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#Mifimon: Microfinance and Higher Education

By Andres Hammer

The following is a guest post from Andres Hammer, an intern at MF Transparency.

Our mid-February #mifimon topic was: “microfinance and higher education.” One of the panelists was Chuck Waterfield @chuckwaterfield, who has 25 years of experience in microfinance, is on the faculty of Columbia University/SIPA, and is CEO & president of MicroFinance Transparency. Chuck’s course at SIPA teaches “how to build an MFI” and focuses on business planning, decision making and financial modeling software for MFIs.  Alexandra Fiorillo@alexfiorillo, vice president of MF Transparency, also participated in the discussion.

Questions discussed:

What are some education programs that highlight microfinance? What schools?

Various graduate programs in the U.S. either focus on microfinance or include it in their curriculum. Graduate programs with specialties in microfinance include: SIPA at Columbia University and SAIS at Johns Hopkins University. Microfinance and social entrepreneurship programs are also offered by:

  • Business schools at Columbia, Harvard, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Evans School @evansschool at the University of Washington

  • The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University offers a class in social entrepreneurship

  • University of Colorado at Denver, University of Oregon, and Brown University offer anthropology programs with an emphasis in microfinance

For programs in Europe, the suggestions were “University Meets Microfinance” and European Microfinance Programme at Solvey School in Brussels, and for Africa, The School of Applied Microfinance in Kenya.

What about programs teaching only microfinance? Do they provide good professional training?

One example is Boulder MFT, which was discussed as a good, but costly, program. It’s not a degree, but consists of approximately three weeks of classes focused heavily on microfinance commercialization.

Programs like Boulder MFT give real-world material to supplement academic classes. On the same topic, participants asked: what are the strengths of a graduate degree vs. a professional degree like Boulder MFT? A graduate degree allows students to work in broad topics, including microfinance, whereas, a short-term program like Boulder is more of a crash course. Both are great and complementary.

Can you give us any suggestions on getting hands-on experience in microfinance prior going to graduate school?

A great microfinance learning experience is to find an internship overseas that complements classwork. “Books give foundation, but internships give substance.”

One participant suggested the Kiva Fellowship Program as a good way to explore microfinance before going to grad school. The progam is unpaid, but sometimes support can be raised. However, don’t expect to find support equal to a paid job. Another person suggested serving an internship in a country where the cost of living is cheap, and doing fundraising events to help raise money.

 Is it a must to be a business generalist in implementing microfinance?

For some practitioners, it is better to get experience in accounting, finance, law or other specialties before seeking a career in microfinance. Adding many courses in some hard skills like finance while in school can help tremendously when entering the microfinance field. Language skills are also a plus. 

Imagine a B.S. in microfinance, does that exist? Should microfinance be a major at undergraduate level or is it a concentration? Should a degree be that narrow?

An undergrad microfinance degree might be too narrow and it might be too soon for a student to focus on such a narrow field. For undergraduates, it would be better to get economic, development, finance or business degrees and include some microfinance courses. It’s important to have microfinance and microfinance-related courses in the curriculum. Undergrad is a good time to build foundation and look for summer internships related to microfinance.

Another approach to integrating microfinance into undergraduate studies is through expanding microfinance principles beyond the economic/business classes to women’s studies, community development and other areas.  To believe that one understands microfinance simply because he or she has an MBA can be dangerous; there are more options available to get involved in the field.

Participants mentioned several good examples of ways to integrate microfinance into school programs, such as the Social Enterprise program at Seattle Pacific University Business School.

What is your experience with education networks, microfinance groups of students/faculty, etc.?

Student networks have great energy and are an excellent way to pull in outside experts, share job/intern ideas and build long-term relationships. SIPA at Columbia University has a very active and large student group studying microfinance. Check out the Microfinance Working Group(MFWG) for more info.

The problem with student networks is that they tend to be short-lived because students graduate and there is no continuity in the work done. The MFWG at Columbia University has created a succesful  system of first-year board members to deal with continuity issues. For more information on student resources, visit NetImpact, a national organization that provides great resources to students interested in social entrepreneurship via college chapters. On the same topic, the participants asked: Should there be some sort of consistent faculty sponsor?The answer is definitely yes.  It is critical for momentum and for students to have an ally lobbying for curriculum.

What is the Two Dollar Challenge?

The Two Dollar Challenge is a way for students to engage in microfinance by living on only $2/day in support of Opportunity International’s work in Kenya and Colombia.

  • $2 Challenge needs to factor in buying power of $2 in developing world. Could be equivalent of $10 or $20 in the U.S.

  • It’s an education tool for students to help identify more with the developing world

  • If it’s educational, then all the more reason to factor in the ‘exchange rate’ buying power, metrics

  • The education factor comes in throughout the week through educational programs that include PPP. It is a platform.


@alexfiorillo@chuckwaterfieldo, rarenaudAJRenold,amycarolwolff @MFIConnect,@ReVisionLabs@GrameenFdn,@mifoscajames1@kivafellows@mgray2,@SeaMoMicro jeffzanatta,@OptINnowzyozyfounder

MF Transparency is a non-profit agency established to promote the welfare of poor micro-entrepreneurs, and to promote the integrity of microfinance as a poverty alleviation practice by promoting pricing transparency throughout the sector. MF Transparency’s mission is to be the venue for the microfinance industry to publicly demonstrate its commitment to pricing transparency, integrity and poverty alleviation.

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