My bottom-line framing of this entire issue is related to a basic question: why we do this kind of social science research at all? In my mind, we do it for one reason: in combating societal problems such as poverty, we want to do more of what works well, and less of what doesn’t work, or works less well. Period. If research contributes to that, I will call it successful and effective. If not does not, I will call it a failure – no matter how elegant the research design or how smart the investigators. This is my take on the design principle of “relevance” which we have been discussing today.
Blog Posts By: Alex Counts
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As a result of a complex combination of unwarranted attacks and self-inflicted wounds, the microfinance sector in India experienced a crisis starting in late 2010 after many years of strong growth and recognition for its contribution to poverty alleviation and financial inclusion. When I was asked to give a keynote address at a microfinance conference in India in 2012, I said that it was important to leverage the sector’s strengths and accomplishments, while also addressing its failures and shortcomings.
I have been involved in poverty reduction through holistic microfinance in Haiti for more than nine years, mainly representing Grameen Foundation on the boards of various entities within the Fonkoze family of organizations.
A little over a year ago, Susan Davis, and former Chairwoman of Grameen Foundation said to me, “In the wake of 9/11, there was a lot of talk about developing partnerships with progressive groups in the Middle East, but few actually took the risk and did anything. Grameen Foundation took a big risk and did jump in.
During our recent workshop on designing products for adoption and scale in Mumbai, I heard many memorable ideas, concepts, examples and analogies. One that has stuck in my mind is Ujjivan’s Samit Ghosh likening the shift we are trying to make to moving from catching rabbits to catching elephants.
I have watched many people set out to start something completely new as a way to increase social impact. I have even started a few such ventures – such as Grameen Foundation – myself. It takes a lot to launch a successful start-up, including courage and, dare I say, cojones. There is significant risk involved, and with the upside of transformation comes the often looming downside of humiliating failure.
The movement to end poverty lost a great friend and champion earlier this month when Margaret Crow passed away in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. Crow was a generous donor, warm host and fearless traveler when it came to poverty reduction through microfinance, especially in Latin America, and most memorably in Chiapas, Mexico. She believed deeply in Grameen Foundation’s work to advance the elimination of poverty, and actively supported Chiapas International, our long-time partner in the Dallas area, during the last decade of her life.
I met Mrs. Crow through her daughter, our former board member Lucy Billingsley. Mrs. Crow took part in a memorable trip to Chiapas in 2003, leading a delegation of 30 female business leaders, professionals and philanthropists to spend a long weekend with the leaders, staff and loan clients of AlSol, a Grameen Foundation partner based in the charming colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Just as increasing use of a “gender lens” has transformed thinking about and the practice of international development in recent decades, so too can behavioral economics in the near future. In some cases, this discipline explains and reaffirms current practice. In other cases, the study of behavioral economics provides an alternative explanation of why some things work and others don’t. In still other cases, it suggests that current thinking and so-called “best practices” are wrong and counter-productive. Now and then, it prompts us to consider readopting a practice that has fallen out of favor.
Now, I will comment on the specific insights and implications I see for microfinance and international development when looked at through a behavioral economics lens.
The field of behavioral economics – the intersection of psychology and economics – is fairly new. This is a partial explanation of why its lessons have not yet been applied much to microfinance and anti-poverty programs generally. But this is clearly changing, and none-too-soon, as microfinance in particular is in need of reinvention and rebranding.
In fact, I am coming to believe that thoughtful applications of behavioral economics can be a central part of defining and realizing the idea of “responsible microfinance” that the Microfinance CEO Working Group and others are championing and also “full financial inclusion” that moves the dial on poverty.
This post by Alex Counts was originally published on his blog, where he describes the process of writing a book on Haitian microfinance pioneer Fonkoze. It has been a few weeks since I have posted on this blog, but I have continued to study and to work inside Fonkoze all along. Now I feel like I finally have a juicy topic to write about and time to do so. In response to my post on outcomes and impact (as opposed to inputs) in poverty reduction programs, Meredith Kimbell, a top-notch management consultant in the Washington, DC area whom I have known for years, mentioned the book Better by a physician named Atul Gawande, and in particular a chapter towards the end titled “The Bell Curve.” I read the entire book, which is basically about how the practice of medicine has been and can be improved (with lessons for other disciplines). I found that the book had some important lessons for the effort to end poverty through holistic approaches to microfinance such as those employed by Fonkoze.