Broadening Horizons for Microfinance Leaders

> Posted by Elizabeth Davidson
When was the last time you spent a day in a classroom filled with leaders in microfinance? How about an entire week?
Last week, 68 microfinance practitioners, investors, and regulators gathered at Harvard Business School for the 2012 HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership for Microfinance. Hailing from 28 countries and every region of the world, participants had the opportunity to debate the most current and crucial issues in microfinance with colleagues in the industry and professionals from other stakeholder industries that play a role in bringing about financial inclusion around the world. As one of the people behind the scenes in preparing for the course, I was thrilled when the time came to meet the participants in person and sit in on the classroom discussions.
The topics covered this year were almost as diverse as the participants. Using their famous
case study method, HBS faculty led the group through a thought-provoking mix of microfinance, social enterprise, and traditional business cases. Topics included succeeding in highly competitive financial sectors, balancing a social focus in a commercial setting, reaching new business segments, managing and governing in crisis situations, and evolving products and delivery channels.
From a Peruvian regulator to the head of a microfinance institution (MFI) with operations throughout the South Pacific, each participant brought a unique set of views and experiences to the table. For instance, some participants favored savings-led models while others advocated for more credit based models. Several practitioners were completely opposed to for-profit microfinance while others considered for-profit microfinance to be the only way to foster innovation and sustainability. Despite their different perspectives, all the participants in the course – from the regulators to the MFI managers – were committed to the same goal of providing quality financial services for the clients at the base of the pyramid (BOP). Through a participatory learning model, Accion and HBS hope to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and collaboration that are necessary for the microfinance industry if it is to reach full financial inclusion in the next decade.
Sometimes, those who work in the field of financial inclusion find their view limited by their specific narrow role. A regulator might be concerned only with crafting financial regulations to maintain stability—and not on the effects that their regulations might have on the ability of MFIs, banks, and other businesses to help the poor. An MFI leader might become consumed with maintaining market share and forget the organization’s social mission. Investors might become preoccupied with minimizing risks, and not with locating the investments that might have the biggest impact on the lives of the world’s poorest people.
Throughout the course of the week, I watched this tunnel vision break down, as participants heard others express their views. They began to appreciate the contributions of others to a better future for the BOP. The highly talented HBS professors provided great insight into issues in microfinance, but it is truly the participants who provided each other with the most valuable knowledge. As one participant described it, the HBS-Accion Program provided an “excellent opportunity to understand the global state of the industry and what is possible.”
The application for the 2013 HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership for Microfinance will be available starting this fall. For more information on the program, please visit
Image credit: Accion
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