It's 5PM and I'm sitting in a fairly crowded Starbucks on the corner of K and 15th. I will dedicate a whole other blog entry to the urban planning and architecture and everything else not microfinance-related in D.C. later hopelly, but for now, I am going to try and digest my first two days at Grameen Foundation.
Monday was hectic: we started at 8AM with an international conference spanning multiple GF offices and many time zones. I actually have very few memories of this phone call as I was not taking notes, but I do have many impressions of it as it was the first call meeting of this type that I have attended. It was very orderly: Kate was mediating and people would respectfully wait for their turn to talk. I am not the only addition to GF's office this week: Linda who goes to the University of California (San Diego I think) has a three-month internship with Grameen, which started yesterday. After the meeting, we got a tour of the office from Chris, then an introduction from Kate about all the different departments and programs of Grameen. Sounds like a busy day? It was only 10AM after all that! :)
At midday, Kate and Kimberly (Solutions for the Poorest Program Associate and my desk neighbor for the week) took me and Linda out for lunch. We had amazing Thai food and further introductions. Then Kimberly left and Kate shared further details with Linda and me about working on a proposal for MicroLead, a microfinance fund offering grants for microfinance development. I will be doing background research on Rwanda and Linda will be doing it for a project in Kenya.
The MicroLead proposals are due February 1st, so timing will be crucial for the next couple of weeks in terms of doing research, communicating with the MFIs that GF wants to assist, and eventually writing up the proposals. For this, many of those aforementioned intercontinental-interorganizational call meetings are required. According to Kate, it is a challenge to do everything this quickly and many talks are needed for the parties to get comfortable with each other and slowly delve deeper into the specifics of the process. The call meeting with the Kenyan MFI, Musoni, that I joined Monday afternoon (where some people were calling from desk phones and some were attached to the conference through a Skype by one of the people on the desk phone) was for the most part just an introduction, an ice-breaker of sorts, and after more than an hour of mediated discussion, further meetings were scheduled for later this week.
In the afternoon, Linda and I also met and chatted with representatives from three different departments in Grameen's D.C. office: Jimmy from Social Performance Management Center, Stephanie from Capital Management Advisory Center, and Maria from Human Capital Management Center. Jimmy talked to us about the Progress out of Poverty Index developed by GF to assess poverty levels, which is determined using 10 country-specific statistics. The cool thing about this index is that its straightforward-ness makes it usable not only by MFIs for their purposes but also by other organizations that are trying to assess and understand a country's situation better. Stephanie talked about GF's work in connecting world capital markets with the world's poor through different programs such as Growth Guarantees, Pioneer Fund, and Fair Trade. Maria talked about the importance of carefully choosing and training MFI employees and also about the problems the HCM department has with getting funding, and how underfunding can lead to poor decisions, which in turn can potentially lead to something even worse... All the three department meetings were exteremely interesting, but the HCM one with Maria, both the content of our discussion as well as the sincerity of the interaction definitely left me with quite a deep impression. (Also, as a non-American, may I add that I was quite fascinated by her accent, too!)
It is almost six o'clock now and street lamps, office windows and traffic lights are successfully fighting darkness that has descended over the Eastern Time Zone. I would only like to add some short reflections on today. I worked on my Rwanda research quite a bit in the morning (did you know that Rwanda is the only country in the world where women outnumber men in the Parliament? According to the 2003 constitution, 24 out of 80 seats in the Lower Parliament are reserved for women, and an additional fifteen women were voted into non-reserved seats. But that was just side-tracking...) In the afternoon I joined Kate and Laura for another intercontinental Grameen call, discussing the Musoni call yesterday as well as the MicroLead proposal involving Kenya Commercial Bank. Many questions arose, and will hopefully be answered tomorrow when Erin from GF meets with KCB people. I am excited to follow along as they are moving forward with this project. As I am understanding so far, the main things Grameen is concerned with in getting involved with a MFI or a bank, are mission aligment and institution/capacity building. I was having a chat with Kate a couple of hours ago about the content of today's conference call, and she explained Grameen's strategic thinking. Since GF is a comparatively small NGO, they want to get more bang for their buck, and the way they achieve that is making sure that their assistance multiplies in value after it has been given out. That usually means they want the MFI to expand and grow in clientele to have a bigger impact. It could also mean passing on technical skills.
So the real dilemma here is whether to support KCB whose mission alignment with GF is still undefined but has more capacity building potential, or whether to cooperate with Musoni that is smaller, but seems to be well in line with the main aim of Solutions for the Poorest, which is to reach and improve the living conditions of the poorest.
This is exciting, folks. Stay tuned for further updates on the microfinance front!
(Starting to sound more and more American...)