Alex Counts meets with a microfinance client in Banda Aceh in May 2007 to learn how she is recovering from the tsunami
Blog Posts By: Alex Counts
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I find it useful, from time to time, to put aside short-term, tactical matters and take a big step back to reflect on the work we do, why we do it, and the moment in history we live in. It can be difficult in today’s 24-hour, nonstop, always-on environment, but I was reminded of the bigger picture on a recent visit to Colombia.
A group of us, including four volunteer board members of Grameen Foundation, were in Antioquia, a largely mountainous area in the northwestern part of the country. Grameen Foundation has been working there with farmer cooperatives and other organizations to help smallholder coffee farmers earn more from their land by creating farm management plans and undergoing individualized training and certifications that give them access to larger markets.
“Bad habits are hard to break. But if you can somehow turn a bad habit into a good one, it will also be hard to break.” In just those few words, Grameen Foundation board member David Russell elegantly captured the challenge, and the opportunity, of our “connected farmers” initiative in Latin America that is attempting to convince subsistence cultivators to adopt improved farming practices.
“Es difícil desprenderse de los malos hábitos. Aunque, si de un modo u otro, uno consigue convertir un mal hábito en uno bueno, este también será difícil de erradicar”. Con esta sencilla frase, David Russell, miembro del Consejo de Grameen Foundation, captó con elegancia el reto, y la oportunidad, de nuestra iniciativa latinoamericana “granjeros conectados” ,que intenta convencer a los agricultores de subsistencia de la adopción de mejores prácticas agrícolas.
(L-R): Arcelia Gomez and Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation meet with Fred DeLuca, co-founder and president of Subway Restaurants, at the 2014 Subway Convention.
What do Grameen Foundation and the Subway® restaurant chain have in common? More than you might think.
Fred DeLuca, co-founder and president of Subway Restaurants, has long been a supporter of microcredit and is also a living example of its success. Fred (as he insisted I call him from our first meeting when I was barely 30 years old) opened his first sandwich shop (then called Pete’s Super Submarines) at just 17 years old with a $1,000 loan from friend and co-founder Peter Buck in 1965. He soon aimed to have 32 stores in operation by 1975. Then and now, he was a humble, hard-working, plain-spoken man – much like Professor Yunus, my mentor from the age of 20.
My bottom-line framing of this entire issue is related to a basic question: why we do this kind of social science research at all? In my mind, we do it for one reason: in combating societal problems such as poverty, we want to do more of what works well, and less of what doesn’t work, or works less well. Period. If research contributes to that, I will call it successful and effective. If not does not, I will call it a failure – no matter how elegant the research design or how smart the investigators. This is my take on the design principle of “relevance” which we have been discussing today.
As a result of a complex combination of unwarranted attacks and self-inflicted wounds, the microfinance sector in India experienced a crisis starting in late 2010 after many years of strong growth and recognition for its contribution to poverty alleviation and financial inclusion. When I was asked to give a keynote address at a microfinance conference in India in 2012, I said that it was important to leverage the sector’s strengths and accomplishments, while also addressing its failures and shortcomings.
I have been involved in poverty reduction through holistic microfinance in Haiti for more than nine years, mainly representing Grameen Foundation on the boards of various entities within the Fonkoze family of organizations.
A little over a year ago, Susan Davis, and former Chairwoman of Grameen Foundation said to me, “In the wake of 9/11, there was a lot of talk about developing partnerships with progressive groups in the Middle East, but few actually took the risk and did anything. Grameen Foundation took a big risk and did jump in.
During our recent workshop on designing products for adoption and scale in Mumbai, I heard many memorable ideas, concepts, examples and analogies. One that has stuck in my mind is Ujjivan’s Samit Ghosh likening the shift we are trying to make to moving from catching rabbits to catching elephants.