Header Menu

Blog Posts By: Alex Counts

You are here


Current and former Grameen Foundation staff and board members, as well as friends pay special tribute to Alex Counts

Below is a reconstruction of our founder Alex Counts’ remarks at our farewell gala for him on November 5, 2015. The event raised $447,000 to support our mission and poverty-fighting work, and donations are still gratefully accepted. Alex has added a few things inadvertently omitted from his spoken remarks. The entire after-dinner program, including opening remarks by Grameen Foundation Board Chairman Bob Eichfeld, closing remarks by Vice-Chair Peter Cowhey, and several personal tributes can be viewed online thanks to Joel Nelson, a friend of Alex’s whose wife Donna was among those offering tributes.


(L-R): Arcelia Gomez and Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation meet with Fred DeLuca, co-founder and president of Subway Restaurants, at the 2014 Subway Convention

The first time I heard the name Fred DeLuca I was spending some time at the Women’s Self-Employment Program (WSEP), a leading Chicago-based practitioner of U.S. microfinance at the time. His untimely death on September 14 profoundly saddened everyone connected to Grameen Foundation, which I founded in 1997.


In the mid-1990s, when I was winding up my decade of off-and-on living in Bangladesh, Professor Muhammad Yunus had his second big idea.  I immediately knew it would have a big impact on the Grameen Foundation that I was then preparing to launch back in the United States.  That idea was that information technology, if harnessed the right way by people with a strong sense of social purpose, could be a significant accelerator of poverty reduction globally.  (His first big idea, of course, was that the world’s poor women were bankable.)


Especially since the Global Findex report made headlines around the world with its finding that the number of financially excluded dropped from 2.5 billion to 2 billion during the period 2011-2014, I have been increasingly uneasy with equating account access as financial inclusion, and especially as equivalent to the essential concept of full financial inclusion as defined by CFI. The Center’s new publication “By the Numbers” does an excellent job helping people to digest all the publicly available data about financial inclusion, and make sense of them. It also reinforces my unease.

Despite the progress in account openings, the report makes it clear that the number of people actually using accounts is unfortunately not growing. Even more worrying, it argues that most accounts “are not really functioning as the hoped-for ‘on-ramp’ to financial inclusion.” The risk, as I see it, is that by adopting a stunted definition of financial inclusion that emphasizes account openings, we may be measuring and incentivizing the wrong things. The report wisely urges “caution regarding the value of mass drives for account opening, such as mandated no frills accounts…”


A little more than 18 years ago, I began my journey as the founding President and CEO of Grameen Foundation (GF). Professor Muhammad Yunus provided me with $6,000 in seed funding and enormous amounts of his time and wisdom, and of course the Grameen brand.  Since then, thousands of people and organizations joined me on this journey to contribute to the global movement to eliminate poverty.  Grameen Foundation became a daring and caring community of practical idealists that applies the values embodied by Professor Yunus and his team at the global level.

All journeys that begin at some point come to an end. I am announcing today that my time as the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation will be concluding this year.


Alex Counts will be speaking today at noon at a forum on "Financial Services for the Poor: Lessons and Implications of the Latest Research on Credit" hosted by the World Bank. You can follow the discussions live at http://live.worldbank.org/financial-services-for-the-poor. Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @GrameenFdn


John C. Whitehead will be laid to rest today in New York City. He will be remembered as a longtime friend and champion of Grameen Foundation and global efforts to defeat poverty. (Photo: Bloomberg)

I first met John C. Whitehead long after he had stormed Omaha Beach, led Goldman Sachs and served as Deputy Secretary of State. When I came by his office in May 2000 with Steve Rockefeller, Jr., I was a 33-year old leader of this nascent international humanitarian organization. Yet Mr. Whitehead, as Steve always called him, ended up shaping my career in ways I could barely have imagined on that spring day. His death, at 92 earlier this month, is a personal loss.


Alex Counts meets with a microfinance client in Banda Aceh in May 2007 to learn how she is recovering from the tsunami

Ten years ago this month, I was smarting from the death of my father while basking in the glow of some significant professional triumphs.  Grameen Foundation, the global humanitarian organization I had founded in 1997 with the support of Muhammad Yunus, had just secured $10 million in new financing including the two largest private donations to support microfinance up to that point.  We had recently completed a merger with Digital Partners, a technology savvy NGO, and were well positioned to provide leadership in harnessing the information revolution to benefit the world’s poor.  We were also gearing up to accelerate the growth and development of micro-financial services as a force for reducing poverty on a global level, and would benefit greatly when Yunus and the Grameen Bank that he founded would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in a surprise announcement months later.


I find it useful, from time to time, to put aside short-term, tactical matters and take a big step back to reflect on the work we do, why we do it, and the moment in history we live in. It can be difficult in today’s 24-hour, nonstop, always-on environment, but I was reminded of the bigger picture on a recent visit to Colombia. 

A group of us, including four volunteer board members of Grameen Foundation, were in Antioquia, a largely mountainous area in the northwestern part of the country. Grameen Foundation has been working there with farmer cooperatives and other organizations to help smallholder coffee farmers earn more from their land by creating farm management plans and undergoing individualized training and certifications that give them access to larger markets.  


“Bad habits are hard to break.  But if you can somehow turn a bad habit into a good one, it will also be hard to break.” In just those few words, Grameen Foundation board member David Russell elegantly captured the challenge, and the opportunity, of our “connected farmers” initiative in Latin America that is attempting to convince subsistence cultivators to adopt improved farming practices.