When, over lunch, Sameer, my boss at the Grameen Foundation, described himself as an idealist, I found myself a little surprised. But, then I was surprised that I was surprised. I don’t think any of my friends at Haverford would describe themselves as such. It’s too easy to argue against. Maybe our impending entrance into the job market has turned us all to cynics. Or it could be that the word idealist is scary. To own it you have to believe that it is possible that things could be better than they are right now. That positive change could happen. All of a sudden you’re both vulnerable and responsible. The problem with idealists is that they care.
I don’t know if I’m mature enough to admit that I care about people on the other side of the globe. Throughout my first three years at college I went through a process of learning about the complexity of the world (in terms of science, economics, politics…) and slowly became convinced of my inability to have any effect on it. The ever prevalent mindset took over, “If I can’t do anything to help the poor then I shouldn’t spend my life worrying about them.” At the time, I wasn’t aware of my change of opinion, I only knew that I had become more comfortable simply focusing on my personal goals and the people immediately surrounding me.
Initially, I applied for an internship at the Grameen Foundation because I thought that it would be an opportunity to learn about and participate in the application of finance outside of academia and traditional investment banking. My job, over the past few weeks, has been to do just that; to learn enough about the foundation so that I can write about it and communicate its goals and structure to the public. During this time, I’ve also started to understand what it is like to have a job with a greater purpose. Unlike my coworkers, I don’t think I’m ready to make the commitment and call myself an idealist, but I’ll admit that I appreciate the opportunity to learn about and hopefully contribute to the field of microfinance.
The front page of the Grameen Foundation’s website is abundant with success stories and requests to “take action.” It‘s clear that a lot of time and effort are put into getting others involved in the movement, educating them about microfinance. My first inclination when I saw the pictures of poor women beaming with big proud smiles, showing off their wares, was to brush them off and search for the substance of the website. Subconsciously, I classified those blurbs as advertisements, along with the panels in the metro and the logos that adorn almost every article of clothing that I own. Over the following weeks, as I learned more about the structure of microfinance and the process of lending to the poor, I revisited those stories. They started making sense to me. Not only did I actually believe that Fatuma, the Kenyan chicken farmer, had been able to change her life using only a twenty dollar loan, I had seen the financial reports of several different microfinance institutions whose clients numbered in the tens of thousands. Even if only a portion of them had benefitted as much as Fatuma, it was not hard to understand why Sameer believes in his work.