“Just another day at the office.”

Film producer Steve Atlas says this sometimes when things on the road get especially weird or wonderful – and there is no shortage of either on this trip.

Like that out-of-body hour we spent in Inner Mongolia with Mr. Wong, a senior-level bureaucrat and government microfinance enabler whose office furniture includes a bed.  Actually, it’s not the bed that’s odd, though you’ve got to admit it’s unusual.  It seems office beds are de rigueur for Chinese officials of a certain station, whose duties include long, liquid lunches.  What was unusual were the brilliant and surreal circumlocutions he used to say ‘no’ to an on-camera interview, all the while praising AMC’s microfinance work in the most glowing possible terms.  Truly artful.

I am here with Steve and cameraman Jason Longo in Chifeng… in Mumbai… in Patna… filming Acion clients and partners for a new set of videos about our work.   In May we visited the D.R., to film the Network Director’s meeting; June found us in Manaus, shooting the inauguration of ACCION Microfinanças.  Cameroon and EB-Accion is still ahead, scheduled for early September.

We’ll show the videos at the IDB Foromic in Costa Rica in October and at the 50th Gala in New York a week later, and then post them on our website.  We’ll use them for fundraising, and for explaining what we do.  As the most literal of art forms, nothing quite compares to film for outlining the complex story of microfinance.

Incredibly, it was five years ago, almost to the week, when I found myself with Steve and cameraman Mark Rublee in Kampala and Arusha, finishing up the filming of  ‘Voices from the Field’, the set of eight short videos about our work that live here on our website.

As well as I think those films hold up, there’s no denying that ACCION and the industry have undergone a sea change since then.  María is long gone to the State Department, Carlos to Root Capital, and so many other Accionistas who feature in the films have taken up new and different roles outside the house.

Five years ago, the idea of a Nobel Peace Prize for Muhammad Yunus and Grameen was still a whisper in the hallways of Stockholm.  Sure, the legwork for his nomination had already been done, but the announcement was still months away.  I remember sitting in a Lima taxi with María that summer of 2006 as the winds of publicity had begun to swirl around microfinance, Yunus and Grameen.   We chatted about the doctor.  I had to ask the question:  Everyone in microfinance was working hard to the same end.  Why hadn’t he opened the tent to all the others engaged in this mission?

Five years ago, there were no headline-grabbing microfinance IPOs.  Commercial microfinance went largely undebated in the public domain.  Sure, BRI and Equity Bank had issued public offerings, but nothing on the order of Compartamos and SKS.

After Compartamos, María asked me, “Do you think we have a PR problem?”

I told her no.  I was wrong.  We did – a significant one among our industry colleagues, but I just hadn’t been out in the field enough yet after the event to gauge true feelings.

As someone who’d come from publicly-traded companies and was relatively new to microfinance, I was perplexed.  I shared my confusion with Roy.  “You have to understand that for years and years we labored in obscurity,” he said.  “No one knew what microfinance was.  And there was absolutely no money in it, either.  All we had were our positions.  And because all we had were our positions, we defended them religiously.”

Several years later at the Microcredit Summit in Cartagena, I sat down with Chuck Waterfield of Microfinance Transparency for a tête-à-tête.    Chuck’s criticism of the IPO had been acute, and I had walked out of his presentation at the conference, in which he had lambasted Compartamos’ interest rates with no mention of the macro-economic factors at play or what other MFIs in Mexico were charging.  To be honest, I walked out only because Chuck was presenting in Spanish and I had grown increasingly frustrated over my poor Spanish skills – but I am sure that is not how it looked to anyone who was watching.

“Chuck, you have to understand – we take the criticism very, very personally,” I told him the next morning.  “There isn’t one individual at Accion who isn’t here for the mission, who doesn’t do this precisely because it’s meaningful work.   Anyone here could make a bigger living doing something else.”  I don’t know if he walked away convinced, but he sat there patiently and heard me out.

Five years ago, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times would phone and say, “Tell us about this wonderful thing called microfinance.”  It’s been ages since I got a call like that.  Today, perhaps not unjustly, the questions focus on impact, overheating and over-indebtedness.

“Lionize, scrutinize, demonize,” as we sometimes describe the three phases of media coverage.  We profited from Phase One.  We endured Phase Two.  We’ll survive Phase Three, and be more efficient and effective for it.

I see indications already.  With initiatives such as the Smart Campaign, the Microfinance Communications Council and the new Council of CEOs, the industry has recognized, and is acting on, the need to work together in ways that were unimaginable half a decade ago.  We were a cottage industry for years; today, we’re growing up.  We aren’t through adolescence yet, but I predict that in five years’ time, the industry will be working far more maturely and collaboratively on its collective image and results.

Five years ago, we were just getting started in India.  Five years ago, China was a dream in Alvaro’s head.  Negotiations for West and Central African expansion were still fledgling.  Our assets hovered somewhere around modest.  And the launch of the Center and the Smart Campaign remained noble aspirations.

Five years.  What a ride.  And, thanks to Steve Atlas & Co., coming soon to a theatre/ laptop/mobile device near you.

Written for Accion’s employee intranet, July 2011.

Header image: Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. John Rae for Accion.

 

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