Last Thursday, LEND (Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development) and NCDC (Northwestern Community Development Corps) welcomed Tom Coleman to speak about Bottom Billion Microfinance at Northwestern’s Harris Hall. Despite the blistering cold, more than 40 people crowded in to learn about poverty, microfinance and the Bottom Billion Fund. I noticed a wide variety of people in the audience: young and old, students and non-students, people knowledgeable about microfinance and those just being introduced to what it’s all about.
Tom opened his talk with an overview of global poverty. Following a video featuring Hans Rosling speaking about economic progress over the past 200 years, Tom expressed both optimism and concern regarding the state of poverty today. We learned that while aid organizations have done a tremendous job increasing health throughout the third world, there is still much work to be done in the fight against poverty. Tom drew on his extensive experience as a VP economist at the Chicago Board of Trade and also as a consultant to numerous Microfiance Institutions (MFIs) worldwide to help the audience understand the real world implications behind global poverty statistics, and the impact economic opportunity can have. He stressed that though microfinance cannot be considered a panacea in combating poverty, it has proven to be a very effective tool, having uplifted millions out of poverty.
We learned how many MFIs today are targeting the ‘rising poor’ and the global middle class: those earning between $1.25 and $25 a day. While this is good work, Tom pointed out, the extremely poor, or those earning less that $1.25 a day, are often neglected by most MFIs. He went on to explain how the new Bottom Billion Fund will maintain a rigorous focus on lending assistance to the poorest people in the world: the Bottom Billion. He talked about Bottom Billion Fund’s mission, about the nonprofit Fund “not being in business for the profits, but for the poverty”, and about the organization’s vision for scaling an investment model that can help to bring many of the extremely poor out of extreme poverty.
The presentation created an informative dialogue amongst the audience as the crowd asked the critical questions being discussed in microfinance today. Some attendees wondered if microfinance is sustainable? How effective can it be? Are some people simply destined to be poor? The most memorable moment, for me, came when a girl who questioned why an MFI would ever make a loan to an area where there is no market or existing capital. Coleman responded that though this can be a risky prospect, sometimes a small loan is all that is needed to stimulate sustainable market activity. He supported his point by providing some inspiring success stories. Whether attendees walked out inspired by Coleman’s noble ambition or simply learned what microfinance is, everyone walked out knowing something that they did not know before.
On the whole, the night was a great success, as everyone really seemed to enjoy the talk. I know I did.
Bottom Billion Fund 2011-2012 Fellow