Words Apart

On Sunday night I had dinner with World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, one of the leading experts in income inequality. Branko authored a book in 2005 called “Worlds Apart”. It is after Branko’s inspiring book that this article is entitled. Branko’s book describes the immense income gap between Hemispheres. This article describes the immense opinion gap when it comes to approaching the eradication of extreme poverty.

This morning I met with Elizabeth Littlefield, the Chief Executive Officer of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP). This afternoon I am meeting with the Malagasy Ambassador to the United States Jocelyn Radifera. Overall I have conducted 210 phone interviews and 270 face to face interviews in preparation for the writing of my forthcoming book. I have discussed the future of microfinance with some of the experts in the field that include Maria Otero (Accion), Michael Chu (Harvard Business School), Chuck Waterfield (Microfin), Hugh Allen (VSL Associates), Kim Wilson (Tufts), Dean Karlan (Yale), Jonathan Zinman (Dartmouth), Jonathan Morduch (NYU), Chris Dunford (Freedom from Hunger), Alex Counts (Grameen Foundation), Carlos Danel (Compartamos), Maria Nowak (Adie), Shabbir A. Chowdhury, Aminul Alam and Imran Martin (BRAC), Lamiya Morshed and Nurjahan Begum (Grameen), Premal Shah (Kiva), Sam Daley-Harris and Bob Sample (Results), Adrian Gonzalez (Microfinance Exchange Network), Ann Rutledge (R&R Consulting), Michael McCord (Microinsurance Centre), In Channy (ACLEDA Bank), Lynne Patterson and Irina Aliaga (Promujer), Niki Armacost (Women’s World Banking), Martha Chen (Harvard) and Matt Bannick (Omydiar Network).

I approached the microfinance industry in the same manner that I have approached other areas such as agriculture, trade and labour rights, financial architecture, immigration, small arms trade and military spending or the mining industries. I sampled the industry and tried to reach out the most relevant experts. I have seen words apart. A majority of the experts on the microfinance industry are not on the same page. Some of the following questions may be familiar to the reader: how can microcredit penetration be expanded among the bottom billion? Is Compartamos the right approach to banking for the poor? Has microcredit being emphasized over microsavings? What role do innovators such as Kiva.org play in the field? Should microfinance institutions receive subsidies from national agencies and foundations? What are the Omydiar Network and the Gates Foundation doing to enhance basic financial services for the poor? What is the impact of the World Bank and the United Nations’ involvement in microfinance?

Not everyone is on the same page. Is there a same page? Do you agree with Muhammad Yunus and Hernando de Soto? The overlap of opinions is manifest. There is an intellectual debate which could be healthy, but if oftentimes ends up in intellectual wars that forsake the ultimate goal: the alleviation of extreme poverty. If poverty is not eradicated it is not only because of a lack of political will or interest among developed nations and the elites of the developing world. Poverty is not eradicated because there is a lack of consensus as to how to mitigate it. The intellectual wars of left-wing and right-wing economists and practitioners do not help. The debate between what approach is more appropriate (for instance between USAID and the Millenium Challenge Corporation) perpetuates the problem. It is difficult to get everyone on the same page. What is that same page? There are many possibilities, but only one will materialize if a global effort is to be undertaken to create a new architecture for the extreme poor that sets once and for all the basis for the eradication of extreme poverty.

We have been born in a world that adores criticism in an area where the lack of innovation is second to none. We are all sports journalists broadcasting a football game that has been going on for decades. There is an abundance of commentators and a scarcity of implementators.

For decades social scientists have been ellaborating theories that had no direct application. Humans built a first architecture in the aftermath of World War II, it is called the Bretton Woods architecture. For decades we as a society were reluctant to build a second architecture. We have not looked at the best ideas in the development arena from intellectual giants such as Jeffrey Sachs, Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, Paul Collier or Hernando de Soto. The de facto approach has been to channel funds through the existing schemes. There are recent pilots that are promising such as the Millenium Challenge Corporation.

What is the next big idea in the development space? Sampling the universe of opinions in the microfinance industry can only be helpful. The experts mentioned beforehand may or may not agree on how to tackle extreme poverty through microcredit, microsavings and microinsurance. There is one fact. Only when the experts become expert dreamers, only when the experts become men and women of stature will we be eyewitnesses of the birth of a new consensus, a new architecture that is designed to work for the extreme poor. It is perhaps time to propose a page one to start the Glorious Forty that will lead us to the world of cornucopia and eutopia. It is perhaps time to start a journey where only dreamers are welcome. It is perhaps time to start saying why not instead of why. We must dare, therefore we exist.

Jaime Pozuelo-Monfort is author of the book The Monfort Plan