microcredit can help people lift themselves out of poverty”—to more nuanced messages that better communicate reality but are harder to condense into a soundbite. Many of us are trying to figure out how to convey the nuanced message that “a range of financial services, when combined with other important development services, may provide tools that people can use to move away from poverty.” David asked whether, after seeing the results of unchecked growth in Andhra Pradesh, the Campaign wanted to rethink its goal-setting role.

Wendy spoke up in favor of facing difficult realities—even when this caused problems in communicating to the public. In her experience, asking the hard questions has led to a much richer set of answers, and then to real progress on the problems we seek to address. She said that this is the approach that USAID is now taking as it examines the results its programs achieve over time.

My own response to David’s question was that the Campaign has been shifting priorities from an emphasis on total numbers (our first goal of reaching 175 million clients) to outcomes (our second goal of helping 100 million clients and their families lift themselves out of severe poverty). We find that those microfinance providers that track their clients’ poverty levels over time soon develop a robust set of products and services that help clients address the vulnerabilities they face, and we highlight some of these in the report.

David prodded one more time. He noted our report’s discussion of the promise of mobile technology to reduce the costs of financial transactions for the poor, as well as our coverage of Fonkoze in Haiti and Bandhan in India, two of the programs in the CGAP-Ford Graduation Program research on working with the ultra poor. He posed these two examples as alternative ways of reaching the goals of the Campaign and thought he detected a subtle bias in the report in favor of the graduation programs. He argued in favor of mobile technology being the true heir to microfinance and the means by which we realize the vision of microfinance’s founders. (David recently wrote a blog post on the report, here.)

Alexia quickly jumped in to challenge what she saw as a completely false dichotomy. Graduation programs and mobile technology are simply two very different things that cannot be usefully compared. She thought that if governments were to take and scale up graduation programs, spending more up front than they are presently with social protection programs, maybe some of the most difficult to reach 5-8 percent of the population would actually graduate from extreme poverty and no longer need permanent government transfer payments. At the same time, mobile phones could help lower the costs of these programs if people could, for example, save using the mobile phone. There is no reason that we cannot not use both methods together to accomplish our goals.

The conversation served as a reminder of where we stand now as an industry: acknowledging the limits and dangers of growing too far and too fast with traditional products but anticipating breakthroughs with new technologies and targeted products that help those in poverty to build resilience against the vulnerabilities they face.

The Microcredit Summit Campaign will continue this dialogue about resiliency with a webinar February 27, 2013 on vulnerability and social capital, organized with the Sustainable Microenterprise and Development Program, a professional training program at the University of New Hampshire. Click here to learn more about the webinar, or contact Sabina Rogers (rogers@microcreditsummit.org).

Larry Reed is the director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign. He has worked for more than 25 years in designing, supporting and leading activities and organizations that empower poor people to transform their lives and their communities. For most of that time Reed worked with Opportunity International, including five years as their Africa Regional Director and eight years as the first CEO of the Opportunity International Network. Reed has taught at the Boulder Institute of Microfinance for 15 years, served as the chair of the SEEP Network, and consulted with industry-wide initiatives like the Smart Campaign for Client Protection and MicroFinance Transparency.

Image credit: Microcredit Summit Campaign

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