Women Who Are Changing the World: Amelia Greenberg

Reading hundreds of picture book biographies of remarkable women for The Picture Book Club's "12 Women Who Changed the World" subscription has made me want to shine a spotlight on other remarkable women who, though they don't (yet!) have biographies written about them, inspire me every day.

-YiLing Chen-Josephson, Founder, The Picture Book Club

Q: What do you do?

It is not easy to answer this question quickly. My title is Deputy Director of the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF). SPTF is a non-profit organization that works in the microfinance sector, and though we are incorporated in the U.S., we are active in countries all around the globe.

Microfinance is the provision of financial products and services (i.e., savings accounts, loans, insurance, remittances, etc.) to poor and vulnerable populations, and to other populations that are excluded from the formal financial sector. Some people are excluded because they live in such remote areas that no banks exist nearby. Some people are excluded because they are so poor that the amount of funds they might want to borrow or save do not interest banks. Some people are excluded for legal reasons, such as being refugees in a country where they do not have national identity cards or the right to work. Some people self-exclude, because they are illiterate, or embarrassed about their low social status, or disabled in some way, or for any number of other reasons. Women can be excluded, even if there is no formal prohibition on their activities, if their families or their husbands do not allow them to make financial decisions. It turns out that there are many reasons why people who could benefit from financial services do not have access to them.

Microfinance began as a social undertaking, to increase financial inclusion, with a particular focus on microcredit. The initial concept was to give tiny loans to poor people. These would be just the right size to get poor people out of the control of the loan sharks in their villages, and to buy whatever capital they needed for their micro-businesses. The goal was not for the microfinance provider to make money. The goal was to help people engage in some income-generating activity and move themselves out of poverty. But something astonishing, to the outside world at least, happened.  Poor people paid back their loans, with interest, on time. They turned out to be good clients. And they also turned out to have the same financial needs as all the rest of us, starting with needing a safe place to save their money. The sector grew enormously, and some financial service providers that sprang into being were motivated purely by the opportunity to earn a profit. These institutions, in some cases, have done a lot of harm. Clients became over-indebted. Clients had to sell productive assets, like their one cow, to repay loans, and then they ended up poorer than before.  Clients were bullied, threatened, even jailed, if they failed to repay.  Some clients committed suicide, which is a horrendous truth and I feel bad typing it, but it would be wrong to gloss over it.

SPTF was founded as a way to respond to what was no longer working in the microfinance sector. We operate solely on donor funding, as a public good to the sector. We research and share the good practices of the financial service providers that really are living out their social missions. We also do a lot of work to help institutions that are not yet skilled in this area, but would like to be, to understand how to adapt and manage their operations so that they maintain their financial sustainability while also creating positive effects in clients’ lives. We educate investors who would like to invest in social sectors, because often they assume that any investment in microfinance will do some good, when in reality some institutions are making the world much better off and some are making it much worse off!  We educate regulators. We basically talk to everyone and hope we are convincing.

I love microfinance and I definitely believe in its potential. There are numerous success stories of families that can now educate their children, and drink safe water, and never again have to be hungry, and live in a warm and comfortable home, and feel hopeful about their futures and pride in their lives. But, it is also undeniable that there is such a thing as very bad, very harmful, microcredit in particular.

Phew!  Is anyone still reading this?  It would be easier if I could type, “I am a fireman.”

Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing what you do?

It is definitely hearing from people in the field.  My job does not involve any direct outreach to clients, and I often feel quite removed from the action. But, every once in a while, I get to interview someone who is doing something really innovative and inspiring and interesting. For example, I just heard a woman speak about how her microfinance institution is transforming education in Pakistan by making loans to schools, accompanied with a lot of technical assistance. The school facilities in many villages were so degraded as to be unusable, but now they are getting basic ventilation and electricity and generally are becoming places where children can learn. The program couples the loans for capital improvement with advice on teacher training and curricula. There is also an emphasis on sending girls to school.  It is just a great program.

A microentrepreneur in Rwanda stands in front of her store.

A microentrepreneur in Rwanda stands in front of her store.

Q: What's something challenging about it?

I get really frustrated by people who speak so convincingly about their desire to do good but then in reality will only invest in microfinance if they get a “minimum” return on their investment that actually seems quite high to me.  You have a billion dollars.  Do you really need to make at least 15 or 20% on all your investments?

Q: What is something you’re proud of?

I have been thinking about this since I got this question list a week or two ago and so many ideas popped up, but none seemed worthy!  For example, my five-year-old son told me recently that all the kids in his school and his after-school said purple was not a boy’s color, but he likes purple. I am proud that he thinks for himself!  When I was 25, I moved to France for a year and got a job doing accounts receivable in a hotel. It turned out to be a terrible experience working very long hours at minimum wage with people yelling at me all day long about errors on their bills, mixed in with some shady people ducking out on their bills and the head of the hotel yelling at me for not getting those bills paid. But I stuck it out, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that my marriage is doing well even after we added three kids to it, because the early months after baby #1 was born were pretty rough! My best friend’s father died recently of cancer and I was looking at a photo taken some years ago of me and his dad that shows the two of us laughing, and I felt mostly grateful but also proud that I do generally take the time to get to know my friends’ parents.  I once spent a year tutoring math to adults that were trying to earn their G.E.D.s, and at the end of my time tutoring – I was moving to go to graduate school – they threw me a pizza party to say thank you and the students also wrote me thank you notes. That was rare for a tutor, and I felt proud and pleased.

It turns out that this was a very fun question. It gave me a chance to appreciate the little things. Thank you!

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you know personally?

My mom is an obvious choice.  She works so hard to be excellent at everything she does and to be present and helpful in the lives of all of her children. Before she retired, she basically never got enough sleep and never had fun. I have my doubts about how healthy that was for her, but it was certainly an incredibly selfless way to live.  She was also the first female partner in the law firm where she worked, a fact that has always made me proud.

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you've never met?

Martin Luther King Jr.  I have been thinking a lot lately about how challenging it is to choose to meet horrific prejudice and physical threats with non-violent resistance.  I think it is amazing, almost miraculous, and so very admirable.

Q: What is something you would like to change about the world? 

If I could instantly patch up the hole in our ozone layer and bring back the glaciers and ice bergs and home for the polar bears, and make all future carbon emissions harmless, I would! 

On a much smaller scale, I wish our local library were open on Sundays.

Q: What’s a picture book you remember as a favorite from your childhood?

Norman the Doorman, by Don Freeman.  Norman is a mouse, and I was very taken by his cozy home inside the helmet of a knight’s set of armor in a museum basement.

My father loves I Am a Bunny, by Ole Risom, and I feel I would be a bad daughter if I did not take this opportunity to mention it. It is a very simple story, but charming, with great illustrations.

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The Picture Book Club will make a donation to The International Rescue Committee, the charity chosen by Amelia, for every purchaser who mentions this Q+A.

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