Global Partnerships


Three years later: Was the massive humanitarian response in Haiti a success? | 

Co-authored by Tom Murphy


Immediately after the 2010 quake, many Haitians were given tents as 'temporary' shelters. Three years later, nearly 400,000 still live in them.              UNDP
Immediately after the 2010 quake, many Haitians were given tents as ‘temporary’ shelters. Three years later, nearly 400,000 still live in them. UNDP


The international community’s response to the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the largest disaster relief responses ever carried out involving many governments, agencies, hundreds of humanitarian organizations and about $9 billion in private donations and foreign government assistance.

So it may be a bit disconcerting that, three years on, the aid and development community still can’t seem to agree on whether the effort should be regarded as largely a success or a failure.

“There are still something like 360,000 people living in tents,” said Nicole Phillips, a human rights attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy and Haiti. Philips is speaking today at the University of Washington along with documentary filmmaker Michele Mitchell who is screening her film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? – a critical analysis of the lack of accountability within the humanitarian community.

Vijaya Ramachandran
Vijaya Ramachandran

Other aid experts, like Vijaya Ramachandran at the prestigious DC-based think tank the Center for Global Development, have asked the same question. As Ramachandran wrote last spring:

The Government of Haiti has received just 1 percent of humanitarian aid and somewhere between 15 and 21 percent of longer-term relief aid. As a result, NGOs and private contractors in Haiti have built an extensive infrastructure for the provision of social services. Yet, these entities appear to have limited accountability….

But many of those who actually do the work there say this alleged lack of adequate financial accountability doesn’t necessarily mean Haitians did not benefit, that lives were not saved and that many millions of people’s lives have been improved.

JeffWright2“There’s a reason it’s called a disaster,” said Jeff Wright, emergency operations manager for World Vision and a disaster relief worker with lots of experience in Haiti. These situations are always chaotic and hardly ideal for precise bookkeeping, Wright said, adding that Haiti was chaotic and difficult before the quake.

“Are things in Haiti good today? No. Are they better than they would have been had we not responded? Absolutely.” Continue reading

Thousand in Seattle support ‘controversial’ anti-poverty scheme | 

Nearly 1,000 gather for Global Partnerships annual luncheon

It didn’t used to be controversial.

But one way to say this is that nearly one thousand people turned out for a Seattle event Tuesday to celebrate and support an anti-poverty scheme that many experts in the aid and development community contend doesn’t work.

Microcredit loans.

Rick Beckett, CEO Global Partnerships

“We have something like $70 million in loans to 57 partners in 12 countries, serving about 2.2 million clients each of whom support on average a family of five people,” said Rick Beckett, president and CEO of Global Partnerships, a Seattle-based organization and one of the biggest practitioners of microfinance anywhere.

The organization, founded in 1994 by local philanthropists Bill and Paula Clapp and focused primarily on assisting the poor in Central America, held its annual fund-raising ‘Business of Hope’ luncheon yesterday. Nearly a thousand people were estimated to have attended. The organization raised $540,000 for microcredit last year and hoped to do better this year.

I asked Beckett how he has been able to dupe so many folks: Don’t all these people know that many experts in aid and development say microcredit loans don’t work to raise people out of poverty? That it’s a sham, and even an abuse?

“That’s sort of a leading question, isn’t it?” he laughed. 

The rise and fall of the public image of microfinance has been misleading at both ends of the spectrum, Beckett said. Continue reading

Seattle Times on PATH’s work with women in Nicaragua | 

Flickr, cromacom

Women's rights were a big issue in the Nicaraguan civil war

One of the best ways to fight poverty and inequity is to improve the lives of women and girls, largely because this translates into healthier children and, eventually, wealthier and more stable communities overall.

The Seattle Times‘ Kristi Heim, with photographer Erika Schultz, did a nice job describing a fairly comprehensive and innovative effort by PATH working to improve the lives of Nicaraguan women. When the Sandinistas took control of the country in 1979, many of the leaders said women’s empowerment would be a critical part of the reform planned by the revolutionary government.

Those plans didn’t translate into much meaningful change in this machismo country, as it turned out. In an article for the newspaper’s Pacific Northwest magazine, Heim describes the challenge:

Adolescent pregnancy rates are also high some of the highest outside Africa. And on average, rural women here have more pregnancies than women in developed countries, making their risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth over the course of their lives seven times greater than it is in the United States. And in rural Nicaragua, where husbands are typically in charge of family decisions, women generally don’t have the choice or the ability to plan when to start having a family or when to stop.

The story focuses to a great extent on PATH’s Nicaragua director Margarita Quintanilla, a woman I met many years ago when I wrote for the Seattle PI about one of their innovative strategies for reaching out to girls and young women with messages of empowerment — soap operas.

As Heim notes, the PATH program has grown in both breadth and scope since then, thanks to funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and partnering with other organizations working in Nicaragua.

Seatte-based Global Partnerships, for example, has been working in Nicaragua for many years providing micro-loans to women. Now, they are partnering with PATH through an organization called Pro Mujer to coordinate the microfinance initiative with programs aimed at providing women with better access to health services, especially emphasizing cervical cancer prevention.


Mysterious microfinance firm re-emerges | 

Flickr, TW Collins

Clay Holtzman, in his new blog Nonprofit Kingdom, notes that a year ago the Seattle microfinance firm Unitus closed its doors, laid off most of its staff and didn’t really tell anybody (including some major donors) why it did so.

Unitus, which had claimed its primary mission was to help poor people, also happened to have made a lot of money — having invested in an Indian company, SKS Microfinance, which had pursued this anti-poverty financing scheme as a for-profit venture.

Here’s a New York Times piece on the controversy about SKS making money while fighting poverty. Here’s what I wrote at the time Unitus closed its doors and a more recent post I did on the broader implications of all the weirdness. Here’s another post from last year that Clay cites as a good overview by Philanthropy Action.

Now, as Clay notes, Unitus has been resurrected as Unitus Labs. Here’s what Clay says:

Many wondered what the new mission would be, and why Unitus had to close so quickly. Unitus recently unveiled its reorganization plan, and while the charity will use a different approach to reduce poverty, its new business strategy appears very similar to the one that sparked an international controversy last year.

Continue reading

Four answers to the question: Does microfinance work? | 

That, in a nutshell, was the question posed to a panel of microfinance experts at a Seattle forum earlier this week, sponsored by Global Washington and aimed at examining “The global implications of India’s microcredit crisis.”

The answer: Yes and no. Of course.

It’s actually an important, if impudent sounding, question given that microfinance has long been heralded as the most powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. It’s especially interesting in Seattle because this community is one of the leading international hubs of the anti-poverty scheme.

Tom Paulson

From left, Rick Beckett of Global Partnerships, Chris Wolff with Accion Int’l, Peter Bladin of the Grameen Foundation, David Roodman and moderator Steve Davis

I think it’s fair to say microfinance is no longer regarded without question as a panacea for poverty. In fact, as I have written ad nauseum, it is in something of a crisis. Continue reading

Has India jinxed microfinance? | 

Flickr, prolix6x

Indian woman cooking rice

The anti-poverty scheme known as microfinance is in crisis, or maybe several crises.

The political sacking of Muhammad Yunus as head of the pioneering Grameen Bank, allegations of loan-shark profiteering by some microfinanciers and suicides of poor people caught in “debt traps” have led to a drumbeat of negative media stories about microfinance.

The drumbeat is loudest in India where the crisis is most intense. But it has reverberated worldwide, including in Seattle. Continue reading

Microfinance backlash: Identity crisis, evolution or greedy mission creep? | 

Seattle is big on microfinance, but what is it?

The short answer is that microfinance is a set of financial services such as small loans for the poor aimed at helping people get themselves out of poverty.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? In reality, there’s a fight for the soul of microfinance going on and some of that battle has been playing out here at home.

There has been an explosion of “profit-maximizing” microfinance organizations lately which some say threatens to undermine the credibility of this anti-poverty scheme — if not its fundamental social purpose. But the proponents of profit-driven, commercial microfinance say it is the only way to really grow these services, to reach the many millions more in need of help.

Flickr, TW Collins

Continue reading

Microfinance: A new loan on life | 

Microfinance saved Edelma Altamirano’s life.

I had lunch on Sunday with Edelma Altamirano, who lives in León, Nicaragua, but is visiting Seattle because she’s the featured speaker at Global Partnership’s Business of Hope luncheon on Tuesday at the Westin Hotel.

Tom Paulson

Global Partnerships Mary Herrick and Edelma Altamirano, smashing crab

We ate at the Crab Pot at Pier 57, where she got to wear a paper bib and hit massive crab legs with a wooden mallet. Mary Herrick and Ana Maria Echeverria, both with Global Partnerships, were showing her around. It was a warmish, moist day full of tourists and kitsch.

Altamirano’s story — which you will have to go to the Tuesday event to hear in full — is the difference between microfinance that’s about money and microfinance that’s about people.

Nothing against money. Poor people would like more of it, which is what microfinance is supposed to be aimed at accomplishing.

But there’s lot of confusion lately around this exploding field of micro-lending, which includes other equally ill-defined, seemingly interchangeable terms such as “microcredit” and “microloans.” Continue reading