Thursday, April 10, 2008

Microfinance and Cell Phones

I attended an interesting talk on Microfinance last week. It was given by Joyce Lehman who managed a large microfinance program in Afghanistan for the past four years. She recently joined the Global Development team at the Gates Foundation as a program officer for microfinance.

Joyce started her talk with a story about a recent presentation she gave to students. She asked her young audience whether anyone knew what microfinance was. A young lady raised her hand. She said microfinance is when you go on-line select a project and give a $100 loan to fund it. This was not the definition Joyce was expecting, but she clearly recognized that it was the wave of the future.

Three things she said about her short tenure at the Gates Foundation stood out. First, was that everyone she met spoke about working for "the boss." The boss was not who you may expect. It was a child in Africa. Joyce held up her picture. Second, the Foundation cares deeply about impact. They support many projects, but they want to make sure you can prove it made a difference. Finally, as you may expect, they are looking for ways to leverage technology to solve the big, strategic problems. "Thinking big" is an important corollary, and is a strong part of the Microsoft and Foundation culture.

After the talk, I asked Joyce about cell phones in Afghanistan. "Oh they're everywhere!" she said immediately. "What about Internet cafes?" "They're everywhere also." "So that's the basic technology for reaching people in emerging countries," I asked. "Yes."

I want to contrast that with two observations on campus. One was seeing two coeds standing on either side of the road talking on a cell phone to each other as I walked by. They were no more than 30 feet apart. "Cross now; there are no cars," said the one on my side indignantly. I could hear her friend laugh on the other side of the road. For the new generation, the cell phone is conversation.

At a reception, I was talking with a colleague about cell phones. "I don't own one," she confessed. "Do you have electricity," I obnoxiously asked? After an expletive, she said, "I don't need to be reached 24-7."

I point to these two stories to contrast the generation gap in our understanding about communications technology. For one generation, it's conversation like any other conversation--it may even be the dominant form of conversation for today's students. For another generation it's a convenience. How we reach out to the world and leverage technology will largely be shaped by how we view the medium. We should not take this lightly, but rather approach it with "beginners mind" and be open to the student educating the teacher.

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

Hi Ed. It sounds like you are enjoying yourself and open to being educated. I have just left the Myanmar office of Save the Children. Here’s a twist. I only saw 2 cell phones during my whole stay there. My cell phone never did connect (saved you some $’s there!). I was able to topically investigate their urban microfinance program (current political situation prohibited me from reach the intervention site) they have had in operation for the past 6 years. The PDA assessment indicated this program as the top value return to replace their paper-based register method. I will post a picture later of a stack head high of their client registers for one year. Ouch!