The Voices That Matter Most

Microfinance is a complex process that involves many moving parts, many variations, and certainly many opinions.  But at the end of the day, what matters most?  People.  Isn’t that why we’re all celebrating this month, why we’re all coming together to discuss, debate, and challenge?

Microfinance is about people.  Period.  We all have our own models regarding how it should be done and who exactly it should serve.  But first and foremost – for the vast majority of us – engaging in a dialogue about or a project for microfinance is being done because we want to impact lives.  Men and women of different nationalities, races, religions, and languages, but people nonetheless.  At the root, at the bottom level, at the core, we can all connect on this common thread.

I’m ashamed to admit I sometimes forget this simple truth.  My mind embraces the analytical, the facts, the measurable, and starts running away.  I often get caught up in the moment and forget to whom it really belongs.

At one point, I was working on a microfinance project in Tanzania, meeting with attorneys and banking professionals, drafting a training curriculum, and running from one place to the next trying to make everything “work.”  My focus was on interest rates, repayment structures, training schedules.  It was about the data, the measurable, what I could influence or control.

Frustrated that things weren’t going as fast or as efficiently as I’d hoped, I was wearing myself out.  As my time there was quickly coming to a close, I started getting anxiety about handing over all the documents, about losing control.  I’d made the whole thing about me.

After a long conversation with myself – yeah, I admit it – I realized the anxiety was my problem, not anybody else’s.  I’d forgotten the reason I do what I do…to help people, to change circumstances, to make the world better.  I’d become so wrapped up in my own process that I let pride, doubt, and fear creep in.  I wasn’t including the voices that matter most in the equation, but was listening only to my own – a rather uninformed, foolish voice to be sure.

Honestly, I think I was scared to include the most important voices.  What if they don’t get on board with this structure?  What if they don’t like the borrower guidelines?  What if they think the interest rate is too high?  I was comfortable with the quantifiable.  Why would I want to mess with that?  Bringing in people to the equation would only mean more opinions, more questions, more work.  It could get messy fast.

Therein lies the point.  We get comfortable with what we can easily measure because it doesn’t question us.  It doesn’t have a name or a face or a story.  It’s simple.  People, on the other hand, have experience, they know how things do or don’t work.  They ask questions we might not know how to answer.  They challenge us to dig a little deeper or push a little further, which deep in our hearts is what we want, but sometimes we just focus on the simple – like I did in Tanzania.  I tried to take over.  I tried to get things moving myself rather than listening to those who mattered most.

Microfinance, in all its complexity, provides a ripe opportunity for healthy collaboration or one-sided direction.  Not that I have any experience with the latter.  I’ve learned through experience – most definitely the hard way – that collaboration, learning from one another, and sharing both the victories and defeats is the only effective way to approach microfinance.  Messy as it may be, microfinance will never be sustainably effective if it’s not client-centric, if it fails to be about people.

Every voice needs to be heard, every opinion needs to be counted, but above all, the experience and advice of the men and women being affected by microfinance programs need to be on a loud speaker, a few decibels higher than all the rest.  Those voices should ring loudly from beginning to end, serving as guides for the whole project.

Microfinance – like any sort of development programming – is imperfect.  It’s not a panacea.  It won’t work in every case.  It won’t solve every problem or lift every person out of poverty.  But it can be a game-changer for many.  It can change lives, it can rewrite stories.

People are the lifeblood of microfinance.  Let’s unite around this common thread.  Let’s celebrate the men and women who participate in microfinance programs around the globe.  Let’s always remember that helping people and improving lives are what microfinance is all about.

Chad Jordan is an author, speaker, and self-diagnosed unconventionalist.  As the author of Shut Up & Give? and the founder of Cornerstone International, LLC, a development consulting firm, he has direct field experience across five continents.  He and his team believe the end of poverty will be found at the intersection of business opportunity and social responsibility.

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