Capturing the Power of Positive

Posted on 26 January 2015
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Element Magazine, New Zealand Herald

Microfinance is changing the lives of women and their Families worldwide

In last month’s Element magazine article, I explored the key attributes of outstanding social change movements and what is needed to turn a Great Idea into a successful campaign. I identified four key ingredients: public and political will, a mobilising lens to activate greater collective action, capability of leadership and team, and a compelling vision and story.

Sometimes the mobilising lens requires us to reframe the issue. Rather than focussing on the problem, it is more productive to seek out opportunities that focus our energies on supporting positive action that can achieve positive outcomes.

Positive psychology theories are beginning to take hold in the world of business and are challenging some of the more traditional thinking on social and business leadership. Taking an appreciative inquiry approach by asking “What is working around here?” can lead to solutions that are achievable and affirming and to some breakthrough results.

A classic example of this was the development of microfinance for poor women entrepreneurs. Muhammed Yunus, economics professor, initiated a pilot project in Bangladesh in 1976 to provide small loans to poor women living in extreme poverty. The success of this project has led to the development of similar projects across many countries.

The genius of Yunus’ idea was to avoid the male-dominated world of finance with its regimented rules and documentation and to focus on the positive energy of women who were driven to provide not only for themselves but also for their children and wider families. Allowing these women access to finance previously denied them, gave them the means to achieve their goals.

Extreme poverty continues to be a global problem that deprives millions of people around the world from being able to enjoy fulfilled lives. Women and children are particularly adversely affected by living in extreme poverty. However, even in such adverse conditions, the spark of positive energy glows. Nurturing that spark can set a whole flame alight that can make real change achievable.

Medicine lady

For the past 10 years, entrepreneurial women in Myanmar have begun to access credit thanks to the work of microfinance organisations.

Positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, identified five key elements for human well-being and satisfaction: positive emotions, engagement in life or work, good relationships with those around us, commitment to a ‘meaning’ or something greater than ourselves, and a sense of achievement in what we set out to do. These five elements are what we now see women experiencing through the achievement of their micro enterprises thanks to microfinance.

The key to microfinance projects has been focusing on women entrepreneurs, providing empowering small loans rather than grants and setting clear guidelines for performance and expectations for repayment rather than rules, regulations and paperwork (most of these women are illiterate and have no security to offer other than their desire to succeed).

A country where microfinance has recently taken hold is Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Many of its 50 million people live in conditions of extreme poverty. However, for the past 10 years, entrepreneurial women in Myanmar have begun to access credit thanks to the work of microfinance organisations. This has led to a number of positive social outcomes such as improved health, education and social harmony.

Aotearoa Development Co-Operative’s (ADC) microfinance project in Myanmar has been running for over six years. During this time, it has issued nearly 900 loans totaling $200,000. ADC was one of the first legally registered microfinance banks in Myanmar and has developed expertise specific to that country.

ADC was set up by two enterprising Kiwis - Andrew Colgan and Geoff Cooper - who decided to put their positive energies into helping alleviate poverty in Myanmar and Malawi.

A few years ago, Borderless discovered the work of ADC and the opportunities of microfinance for poor entrepreneurial women in Myanmar. This recently led to the creation of a social change film and campaign, entitled On the Backs of Women. In January 2015, Borderless Director, Dean Easterbrook and Cameraman, Dave Henderson travelled to Myanmar to capture on film some of the remarkable stories of women in Myanmar who are making a real difference for themselves and their families.

These women belong to “solidarity groups” (usually a group of five women) and include people like Cing Ho Nam who, together with her extended family, operates a business washing cars and motorcycles outside her home in Kalaymyo. With a loan of 165,000 kyat (NZ$210) she purchased a better compressor and new hoses, improving the quality and efficiency of her cleaning service. She has used a subsequent loan to buy a grinder, which runs off the same process and mills maize flour.  These enterprises enable her to feed and educate her children and assist her extended family.

On the Backs of Women will be a documentary film capturing the positive stories of poor women entrepreneurs in Myanmar who are making a real difference with the help of microfinance loans. The film, which will be released later in 2015, aims to be a catalyst for change that mobilises connections between lenders in countries like New Zealand and entrepreneurial women of Myanmar. These sparks of positive energy can transform the world of poverty.