Microfinance Mission Accomplished? Hardly, Expert Says

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The recent decision by its board to close Seattle nonprofit Unitus and shift its resources to “other strategic areas” prompted Adam Sorensen, a consultant working for the International Finance Corporation, to write a response questioning the actions. Here’s his personal perspective:

Unitus, the Seattle-based, non-profit microfinance organization announced ’Mission Accomplished’ on the eve of July 4th by closing its offices in Seattle, Bangalore and Nairobi and dismissing its 45 staff members. Like the infamous declaration by George W. Bush in 2003, the decision by the Unitus board of directors is hardly justified. Despite the definitive claims of success, the closure of Unitus has only raised confusion about the organization and questions about the state of the microfinance industry.

The Chairman of Unitus, Joseph Grenny, who is also a Unitus co-founder, shocked the microfinance industry by declaring that Unitus’ “central premise… has been validated – capital markets have embraced microfinance to the extent that there are tens of billions of dollars in microfinance capital now available.” Although the recently-appointed, now-departing CEO of Unitus has not publicly commented on the closure, the longtime COO, Ed Bland, added that Unitus had become “unnecessary” in the microfinance industry, equating the growth of for-profit microfinance providers with the availability of commercial capital.

The declaration of victory refers to Unitus’ goal to reduce poverty by rapidly accelerating the provision of microfinance to the poor using commercial capital. Until the declaration, the goal appeared far off. The Unitus web site accurately stated that “even after 30 years of industry effort, there remains a huge gulf between the supply and demand for microfinance services. Millions of families are still without access, and at current growth rates, the gap will not be closed for decades.” Unitus tackled this challenge by raising capital and then channeling it to microfinance providers in developing countries, while providing consulting assistance to improve their growth and productivity.

By all accounts, Unitus executed its strategy well in India, with far less traction in other parts of the world. Since 2001, when it began hiring professional staff out of a converted bungalow in the shadow of the Microsoft campus, Unitus raised $40 million in donor funding to support 12 microfinance providers in India, three elsewhere in Asia, four in Latin America and three in Africa.

Source: The Seattle Times (link opens in a new window)