Summer Reading: The Holy Grail and the Greatest Bargain
One advantage of actively attending conferences is the opportunity to hear brilliant people argue their ideas, and often those ideas run counter to the conventional thinking. These leaders – in their thinking and doing – help us see how we can work together to do both.
In the spirit of the proverbial summer reading list, here are two books I recommend for bringing some of that nonconventional thinking to a beach or pool near you.
House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox, by William Foege.
“I don’t know much but when there is a house on fire in our village; we don’t poor water on all the houses.”
This simple statement was made by a village leader in India at a pivotal point in adoption of an innovative containment program for smallpox. Rather than trying to vaccinate everyone, this program used targeting of just six percent of the population to eradicate smallpox.
Author Mark Rosenberg wrote about William Foege, “The eradication of a disease has long been the holy grail of global health and Bill Foege found it: more than any other person, he was responsible for the eradication of smallpox from the face of the earth. This is a story told by a remarkably humble man, about the extraordinary coalition that he helped to build, and the most impressive global health accomplishment the world has ever seen.”
Listening to William Foege speak at the International Conference on Global Health recently, I was struck by his self-effacing tenacity. In response to the classic “what did you learn?” query, he responded with this wise advice: “You have to be able to consistently envision the end result while aggressively seeking the actual data, no matter how bad it is.”
From House on Fire: “One had to be an optimist with a feel for numbers to be ecstatic at the same time that Bihar had over 5,000 known smallpox outbreaks and had just reported over 11,600 new cases of smallpox in a single week.”
William Foege underlined this steady optimism by saying he held back from celebrating the triumph over smallpox in any individual country because he thought that would demonstrate surprise at the result which, at the beginning, he had so clearly envisioned.
Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, by Ananya Roy.
In the past year I have participated in a number of conferences focused on social enterprise, poverty alleviation and microfinance. The Skoll World Forum at Oxford and the MicrofinanceUSA Conference in NYC both featured distinguished moderators and microfinance leaders discussing the crisis in the microfinance sector. (This usually shows up as a critique of Comportamos or other successfully profitable MFIs.)
While Professor Yunus is a leading advocate for not profiting from serving the poor, a few realities are sometimes overlooked in this argument. Here’s my list of reasons why a more open view of this sector, including the option for profitability, is necessary at this point in time:
1. The microfinance sector would never have attracted $30 billion dollars without the option of profitability.
2. Microfinance grew out of pent up demand for access to loans that was immense. Servicing that demand has required infrastructure, trained personnel and distribution, all costs that are not trivial.
3. A bell curve of strategies – falling between the two poles of social impact and loan pricing/profitability – have been developed that include a variety of trade-offs. This has resulted in more variety and better choices for borrowers.
4. It is noteworthy that microfinance grew as long as it did before abuses (which would inevitability be encountered) became visible. While the lack of regulation aided the absence of visibility, it is still remarkable events of misuse in India are happening over 25 years of microfinance’s time span.
One of the best summarizing comments made at MicrofinanceUSA came from Ananya Roy, author of Poverty Capital and a professor at UC Berkeley. After extensive study of the specific trade-offs within microfinance, and the equally important trade-offs between microfinance and the other global development options, Ms. Roy pulled a balanced context together with this one line: “Microfinance is the greatest bargain in global development.”
As I mentioned in a question after Ms. Roy’s comment, any other development sector, healthcare, water, slum upgrading, would kill (pardon the expression) to have a thousand people gathered with recognized brand names like Comportamos, ACCION and Kiva, discussing the trade-offs from $30 billion dollars of global development—most of which was paid back! Likewise William Foege and leaders from the World Health Organization and a broad range of other organizations organized and innovated to avoid the deaths and maiming of millions upon millions. Both outcomes show the value of vision and innovation in attracting the human and financial resources and then making measurable progress in solving global challenges.
A version of this post first appeared on CSRwire.