By Adam Mooney
Eggs, dairy and cereal usually give us energy to start the day. For Olga, a Good Shepherd microfinance client in Honduras, a country racked by corruption and drug and gang fuelled crime and violence, especially against women, producing and trading these small items not only gives energy each day, but income, hope, dignity and resilience. For Olga, they were also the start of a better and fuller life and she now owns a diversified grocery store that is successful.
Olga's story was a feature on day one of a four day workshop held in San Jose, Costa Rica from 15-19 April. Thirty people from twelve countries came to learn and share experiences on how microfinance can contribute to economic justice and lead to fullness of life, convened by Good Shepherd's Mission Development Office in Rome. Both Good Shepherd Microfinance and Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand were invited to participate to learn and to draw from the many existing strengths from our global network in 73 countries to start to develop a regional microfinance strategy for Latin America. The four days were themed 'Why?', 'What?', 'How?' and 'With who?' in that order to develop a clear vision, compelling mission and set of next steps and accountabilities to move ahead.
Good Shepherd Province Leader for Central America, Sister Francisca Torres, gave us all a warm welcome and reminded us of the importance of economic justice in Good Shepherd's past, present and future. Dr Rhonda Cumberland, CEO of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand visibly lifted the room in her address through hope, optimism and laying out a challenge to us all to believe in ourselves and our capabilities.
From the beginning we all saw fullness of life for clients, however they define that, as a binding aim of our work. We knew that microfinance was a contributor to financial and social inclusion, but also that health, spiritual, economic and other factors were important and enabled human connectedness and hope.
Through the voice of our clients we heard stories from Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Australia. Despite a recent encouraging report that the number of financially excluded people in the world has reduced from 2.5 billion to 2 billion people, no progress has been made addressing the gender gap (Findex 2014). Women remain vastly over represented in financial exclusion and this was borne out of the country presentations on day 1. Economic inequality, corruption, natural disasters, wars and loss of hope have caused endemic social dislocation, leaving millions of women and girls in vulnerable situations where their lives are not valued by others. This has led to violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, social exclusion and seeing women as economic resources to be exploited. The majority of income generation programs were small in scale but achieving encouraging outcomes with dedicated and committed staff.
Day two focused on sustainability and the range of microfinance models in action - ranging from those with a mainly welfarist focus to those where the institution seeks financial sustainability and aims to make a surplus to sustain itself. A good discussion took place when the IPO of Banco Compartamos, raising $1.5 billion was mentioned. To what extent should microfinance institutions make a return and profit from people on low incomes? In group work, participants generally agreed that the ideal programs were sustainable in two respects - the client can afford the cost of finance and that the institution can at least cover its costs to reach more people and continue to offer services. In short, programs need to sustain themselves in the same way clients seek sustainability and economic mobility.
The importance of strength-based community development in microfinance was the focus of the afternoon on day two. Some programs involved vocations that the program staff had chosen or had a pre-existing skill in. This was compared with the programs in which women chose their own vocation, through either an existing skill or personal aspiration and established an enterprise around that. Those programs in which clients had chosen their vocation, such as baking bread and cakes, were seen to have longer lasting, deeper positive impact and see clients progress. Success factors, both financial and non-financial were considered. These points were exemplified through three case studies from Costa Rica, AMK in Cambodia and BRAC in Bangladesh with engaging discussion groups.
To help envisage how our programs could impact the lives of clients in each country we brought out the acting talents of everyone through an entertaining role play exercise. The year was 2035 and a member from each country was chosen to deliver a speech to the UN General Assembly, both as President or Prime Minister of their country, and as a former client of Good Shepherd's microfinance programs. People must be harbouring hidden desires to enter politics, or the stage, because they got right into the spirit, channeling current female presidents from Latin America and their inner dreams to make grand inspiring speeches on why the microfinance programs worked so well and what happened as a result. Tracy Collier from Good Shepherd Microfinance in Australia did a superb job as Australia's fifth female Prime Minister delivering her whole address to the UN in fluent Spanish and receiving thunderous applause. These characteristics were recorded and formed the basis of a collective vision, mission and program aims to be considered.
With a clear and compelling vision, mission and aims people were confident that other value aligned partners would want to join us, both to jointly build capacity and also to invest for impact. We looked at the characteristics that would be essential in potential partners to get scale and sustainability and who those might include from the hundreds of organisations working in financial inclusion. This blueprint will be shared across the region and at a global meeting of Good Shepherd leaders in France in June 2015 for consideration.
This was clearly an enriching and inspiring workshop for everyone. Even Ron, our friend the translator, donated a large portion of his fee to Good Shepherd, so moved was he by the power and commitment of this group and the potential for improving communities by rightfully recognising the huge potential of investing in women.
In the last afternoon, we all agreed that our aims outlined on day one had been far exceeded. Sister Francisca Torres said that we had all been strengthened and connected to each other over the four days. Then in her best English, looked at us English speakers and simply said loudly, 'I love you' with a warm smile on her face.
In a place with exotic animals like the toucan and the sloth and with an active volcano very near, I felt very much at home and welcome. We had experienced something profound and had a new improved vision and mission and a roadmap to the future with actions and accountabilities. We were inspired by microfinance clients like Vilma, the small jewellery seller, Carmen, who sells churros and cookies from a street kiosk, clients who make clothing and handicrafts in Paraquay, garbage separators in Guatemala and a school run for the children of criminal gang members diverting them from crime.
The Good Shepherd Sisters and program staff in Latin America give much needed care and hope and are the epitome of courage and compassion. The program in El Slavador has to keep moving around to avoid extortion by criminal gangs. In Brazil, HIV positive single mothers find hope and connectedness and support to get clothes, food and pay water and power bills.
If we can put this strategy into place, building our capacity and attracting the right partners, there is no doubt we will reach and positively impact more clients. Clients like Olga from Honduras, to enable marginalised women to achieve their own sense of fullness of life, something we all deserve and need.
Adam Mooney, CEO of Good Shepherd Microfinance, recently visited Latin America where microfinance programs from nine countries came together for a workshop.