I’ve worked as a catalyst of social change for decades, and there is one lesson that continuously rings true: success happens when problem solving is “in their own hands”; failure occurs when others try to do it for them.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, I began my career in international development as one of the early Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador. Assigned to a remote village, I developed a program in which my team of fellow volunteers and Liberation Theology nuns brought together village leaders to plan how to secure the land they were entitled to. As the village leaders brought agrarian reform to more villages, I realized that success was theirs, not mine. After leaving Ecuador and completing graduate studies in sociology at Boston University, I joined Acción International in 1975. As Acción’s deputy director, I led the first worldwide assessment of microfinance, which later became the framework for launching microfinance in Latin America and later Africa and Eastern Europe. Throughout the 1980s, I evaluated, designed, and led microfinance efforts in thirty-five countries, and in 1990, I brought microfinance to the United States with Working Capital, which soon had operations in eight US states, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Russia. In 1997, I received the award for microfinance innovation from President Bill Clinton.
After becoming disillusioned because microfinance was not reaching the world’s poorest, it was my evaluation of the Women’s Empowerment Program in Nepal in 2000 that taught me that there was another path to financial inclusion. By sidestepping financial institutions and instead training small groups to save and lend, village women were being reached at an unprecedented scale. Taking what I learned in Nepal, and later in India and Zimbabwe, I joined Oxfam America in 2005 as Oxfam’s director of community finance. It was there that I designed and led the Saving for Change initiative, which grew to organize more than 650,000 rural women into tens of thousands of savings groups across five countries with minimal staff and at low cost, capitalizing on their capacity to lead their own development.
Currently, as a research fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University and as a fellow at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, I am part of a group of “Savings Revolution” leaders working to bring savings groups to one million rural communities over the next decade. Through the courses I teach at Brandeis University and Columbia University, I am dedicated to inspiring the next generation of change agents. At the conferences and universities around the world where I am invited to speak, my message is that the key to change is “in their own hands.”