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.
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At Grameen Foundation, our goal is to spur innovation in the global movement to eliminate extreme poverty. Part of that work is to develop better solutions and share them with people like you.
On GF Insights, we share lessons learned from our leaders in the field, news about efforts to expand access to financial and information services for the poor, and how poverty-focused organizations are using data to improve the way they work.
Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2015 letter identifies four “big bets” that could lead us to a future with vastly reduced levels of poverty. Grameen Foundation supports these priorities and appreciates the risk-taking financing that the Gates Foundation has provided to our organization and many others. For our part, we are bundling two of these “bets” into a unified push to reduce rural poverty. We believe that bundling financial services with practical information on good farming practices, both enabled through the now nearly ubiquitous mobile phone, will go further in reducing farmer poverty and increasing yields than advancing either solution alone.
In international development we are prone to working in silos and also to fads. Our work over nearly two decades in advancing financial services for the poor, often through innovative uses of information technologies, has taught us how difficult it can be to create real value for poor people through practical, “last mile” solutions. But breakthroughs are possible.
The Indian microfinance sector has long been criticized for following a one-size-fits-all approach to products and significantly under-investing in innovation. The primary reason for this is a perception that product customization for the poor is a cost, rather than a strategic investment. Similar concerns have been raised about commercial banks’ efforts to further financial inclusion. Approximately 90% of India’s 100 million no-frills accounts —basic bank accounts offered by formal financial institutions lie dormant. This indicates that government and industry initiatives to enhance financial inclusion are unlikely to meet intended results if the focus remains on simply pushing products which are not customized to what the poor need and desire.
If knowledge is power, then learning how to avoid infection by one of the most deadly viruses of modern times surely ranks among the most precious of educations. The announcement on January 16 of an ambitious European drive to test and deploy a vaccine against the scourge of Ebola places Grameen Foundation mobile health programs at the center of delivering that life-saving education to the most vulnerable people on earth. It is a challenge we are honored to accept.