What started as the brainchild of one professor at the University of Mary Washington, Month of Microfinance has become a substantial student-based movement supported by notable organizations like ACCION, Kiva and Opportunity International.
In April the movement helped organize over thirty microfinance-related events, including workshops, film screenings, panel discussions and guest lectures, at over a dozen universities across the country. Just Google "Month of Microfinance" to get an idea of the group's impressive online presence and expansive network.
As Month of Microfinance approaches its final week, student organizers and their mentor, Professor of Economics Shawn Humphrey, have begun to reflect on their achievements.
While a few events focused on the technical "nitty gritty" aspects of microlending, for the most part MoMF addressed the more conceptual and ethical questions surrounding this still relatively new sector.
"We've brought together a bunch of different alliances, different organizations, and networks to really hash out this discussion on what client-centered microfinance means, what are its potential opportunities for clients, and what are things that might be shortcomings for clients," explains Sarah Alvarez, a senior International Affairs major at Mary Washington who has been actively involved in La Ceiba, the school's student-run microfinance initiative in Honduras.
"It's all really about raising awareness and shedding light on a really important discussion for the microfinance industry," she adds.
Throughout the Month of Microfinance, students and professors have put their heads to together to answer some of the tough questions facing microfinance practitioners today.
"Because microfinance is still a relatively new development to alleviate poverty, we're still trying to figure out: Are we a movement? Are we an industry? And so we wanted to just ask a lot of questions and do a lot of talking and exploring in different ways," says Lara Froemke, a senior International Affairs and Business Administration major at Mary Washington.
Microfinance as an academic field of study has grown significantly in recent years. In the wake of a global financial meltdown exacerbated by predatory lending, more and more students are expressing interest in financial inclusion and ethical, client-focused banking concepts.
"The growth has actually been quite amazing," says Professor Humphrey. "Most of the students I've talked to over the years were centered around Kiva and using their online lending platform as a way to engage, and lot of students still do that. But there's been more and more students actually running their own microfinance operations themselves, either in partnership with a local institution or university, like La Ceiba."
Founded in 2008, La Ceiba provides financial, social and educational support to communities in El Progreso, Honduras. The students who run the program receive hands-on experience in microfinance, while clients enjoy access to small loans with a flat interest rate of 15%.
Students entering the field of microfinance are doing so at a particularly volatile moment given the media backlash in the wake of the Andhra Pradesh suicides and similar catastrophes. When asked if the Month of Microfinance was addressing these issues, Humphrey said that although events focused on specific risk management techniques were not part of the agenda, students were debating such concerns from an ethical and conceptual standpoint.
"I felt like if anything students could be a moral voice in this space. That's where it grew out of and that's what's been our driving force from day one. We said, 'let's give students a platform where they can stake their claim to the idea that they are client centered. And since they're going to be the future practitioners, let's go ahead and start getting them thinking about these ideas now.'"
According to Humphrey, La Ceiba has been an effective educational tool for aspiring microfinance practitioners and has helped raise their awareness of the potential risk factors involved in lending under such circumstances.
"I like the idea of how if you recognize those possibly adverse forces at work then you, as a responsible microfinance practitioner, can take steps to alleviate those. That's what we do in La Ceiba with my students. We see all the possible adverse consequences of our program and we try to take the steps to alleviate those pressures," Humphrey says.
For most students at La Ceiba, this client-centered banking concept designed to encourage rather than intimidate comes naturally.
"We believe in the client-centered approach whereby we build relationships that are based on mutual trust as opposed to a sort of paternalistic 'hey you haven't paid— give us a reason why,'" says Alvarez. "At La Ceiba we are more geared towards 'let's have this dialogue, let's have this discussion: what are the things that are impairing your ability to pay? Is it a matter of responsible lending? Is it, you know, La Ceiba's responsibility to make sure that the sum of money is appropriate for [the client], or does it have more to do with their community? What are the variables in place that are impeding their ability to pay?"
With a jam-packed April coming to a close, Professor Humphrey and his students are already talking about Month of Microfinance 2013. Plans are in the works to involve more student organizations, universities and other partners abroad.
"On May 1 we will sit back and assess what we have accomplished. I think in part what we're looking forward to is taking the discussion deeper from an ideological level to more of the nuances and the actual practice itself of doing a client-centered approach. We have one partner in India; we've gotten requests from students in Pakistan; we have a partnership with an MFI in Mexico and there's a few others. So we hope to make this more of an international coalition for next year," Professor Humphrey says.
"I think with every year that we work with the same partners, whether it's a professional organization or the student clubs, Month of Microfinance will become an annual thing that they'll be expecting and planning for and anticipating," says Froemke.
"We're hoping that it will become a sort of tradition for them and they'll already be preparing and thinking ahead of the kinds of things that they might want to bring up during our Month of Microfinance," Froemke adds.
Though this is her final year at the University of Mary Washington, Sarah Alvarez hopes to continue her work with the organization and see it grow to its full potential.
"This is something that's grown into a passion of mine— microfinance and poverty alleviation. I don't foresee this as being a one-time involvement. It definitely has a lot of potential to grow in the near future," she says.
"I think that what's really valuable about MoMF is that even though it takes place during one month it creates this impetus to have this discussion all the time. So after people graduate and maybe come to the conclusion that their time with microfinance is over, there are still some values that are instilled in people from the discussions that we've had."
To become involved in the Month of Microfinance and learn more, visit monthofmicrofinance.org.