Small Loans, Big Steps
Kathleen Sullivan, Internationalist Magazine, March 28, 2007

Interview of ACCION president and CEO, María Otero

In 2005, Newsweek named you one the 20 most influential women in America, alongside Oprah.

Has this award affected your work?

The award is a recognition of the importance of microfinance and of that work, since I have dedicated 20 years of my life to it. It has opened doors for me to represent ACCION to many more audiences.

Are you optimistic about women rising as leaders in the US?

Absolutely. Especially in this country, there is no question that we are making big headways into many sectors of society, a fact demonstrated by how this country will make a decision about having a woman candidate for its presidency. This is enormously significant.

And in the rest of the world?

In developing countries, I think you can never generalize. In some countries, yes, women are playing a leading role, for example Chile, having a woman president. But it is harder for women to sit on boards of directors, to play a leading role, especially in the finance or banking fields.

We hear a good deal about how microfinance helps recipients avoid steep interest rates from loan sharks. What is a lesser-known benefit of microfinance?

One thing you don’t often hear is how women are presenting a role model for their daughters that they never had.

I took a delegation of business professors to Guatamala, and asked a woman who was running her little shoe shop right out of her dirt-floor house, “What are your unit costs of production?” She is standing there, with her three young children, two of whom are girls, and says, “I can tell you exactly what those numbers are, and here’s how I got them…” That is just one anecdote of how young women see their mothers operate this way. From the very beginning that changes the way these women see themselves.

Does microfinance present a danger to women whose traditional role is not the money-maker?

That’s a good question. Clearly in Latin America, women have been in the economic world since people started moving into cities, so the social and religious restrictions did not force them to stay at home. I think in Africa, the same is true. These women have been the most important players in the farming and agriculture production.

However, in some Muslim countries, where the women’s role is much more clearly defined by the culture and religion, it becomes far more difficult for them to take on income earning responsibilities, especially if they are living in villages, living at the bottom of the pyramid.

How does ACCION counter this?

ACCION makes loans to both men and women. We recognize that both men and women are poor, and you do need to address the social dimensions and the negotiating balance between genders.

But I think, as the same would happen in your home, when someone starts bringing in income, especially if you’re hungry, you would welcome it.

How do you continue to innovate this organization?

We never say that we’ve found the silver bullet. You always have to be thinking that what you have in front of you needs to be analyzed, expanded, and improved. Otherwise you get fat and happy, and you lose relevance pretty quickly.

You must bring in people from different backgrounds, from Wall Street, or from social sciences, to create an environment that supports that level of effort.

Many critics cite global poverty as too large of a problem to fix, or that loan beneficiaries are unaccountable. Do you encounter apathy in investors or donors?

I wouldn’t use apathy as much as I would lack of knowledge. The huge challenge is that there is so much information that people get in this country. The message would be far more understood, if for example, Oprah dedicated a program a month to this. A good example is what Al Gore is doing with An Inconvenient Truth.

What are the greatest challenges facing microfinance in next 10 years?

How can we use technology to reach more people? Can people make their payments through cell phones instead of standing in line for two hours? Can we partner with a pharmacy, or create a sort of Walmart, a one-stop-shop for financial services? Some of these breakthroughs require a great deal of pilot testing.