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Things Move More Slowly in Africa

June 27, 2012

Shannon Maynard is Director of Bankers without Borders® (BwB), Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. This post is the third in a four-part series; you can read her first post here, and her second post here.

“Things move more slowly in Africa” – this is a common refrain for many of us at Grameen Foundation when we find ourselves experiencing hurdles with our work in places like Nigeria and Ethiopia. In fact, African countries and the organizations we work with do often lack the infrastructure – particularly the Internet connectivity – that contributes to the fast-paced, rapid-response world that those of us based in the United States have grown so accustomed to. Slower is also a word I’d use to describe Bankers without Borders’ own presence in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joining Grameen Foundation after primarily working with US-based NGOs, I remember my own first experiences arranging a call with a microfinance institution (MFI) leader in Sub-Saharan Africa – fumbling around with Skype to enter the correct phone number, then getting a voicemail message in a language I couldn’t understand. It might take a few weeks of trying to connect at a time convenient for us both. In those early days, Grameen Foundation did not have local offices or staff in places like Nairobi, Accra or Kampala. Cultivating relationships and managing projects is difficult to do from a different continent, which is why I am amazed we were actually able to do any work in places like Ghana and Nigeria in those first few years of BwB.

Over the past year, however, BwB has been able to gain some traction in the region, thanks to the regional leadership of Erin Conner and Steve Wardle, and BwB Regional Program Officer Martin Gitari, all based in Nairobi.

[caption id="attachment_2210" align="aligncenter" width="283"]David Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of Bankers without Borders' FiDavid Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of BwB's Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.nancial Modeling Reserve Corps. David Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of BwB's Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.[/caption]

Grameen Foundation’s own programs, particularly our MOTECH work in Ghana and Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program in Uganda, are BwB’s biggest clients. In our early days, we had a hard time convincing Grameen Foundation’s own technology teams of the services we could provide, because Grameen Foundation’s own employees assumed BwB was only focused on connecting bankers with microfinance institutions (a fair assumption, given our name). Thanks to some education on our part and the willingness of these programs’ leaders to give us a try, we’ve been able to place volunteers such as Chris Smith and Gillian Evans (a husband-and-wife team) with CKW and Roche employee Lynda Barton with MOTECH, in year-long placements. We’ve worked with CKW to establish a local collaboration with Makere University to provide interns to our Uganda office each semester. And we’ve just finalized arrangements to engage a Glaxo Smith Kline employee with the CKW team on a six-month assignment, starting this month.

Growth for All: Including the Poor in Strategies for Economic Growth

May 31, 2012

Michael Castellano is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying International Affairs and Development. He interned with Bankers without Borders® at Grameen Foundation during the spring of 2012.

In the years following the global financial crisis, politicians and policymakers across the globe have harped on one cardinal goal: economic growth. Without a doubt, plans for growing the economy will dominate discussions in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. It seems as though we as a society have collectively determined that if only the economy would turn around, conditions would certainly improve across the board. If only we could enact legislation to spur economic growth, inevitably we would all be better off.

Fortunately, statistics show that the United States has seen steadily climbing annual growth rates since the nadir of the “Great Recession.” Developing countries and emerging economies have, on the whole, experienced average growth rates of more than 5 percent thus far in 2012 and will continue to propel the world’s progress, according to financial forecasts. So – this is good news for everyone, right?

Not necessarily.

Although a country’s national economy may grow, the poorest of the poor often remain completely disconnected from the financial, political and social systems in place. Without active bank accounts, the poor cannot easily save or access other financial services. In rural villages, people may not have easy access to healthcare and can quickly fall victim to external shocks such as disease or natural disaster. Without these services, poor people around the world cannot reap the benefits of overall economic growth.

During my time at Grameen Foundation and through my studies in International Development during this past year, one fundamental lesson has stood out: Though economic growth is certainly important, growth does little to reduce poverty if the poor lack access to essential services. This illustrates a key principle that development practitioners dub “pro-poor growth.”

[caption id="attachment_2143" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Michael Castellano served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring. Michael Castellano, shown here during a trip to Australia, served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.[/caption]

Pro-poor growth involves forming development policies and strategies that target the poorest of the poor and offer new ways of connecting them to financial markets. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, stated, “The direct elimination of poverty should be the objective of all development aid. Development should be viewed as a human rights issue, not as a question of simply increasing the gross national product.”

Ensuring that Healthcare for the Poor Is Just a Call Away

March 06, 2012

The annual Mobile World Congress is the place to see the latest mobile phones and applications before they hit the market. But that’s not why Tim Wood is there. As director of Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Health initiative, he’s more interested in how the mobile industry can help improve health outcomes for people who can barely afford a $20 phone.

The Value of Group Savings and Lending to the Poorest People

December 21, 2011

This is a guest post from Sudarshan Behera, Field Executive for our Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest project in Gaya, India.

Sugia Devi was a changed woman on November 7, 2011. She had just left the free cataract clinic in Bodhgaya in India’s northern state of Bihar and was grateful for her improved eyesight. She couldn’t wait to thank the people who had made it possible: the members of her adapted self-help group (ASHG).

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