E-mail, the internet, mobile phones, and microfinance. At first glance, you might think I'm playing Sesame Street's "Three of these things belong together" game. But I assure you that, despite my love for the Cookie Monster, I'm not. It turns out that these four innovations, along with 26 others, have been named the Top 30 Innovations of the Last 30 Years by PBS's Nightly Business Report.
To some, lumping microfinance-- a relatively new concept to much of the world's inhabitants, especially after Muhammed Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006-- with such staples of our modern life might seem puzzling.
But it's heartening to see that more are sitting up and taking notice that innovations in poverty alleviation are, in fact, a very modern thing. If we could start seeing the the world's financially disadvantaged beyond the sad faces flickering on the nightly news, and instead as protagonists of their own development through such innovations as microfinance, we might be on to a more sustainable means toward bringing about prosperity for all, in all senses of the word. Leveling the playing field, I'd venture to assert, is one of the key elements of modernity in a world where it's becoming increasingly obvious that the disadvantage of the part is to the detriment of the whole.
"Leveling the playing field," therefore, includes extending access to financial services to all. While microfinance has popularly become synonymous with giving out small loans, in more recent years, it's come to encompass providing all types of financial services for the poor. This includes access to a bank account, to a safe place to save, financial education, and other services that many of us take for granted. And in light of the recent global financial crisis, these services are now more crucial than ever.
There are some exciting developments with regards to using technology to facilitate access to financial services (see my recent post for news on the new DFID-funded three-year project in Africa and Asia, FAST). In a world where more individuals in the developing world have access to a cell phone than to a bank account, mobile banking is one promising way to link technology with innovations in poverty alleviation.
So it looks like the Nightly Business Report has hit the nail on its head this time. And here's to hoping that in thirty years, microfinance and financial services for the poor will seem as novel as color television and sliced bread.
(Photo courtesy of the World Bank Photo Collection)