Archive for the ‘Livelihoods’ Category

The Rise of Mobile Microentrepreneurs

September 14, 2012

A simple and widely available tool – the mobile phone – is creating substantial impact in the developing world, changing the lives of low-income individuals, especially in rural communities. Today, 6 billion mobile phones are being used throughout the world, with approximately 75 percent of users living in developing countries.

In Indonesia, “mobile microentrepreneurs” like the one pictured here are already helping other poor people in their community find jobs and get information on market prices for their goods.

In Indonesia, “mobile microentrepreneurs” are already helping other poor people in their community find jobs and get information on market prices for their goods.

Recognizing the opportunity offered by this technology, Grameen Foundation and eBay Foundation began working together this summer to build solutions that address market challenges facing microentrepreneurs in Indonesia. Our joint effort will support Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Microfranchise initiative, which currently works with a network of more than 10,000 women microentrepreneurs, heavily concentrated in the West Java region.

This network, which is managed by Ruma – a social enterprise that Grameen Foundation helped to incubate and grow – currently reaches more than 1 million customers.

In this piece on The Huffington Post, Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and Lauren Moore, Head of Global Social Innovation for eBay Inc., and President of eBay Foundation, discuss our new collaboration.

Asking the Right Questions Makes All the Difference

September 1, 2012

Sally Salem was an Atlas Corps Fellow at Grameen Foundation, where she worked with the human capital management team for a year learning and designing toolkits to support the strategic adoption of human capital practices at microfinance institutions.  Sally has more than a decade of experience in non-formal education and development and has worked with adults and young people on issues ranging from youth participation, volunteering, intercultural learning and human-rights education.

After working with Grameen Foundation’s Human Capital Center for a year as an Atlas Fellow, it was time to return to Egypt.  Looking back now on my year-long stay, I realize that I was lucky to have had Grameen Foundation as my host and to have worked with the human capital management team.

Thanks to good timing, one month after my fellowship ended, I had an opportunity to put all the theory I had learned into practice. I was invited to support an engagement with the Lebanese Association for Development-Al Majmoua, a leading microfinance NGO in that country, part of a collaborative effort between Grameen Foundation’s Human Capital Center and Grameen-Jameel Microfinance Ltd., a joint venture between Grameen Foundation and the ALJ Foundation, a subsidiary of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group.  My task was to help facilitate a human capital management assessment – the starting point for aligning an organization’s people practices with its business strategy.  As a native Arabic speaker with working experience in Lebanon and deep familiarity with the assessment, I was eager to volunteer my services through Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative, Bankers without Borders®.

In Sidon, Lebanon, Sally (right) met Osama – a photographer and Al Majmoua client – who is carving out a niche in her city’s male-dominated photography industry.

In Sidon, Lebanon, Sally (right) met Osama – a photographer and Al Majmoua client – who is carving out a niche in her city’s male-dominated photography industry.

Lebanon has an interesting (and somewhat tragic) modern history that some say sums up the story of the Middle East in the last 60 years or so. It is a country with a strong Phoenician heritage – sea people who made great ships using their mighty cedar trees and who explored the unknown Mediterranean at a very early stage of human history. This is still reflected in the adventurous character of today’s Lebanese people. There are more Lebanese outside of the country than in Lebanon. They are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, and wherever they go they prove to be clever merchants, excellent hosts and good cooks! What a great environment for microfinance to thrive and grow.

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Growth for All: Including the Poor in Strategies for Economic Growth

May 31, 2012

Michael Castellano is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying International Affairs and Development. He interned with Bankers without Borders® at Grameen Foundation during the spring of 2012.

In the years following the global financial crisis, politicians and policymakers across the globe have harped on one cardinal goal: economic growth. Without a doubt, plans for growing the economy will dominate discussions in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. It seems as though we as a society have collectively determined that if only the economy would turn around, conditions would certainly improve across the board. If only we could enact legislation to spur economic growth, inevitably we would all be better off.

Fortunately, statistics show that the United States has seen steadily climbing annual growth rates since the nadir of the “Great Recession.” Developing countries and emerging economies have, on the whole, experienced average growth rates of more than 5 percent thus far in 2012 and will continue to propel the world’s progress, according to financial forecasts. So – this is good news for everyone, right?

Not necessarily.

Although a country’s national economy may grow, the poorest of the poor often remain completely disconnected from the financial, political and social systems in place. Without active bank accounts, the poor cannot easily save or access other financial services. In rural villages, people may not have easy access to healthcare and can quickly fall victim to external shocks such as disease or natural disaster. Without these services, poor people around the world cannot reap the benefits of overall economic growth.

During my time at Grameen Foundation and through my studies in International Development during this past year, one fundamental lesson has stood out: Though economic growth is certainly important, growth does little to reduce poverty if the poor lack access to essential services. This illustrates a key principle that development practitioners dub “pro-poor growth.”

Michael Castellano served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Michael Castellano, shown here during a trip to Australia, served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Pro-poor growth involves forming development policies and strategies that target the poorest of the poor and offer new ways of connecting them to financial markets. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, stated, “The direct elimination of poverty should be the objective of all development aid. Development should be viewed as a human rights issue, not as a question of simply increasing the gross national product.”

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Panel Explores the Power of the Mobile Phone in Fighting Poverty

May 14, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

I first met Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, through one of our greatest Grameen Foundation Board members, Lucy Billingsley.  When Isobel and I were introduced to each other, she was running a small program at the Council focused on women’s issues.  She has since grown it into a flagship initiative of this prestigious institution, and her reputation as a researcher and thought-leader has naturally grown along the way.

I was therefore very pleased when she invited me to speak as part of her Women and Technology series last week, alongside Ann Mei Chang, senior adviser for women and technology, Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State (and formerly with Google), and Scott Ratzen, Vice President for Global Health at Johnson & Johnson.  The title of the session was “mDevelopment: Harnessing Mobile Technology for Global Economic Growth.”  We had a planning call with Isobel, Scott and Ann Mei the week before and I realized I was joining some extremely knowledgeable and articulate people.  To prepare, I read up on all of Grameen Foundation’s many programs that work to alleviate poverty by leveraging the mobile phone revolution, as well as some related research on inclusive business models.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

The event was kicked off with remarks by Suzanne McCarren of ExxonMobil, which sponsors this speaker series.  Suzanne, whom I sat next to during lunch, explained why women’s economic development is a high priority for their company’s foundation, which has made more than $50 million in grants so far, according to my notes.  Then Cherie Blair, the former first lady of the United Kingdom and the founder of a foundation that bears her name, spoke.  She announced the release of an important new report titled, “Mobile Value-Added Services: A Business Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs.”  I had met Cherie several times through Meera Gandhi, whose book Giving Back features the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, as well as Grameen Foundation.

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The Power of Microbusiness

April 30, 2012

Shannon Maynard is the Director of Grameen Foundation’s skilled volunteer program, Bankers without Borders®. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for federal agency the Corporation for National and Community Service.

One of the books that has been on my reading list for a while but I haven’t gotten to yet is The Coming Jobs War, by Gallup CEO Jim Clifton.  As a busy working mom, I’ve read reviews and excerpts, and have promised myself to read the entire book by the end of the summer.  I do know that the premise of the book, which is based on the findings of Gallup’s World Poll, is that what people in the world want most is a good job.

Here in the United States that typically translates to a formal job and steady paycheck. In the developing world that includes informal jobs, but the message is the same – people want steady, reliable pay in return for a hard day’s work.  Clifton argues that over the course of the next 30 years, economic force will trump political and military force in terms of determining which countries have power and influence and which do not.  The top U.S. cabinet position will be the Secretary of Job Creation – not the Secretary of State or Defense.

Shannon Maynard, Director, Grameen Foundation's Bankers without Borders volunteer initiative.

Shannon Maynard, Director, Grameen Foundation's Bankers without Borders volunteer initiative.

At Grameen Foundation, we focus our time on creating ways to give the poorest people, in some of the world’s poorest countries, access to information and financial services that will help them improve their livelihoods, most often through the creation of informal jobs.  In the United States, there is a similar effort afoot to provide greater access to financing and technical assistance to help microbusinesses – those businesses with between one and five employees – grow and create more jobs.  The Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), the voice of microenterprise development in the United States, argues that if just one-third of these microbusinesses were able to hire one new employee, the United States would be at full employment. (more…)

David Roodman Does His “Due Diligence,” and Gets it Mostly Right

February 16, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

David Roodman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, the country’s leading think tank on overseas aid and international development, has written Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance, a remarkable book about microfinance.  It is, quite simply, the best book I have ever read about microfinance among the many I have gone through.  He analyzes the history, track record, recent developments and future of microfinance, and though I do not agree with all of his judgments, I agree with the vast majority of them and admire how he went about deconstructing such a diverse arena of human endeavor.

Most impressive is how he carries the reader through his rigorous thought process.  He repeatedly poses important questions, weighs the evidence, assesses whether there is enough information to make a definitive judgment, presents alternative answers and their implications, admits to a degree of uncertainty, and then does his best to provide an answer – all in plain language.  The hallmarks of his writing are nuance, detail-based distillations of publicly available information, fairness and dispassionate analysis.  If I had to keep one book on my desk for easy access to guide my writings, conversations, analysis and decisions, it would be his.  (Due Diligence is the culmination of research and writing process that played out on his blog, which has evolved to become a leading online source for microfinance information and analysis over the past couple of years.)

Cover of David Roodman's "Due Diligence"

Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation's president and CEO, calls David Roodman's new publication "the best book I have ever read about microfinance."

After some introductory remarks, Roodman sets the modern microfinance movement in a historical context, and does this better than I have ever seen before.  His survey also provides some important lessons for those working to expand and improve microfinance today.

The bulk of the book addresses the question “Does microfinance work?” in distinct ways. Does microfinance reduce poverty, does it improve the control the poor have over their lives regardless of whether it leads them to a poverty-free life and, thirdly, has it become a vibrant new industry that strengthens societies by enhancing ecosystems (in the broadest sense) consistent with long-term socio-economic development?  I admire how he has given equal weight to the three dimensions of “working” – I strongly agree with him that all are important and the latter two (especially the third) have been comparatively neglected by microfinance advocates and critics alike.

Due Diligence deserves to be read by anyone involved in microfinance, including those who volunteer their time or contribute and/or invest their money.  Let me summarize how he answers the main questions he asks, as well as his recommendations, and then distill how I believe someone involved with Grameen Foundation – or any microfinance network or institution – should feel about their past and future involvements, given his judgments and recommendations.

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Building Skills, Building Confidence: How Ultra-Poor Women in India Are Taking a Step Toward Self-Reliance

November 10, 2011

This is a guest post by Avinash Kumar, a staff member of The Livelihood School of BASIX who is working with Grameen Foundation as the project manager for the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest project in Gaya, India.

Asha Devi’s eyes sparkled as she rolled agarbatti (“incense sticks” in Hindi) for the first time. Asha is a member of an adapted self help-group (ASHG) in Pali, a village in India’s Bihar state, where the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest, a joint project of Grameen Foundation’s Solutions for the Poorest group and BASIX/The Livelihood School, is being implemented. The sparkle in Asha’s eyes reflects newfound self-confidence and pride that by selling handmade agarbatti, she will be able to supplement her family’s income.

Women from the program hold up their newly-rolled agarbatti (incense sticks) during training

Nearly 100 women from six village ASHGs participated in our week long training. Agarbatti rolling, which is a common activity in almost all of the villages in the Gaya district of Bihar, is one of two income-generating activities being promoted through the project. These activities require simple skills and provide modest increases in income to help households meet their immediate consumption needs. As the clients’ confidence levels and skills increase, the project team will transition them into entrepreneurial income-generating activities, such as poultry farming and goat rearing, which require higher initial capital investment and skill sets but can significantly help fill income gaps throughout the year.

The agarbatti rolling training was unique not only because it was the first time women from the poorest families were receiving it, but also because it was the first time local women were given a leadership role to train their fellow community members. The experience of having a local woman train them in this skill helped increase the participants’ confidence, leaving them optimistic about their prospects and ability to contribute to their families’ income. While agarbatti rolling is common in the region, many of the households participating in our project had never done it because they live in relative isolation, making it more difficult for them to access agarbatti agents and vice-versa. Instead, they have depended largely on wage labor from agriculture production, construction work and road building.

Faced with very unpredictable and insecure income sources, these families have not had the luxury of time nor the opportunity to experiment with an entrepreneurial activity. In fact, these households often lack the necessary self-confidence to take up and learn a new activity, even such low-skill ones as agarbatti rolling. One of the aspects of the project is building the self-confidence of the members and, which, thus far, has been successful.

This training is the beginning of a change in this aspect of these women’s lives. As their self-confidence grows and they see their income rise, this positive change cycle will encourage them to seek out other opportunities. As they move forward, our team will work with them to continue on this path.

Helping the Poorest Access Resources, Training, Financial Services

November 2, 2011

Luckshmi Sivalingam, Program Officer for Grameen Foundation’s Solutions for the Poorest program, oversees the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest (LPP) project in India.

One week last August, after slogging barefoot through a kilometer of muddy fields and monsoon rains, my colleagues from The Livelihood School at BASIX India and I reached our first ASHG (adapted self-help group) meeting of the week. We were greeted with warm smiles from the female members of one of the strongest ASHGs developed through the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest (LPP) project in Bihar, India, to date. Trust levels and self-confidence are slowly building, as are savings habits among our members. Our project has two main goals: identifying and building a diverse and stable group of livelihood activities that will generate increased income throughout the year, and providing immediate and long-term socio-economic support for the group members and their families.

We have been working with the local government since May to link poor households to various support programs, including child and women’s healthcare and work for unskilled laborers. (The 2005 Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees 100 days of wage labor for adults in rural communities who are willing to do unskilled manual work or the equivalent in wages.)  Though the households in our project were eligible to receive these government programs, they either didn’t have the required proof of identification (India is one year into a national ID campaign that many hope will alleviate this problem) or were not aware of them. With our help, they now appreciate the immediate, tangible benefits of engaging in the government programs, as they begin to gradually access and experience the much-needed services that are rightfully theirs. Since we began our discussions with the local government, our target villages have been assessed to see which eligible households lack job cards; the ones that do are currently being processed. In addition, the households will each receive one to two fruit saplings for planting next month.

Participants in one of the LPP project's Adapted Self-Help Groups, or ASHGs, discuss the importance of savings.

Participants in one of the LPP project's Adapted Self-Help Groups, or ASHGs, discuss the importance of savings.

Understanding our clients’ thinking and the conditioning caused by a lifetime of chronic poverty is one of the most challenging aspects of this work. Our ready access in the developed world to the conveniences of modern life can limit our ability as practitioners to relate to and understand the very different reality of the poor we are seeking to help – a reality that can be a painful one. Living and interacting with them provides us with a window into the challenges of their daily lives, and shapes our own understanding of their needs and the context in which they live. It also helps us to understand the rationale behind the difficult daily decisions they must make – how to feed themselves and their families, what they must forego for the survival of their children and what sacrifices must be borne by the entire household, regardless of age. Designing a methodology, products and services to create “livelihood pathways for the poorest” will be a process of testing and retesting these next two years.

 

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