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May 8, 2009 at 12:12 PM

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Microfinance draws mega interest

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle Pacific University is putting on the first ever Pacific Northwest Microfinance Conference tonight and tomorrow, a testament to the growing interest in the topic. Seattle has at least three dozen organizations working in microfinance, and no doubt students are already dreaming up others.


Microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, is now loaning to hundreds of borrowers in the U.S.

More than 400 people are expected at the sold-out event. Speakers include Matt Flannery, co-founder and CEO of, Skip Li, founder of Agros International, and Atul Tandon, World Vision senior vice president.

Tandon, who left a career in global banking to join non-profit World Vision, said the current economic crisis has made it more urgent to find, train and equip local entrepreneurs in poor countries.

"Microfinance is a time-tested tool," he said, "to generate self-employment and provide local jobs for those who are losing the little they have gained over the last twenty years of global prosperity, and stand to drop back into the black hole of the abject poverty."

Defying the global recession and Wall Street meltdown, microfinance has continued to grow. But as commercial banks and private investors move in, more questions are being raised about how effectively it reduces poverty, and whether more efforts should go into other areas, such as savings and larger-scale employment.

Microfinance is expanding in the U.S. through programs like Washington CASH, which provides training and "peer microloans" to low-income entrepreneurs in the Seattle area. Mercy Corps Northwest recently formed a partnership with Washington CASH to make more micro-loans available in Washington state.


Grameen Foundation executive vice president Peter Bladin.

Peter Bladin, who will also speak at tomorrow's conference, is taking on a new role at the Grameen Foundation as executive vice president for programs and regions, part of a new strategy to expand the reach of microfinance and technology in international development. Bladin, a Microsoft veteran and founding director of the Grameen Technology Center, will lead global operations for microfinance and technology and remain in Seattle.

The field is attracting more interest from job seekers. The World Affairs Council is sponsoring a "Careers in Microfinance" panel Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Seattle Public Library. Details are here.

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