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Alex Counts speaks at the Penn Microfinane Conference.

Credit: Jae Seon Choi

Mustaqeem Abdul-Azeem spent 14 years in prison and then lived in a shelter. Today, thanks to the microfinance group Project Enterprise, his vending table business grosses six figures annually.

Stories like this were everywhere at Saturday’s sixth annual Penn Microfinance Conference in Huntsman Hall. The conference, “Microfinance 2.0: An Agenda for Revival,” attracted about 150 professionals, academics and students and explored how individuals have transformed their lives through microfinance.

One of the two keynote speakers, William Abrams, is president of Trickle Up, a prominent microfinance institution or MFI.

“I’m not actually going to talk about microfinance,” he began. “Poverty is the central issue. Microfinance is the means to an end.”

More than one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. They are the ‘bottom billion’ or ‘poorest of the poor’ or the ‘chronically food insecure,’ described Abrams. His organization provides financial training, seed capital grants and savings support to the extremely poor across countries like Mali, India and Nicaragua.

Speaking to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Abrams related the story of a village.

A new moonshine distillery was causing rifts between drinking fathers and their penniless families. Local women, empowered by participation in a microfinance savings group, united and successfully demanded that local leaders shut down the still.

“Trickle Up is not the hero of these stories — these women are the heroines. We are about people’s own resources, about their own ingenuity. We are an extra boost.”

Abrams went on to describe children of women who were lifting themselves out of poverty with microfinance loans. “Benefits begin in the womb,” he said. For the children of the bottom billion, “the day they’re born, they’re falling behind. And then they keep falling further and further behind.”

Abrams described the day a friend called him up and suggested he enter the microfinance field as a “burning bush,” as a revival of his own. “One phone call changed my life.”

Engineering freshman and Microfinance Club member Ankit Vaish is not yet an evangelist. His involvement with the field began with a water filtration project in India, his home. That project was a success. Nonetheless, “Every business has bad organizations,” said Vaish. He criticized MFIs that “play mind games” and manipulate villagers into taking loans they cannot repay. Such moneylenders are interested not in alleviating poverty but in riches. Vaish referenced suicides linked to SKS Microfinance, an MFI, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

In another keynote, Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation CEO, addressed concerns regarding microfinance’s changed character as it has scaled in size. He distinguished between those like Grameen and Trickle Up, which are engaged in the field altruistically, and those seeking an easy profit unethically.

Of the latter category, Counts said, “Some people have a vested interest in keeping the poor poor, and they don’t play nice.” SKS was an example, he said. Counts defined a path towards reviving the original altruistic mission of microfinance, calling for “a more cooperative culture,” and for MFIs to “put the clients first.”

The Grameen leader disputed claims by such microfinance naysayers as David Roodman, citing “a mountain of evidence” that validates microfinance’s success in lessening poverty.

One such analytical tool is Grameen’s Progress Out of Poverty Index. Counts said microfinance should be “fundamentally an infrastructure paid for by the poor to deliver a number of services to their door — energy, healthcare, childcare,” which Grameen has achieved.

In an interview, the Grameen CEO explained his initial interest in the movement. As a Cornell undergraduate and later Fulbright Scholar in Bangladesh, he “thought Grameen was on to become a game-changer” in anti-poverty activism.

He also addressed Malthusian skepticism of the quest to largely eradicate poverty, noting that global human material conditions are today more favorable than they were in the past.

“Extreme poverty stifles human potential,” said Counts.

Through microfinance, “we lay a foundation for the next generation.” If indigent children are able to attain even only a primary education, “that is a hell of a lot better than never reaching a school’s door in their lives.”

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