Disability Inclusion: Reconnecting with the Heart of Microfinance

> Posted by Brian A. Clancy, Chair, CFI Advisory Council
It’s impossible to know in advance if a trip will really move us – that is disrupt our expectations and breach our emotional defenses. Some trips with great promise are barely recalled a month later, while others with modest goals can change the way we see the world. In many cases the difference comes down to a single moment – a deep experience of authenticity that’s somehow both highly specific and universal. But before I get any further into that, I have some self-centered complaining to do.
Heading into a recent trip I just wasn’t in the mood to board another plane. However I was on the very threshold of acceptance when I heard the bad news. I would be in the air for the kickoff of pro football’s “game of the year” – the playoff between my local team (the Patriots) and the Tebowmania-fueled Broncos. For all my efforts to keep a stiff upper lip, my mood turned decidedly dark. Sure, our gracious host, award winning Ecuadorian MFI Banco D-Miro, was doing important work, but didn’t the world being flat mean we could do this whole thing by video conference and reduce our carbon footprint to boot? And come to think of it, isn’t the weather in Guayaquil this time of year hot, humid and wet? My inner curmudgeon (who is a big football fan) had clearly gained the upper hand.
Thankfully I regained my composure (at least somewhat) after several hours of venting, ranting and raving. Ultimately I knew the real score – this was a trip absolutely worth taking. It was critical to our research and needed to be completed with a professional attitude (aka minimal whining). Still I couldn’t help thinking – that damn flight home better be on time so at least I catch the second half of the game!
For all my petty irritation it’s important to note that I was totally bought into the rationale for the trip. The CFI’s Financial Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities  initiative has resonated with me from the very beginning. I was sincerely glad to help edit the Center’s white paper on the subject (authored by Josh Goldstein) and honored to moderate the remarkable program launch at the World Bank. After that I’d even joined the project team on a pro bono basis to help move things from ideas on paper to impact in the field.
I was encouraged to see that D-Miro had client visits on the agenda. Meeting microfinance clients face-to-face is a very grounding experience – and can be deeply moving. For example, a remarkable young mother and dairy farmer I met in a desolate “invasion” settlement outside Lima years ago remains an inspiration to this day. But over time and despite our best intentions all poor neighborhoods can start blending into one – we can’t help thinking “this deeply rutted road is giving me a major case of deja vu” or “this house bears an eerie resemblance to one I saw in Colombia or was it somewhere in Central America?”. The hard truth is that the face of economic exclusion shares many common features and can take on a certain heartbreaking sameness. For this reason, it’s just human (even an emotional necessity) to erect a few inner walls to keep from being washed away by the scale of it all. I knew my own walls had grown higher with time – were they now unscalable?
If you’re still reading this you must be saying something like – “he better get to some really juicy ‘moments’ soon or I’m out of here!” Thankfully I’ve gotten my grievances off my chest so we can finally move on.
The first moment happened during our initial client visit. We were nearing the end of a very productive formal interview, and our understanding of D-Miro’s disability outreach efforts had been suitably advanced. We were starting to wrap up (and looking for that often elusive opportunity to move on gracefully) when the disabled client’s wife spoke up.
I suspect she thought that while all the facts were on the table, the emotional truth regarding the role that first loan played in their lives wasn’t. She shared (with almost jarring candor) that her husband had been deeply depressed after his accident – profoundly doubting his ability to support the family and even questioning whether life itself was worth it. Her husband – without any hesitation or defensiveness – corroborated that stark reality. This struck me as extremely brave. The whole exchange spoke to the hurdles they’d faced, how their relationship had grown and how far they’d come together as a family.
Suddenly, I felt as if we were all totally awake and alive for the first time that day. I found myself literally seeing their house and situation in a different and more comprehensive way. These were indeed extraordinary people able to overcome extraordinary odds. It wasn’t the result of a well-crafted sales pitch or marketing campaign – her words were simple and from the heart. It was their authenticity and honesty that had so much force. She then reminded a senior executive from D-Miro (Marco Benites) that he had personally made their initial loan at a time when no other financial institution would – a fact he had forgotten. He was deeply moved and openly shared his strong and unexpected emotions. The entire trip changed in that moment for me. We were no longer researchers conducting interviews – we were human beings blessed to be in the presence of people who had overcame more than we were ever likely to face and had done so with profound grace.
The husband was smiling more easily and broadly now – and sharing more details about their life. For instance, he was very proud and amused that his wife refused his offer to close the small food shop they ran from the building next door. He found a job outside the home again and his salary covered all their core expenses, but she liked running the business on her own and the extra money it brought in. We ended the visit looking at a picture of their beautiful new grandchild and learning that their son was graduating from law school.
Every client visit we made that week was inspiring and moving in its own way. We met a remarkable blind widow running a business with four successful product lines who was going to be interviewed on a major TV program the very next day. We also met with a wheelchair-bound force of nature running a successful catering business from her home – supplying up to 80 lunches daily to a local construction company.
I was also moved by a visit to a disability support group where the two men we met there were not only running their own successful businesses, but were also reaching out to the disability community with a message of empowerment. What struck me most at their offices was a huge trophy case. We learned they sponsored (and one of the men starred on) a successful wheelchair basketball team. They initially made their mark by staging a series of upset victories at major national tournaments – and it was just great to hear about their exploits and feel their pride. Like every client we met – they were so much more than what they may have lacked or lost. They were business people, citizens, parents, friends, activists and athletes. They were what we all aspire to be – whole human beings in every way that really matters. They are exactly what financial inclusion hopes to foster in all underserved and marginalized populations – people who give this crazy species of ours a good name through their candor, creativity, courage and compassion.
On the plane ride home, I thought about the core challenge we face. Today persons with disabilities make up only about 0.5% of the clients served by the microfinance community. The examples above and many others around the world show what great clients they can be if given a chance. Literally millions of incremental life stories like these are possible if we can hone the skills and tools necessary to better reach and support this extraordinary community.
So it’s off to Paraguay next – to launch a new disability inclusion program with a great partner, Fundación Paraguaya. Given my recent experience, will I still whine about trip logistics? Almost certainly. Will I work to avoid major conflicts with local sports team schedules? Absolutely. But I do so with a heightened level of excitement and enthusiasm – and a real sense that to play even a bit part in a financial inclusion initiative like this is an honor and a profound blessing.
Image credit: uncorneredmarket.com
Have you read?
Smart Note: Hiring Staff with Disabilities at AccessBank, Azerbaijan
‘Lives Worth Living’ and Microfinance
Battling Dehumanization and Financial Exclusion: How Can Access to Knowledge Help?