How Does Evidence Unite Us or Divide Us?

How do you think evidence unites or divides us?  Perhaps it’s because we share some of the same objectives for microfinance and differ in others?

I am starting this new blog to invite you all into a conversation about what we know regarding the benefits and costs of different kinds of microfinance for the poor – and how we know it.

I do have an agenda.

Freedom from Hunger has a lot of questions about cause and effect in the practice and outcomes of microfinance.  This isn’t just intellectual curiosity; we really need to know what the evidence tells us, so we can design and re-design accordingly.  We’ve done a lot of our own evidence-gathering (a.k.a. research) and have been attentive to the work of many others.  But we are first and foremost practitioners.

As the President of Freedom from Hunger for more than 20 years, I haven’t had time to read much, except on long airplane flights, for the past quarter century.  Now that I am my organization’s Senior Research Fellow (since last October), I am almost giddy with the opportunity to read and write again.  I am launching this blog to engage you in helping us discover and make sense of the evidence relevant to our questions – which I’m quite certain are your questions, too.

I’ll structure this blog with a series of nine Themes (the tentative title of each is shown to the right, in the sidebar).  Each Theme will be a broad question.  I’ll pose the question and set out the evidence I know of and ask for your thoughts and additional evidence you can provide.  And we’ll see how it plays out.

I want to focus our conversation in Theme One on how differently evidence of benefit and cost is valued by those with different objectives.

Some evidence unites us and other evidence divides us.  Sometimes the same evidence does both.

I’m not talking about research methods and arguments about the validity or relevance of evidence they generate.  I’m referring to well-accepted data, like the number of unbanked people (2.7 billion is the current number that may or may not be accurate but is widely cited and broadly accepted) and the number of people living on US$1.25 a day, mysteriously “adjusted for purchasing power parity” (1.0 billion is the nice round number that comes to most of our minds).  Of course, such widely cited numbers often turn out to be wrong or misleading, but let’s assume for a moment that such iconic data points are real.

For many of us in microfinance, the key number is 2.7 billion – people who are “unbanked” – without access to formal financial services.  For others, like me, the key number is 1.0 billion – people who are so poor they are “chronically hungry” (roughly the same people who live on US$1.25 a day or less).  If we broadly define the “poor” as people living on the equivalent of $4 a day, certainly most, if not all, of the 2.7 billion are poor.  So we are united by our common focus on the poor.  And certainly the vast majority of the 1.0 billion chronically hungry are unbanked.  So we are united by our common focus on the unbanked.

However, we are divided by the evidence that not all the poor and unbanked are chronically hungry.  The chronically hungry are a subset of the unbanked; that is, a narrower segment of the current and potential market for microfinance.  So what divides us?  The way microfinance is commonly designed to serve the broad spectrum of the unbanked seems to be different from the way Freedom from Hunger and others with similar objectives design microfinance to serve the narrower “market segment” of the chronically hungry poor.

Is this a problem?  It’s a problem, only if we insist that all microfinance has to conform to the common designs that conceivably could reach hundreds of millions, if not a billion of the unbanked without touching or helping the chronically hungry poor.  It’s a problem if we insist that all microfinance should be designed specifically to reach and help the chronically hungry poor, at the risk of ignoring hundreds of millions, if not a billion people who would have to make do with services that are not designed to fit their needs.
If I were running the microfinance world, none of us would insist on “my way or the highway.”  We would acknowledge the objectives of the other as legitimate, and we would try to be mutually supportive as we pursue our objectives with tailored designs for microfinance delivery.  But many do insist on the primacy of their own particular objective, in rhetoric if not in practice.

What do you think is the consequence of this division?  
I invite you to join our conversation by providing your thoughts as comments to this post and subsequent posts (or if you prefer, please send me an email at cdunford@freedomfromhunger.org).  I look forward to hearing from you!