Back in the summer of 1975, a group of women met at the first United Nations Conference on Women in Mexico City. A Danish economist named Ester Boserup had just published an analysis noting that while women performed over 65% of the world’s work, they earned only 10% of the income, and owned less than 1% of the world’s property. And women were routinely denied commercial banking privileges. One of the attendees, Michaela Walsh, had what was at the time a radical observation: unless women got access to money and credit, they would never have power. Over the next decade, the network she created, which has come to be known as Women’s World Banking, became one of the pioneering forces in helping women entrepreneurs enter the financial world and get credit they would not otherwise have been able to access. Today, WWB is an integral part of what we all know as microfinance.
In Walsh’s new book Founding a Movement she describes Mexico City as a “game changer for my life, a complete paradigm shift.” But, as she notes, in many ways she was ideally suited for this work. Her grandfather, Frank Walsh, was a social activist who, among other things, co-wrote the congressional proposal for the child labor law. Social justice was in her blood. She grew up in Kansas City, and after college she went into finance because, she writes, “That’s where the power was, and I was fascinated by how one could use power to make people’s lives better.”
Walsh’s first job was as a sales assistant for Merrill Lynch in Kansas City. She moved to New York—and then made her way to Beirut, even though her superiors told her that Beirut was “too high risk for women.” All of her experiences helped her understand how little access women had to the real economy. She also began to realize that, as she puts it, “There was a gap between my personal values and my work on Wall Street.” And so, in 1972, she became a program associate at the Rockefeller Brothers fund.
Walsh’s methodology was not that of modern business-oriented philanthropy. “It wasn’t like she had a very clear business plan,” Marilou von Golstein, another microfinance pioneer, recounts. “The vision was the starting point, and then she had to figure out what was the best form to make it real.” To make matters more difficult, Walsh was also determined to break free of the strictures of conventional banking; not just in terms of who WWB offered loans to, but also in how they operated. “My commitment was to organize WWB as an institution in support of a movement, not a ‘top down’ directorate,” Walsh writes. And so, WWB grew up as a network composed of affiliates, thereby allowing individual groups to operate as they think best. “There was no prescribed formula,” writes Walsh. “It was never assumed that what was working in Africa would automatically work elsewhere.”
Today, WWB is still the only microfinance network with an explicit focus on women. It has 19 million clients around the world, 73% of whom are women, and operates through a network of 39 microfinance institutions in 28 countries.
“It is my profound trust that the movement of women helping each other gain full control over their economic destinies is the basis of how the world will change for the better,” writes Walsh.
Of course, the very success of WWB also raises some interesting questions that Walsh hints at in Founding a Movement—how to manage the tension between the need to produce profits that is embedded in the modern concept of microfinance with the social justice that inspired it, what’s gotten lost given that the business-like nature of modern philanthropy may not have permitted someone like Walsh to get her start, and perhaps, what lessons today’s mega financial institutions might be able to learn from WWB.
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