Vikram Akula, For-Profit Microfinance Pioneer, Explains the Roots of His Motivation Vikram Akula: The Poor Know How to Help Themselves

Some of the most important lessons I learned about alleviating poverty came from my experience living and working in India’s rural villages....

Some of the most important lessons I learned about alleviating poverty came from my experience living and working in India’s rural villages. After graduating from Tufts in 1990 I went to India and worked for the Deccan Development Society, a nonprofit based in Hyderabad in southern India. DDS was the only nonprofit that responded to a raft of query letters I sent as a job-seeking senior, so it was not hard for me to decide to head to Hyderabad after graduation.

I grew up in upstate New York but I was a wide-eyed idealist, determined from an early age to do something about the extreme poverty I saw on family summer vacations in India. I was the do-gooder to end all do-gooders. In college, instead of going to parties on Friday night, I volunteered at a local homeless shelter. In my freshman year I wrote in my journal that I wanted to “eradicate poverty with the discipline of a Marine.” Corny as that may seem, I was utterly sincere about that goal.

Yet the truth is, I didn’t know much about how to solve poverty. After a month of volunteering (basically observing projects focused on immunization, agriculture and social services, and helping where I could), the head of DDS gave me a big break: leading an expansion project in a remote village in rural Andhra Pradesh, hours from Hyderabad. There was no electricity or running water and the nearest town was miles away. No one else at DDS wanted this job so I seized the opportunity. I was thrilled, but quickly humbled by village life when I saw firsthand how difficult small tasks are without the modern conveniences that the developed world takes for granted. Villagers had to show me how to do the most basic chores, from drawing water from a well; to gathering wood to make a fire and cook; to washing clothes by whacking them on stones.

Biksham, the director of DDS was a calm, laconic man who wasn’t moved by my earnestness. In his experience, young people, no matter how eager and dedicated, moved onto other things when faced with the reality of working in India’s poorest rural areas. By then, DDS had been working with India’s poor for about seven years. But Biksham told me, “The poor know a lot more than we do about how to help themselves. We’re not that much use to them in that sense.”

I didn’t really understand what Biksham meant. Of course we could help the poor! I could get access to new agricultural techniques or study scientific dairying procedures and convey valuable knowledge to them. The poor were uneducated, we were educated and we could help them.

But once I was living in the field (literally) I started to understand what Biksham meant. In India there were many examples of projects intended to help the poor that often only backfired. There were government subsidized loans for the poor to buy high-milk-yielding buffaloes—but the buffaloes couldn’t handle drought conditions and died. A project that touted capital-intensive agriculture led to a drop in water tables that caused communities to suffer.
The longer I spent in the field, the clearer it became that the people who knew the most about helping the poor were the poor themselves. It struck me that the poor were seldom asked what they actually needed. This idea was vividly captured in a book I read at that time called “Rural Development: Putting the Last First” by Robert Chambers, a development scholar at the Institute for Development Studies in England. NGO executives and bureaucrats have limited direct engagement with poor people. They get information from large survey questionnaires or brief visits to villages. Their top-down approach to rural poverty meant they got incomplete information and ended up designing inadequate programs that sometimes proved harmful. In reality, poor people themselves are actually far more knowledgeable about their situations than outsiders, and they also have ideas about how to improve things.

By living and working in a village I saw the poor knew far more than I did. I realized that we couldn’t help the poor. What we had to do was help the poor help themselves. This became my goal. Microfinance—in that it gave the poor the tools they needed to ascend from poverty-- was a critical tool towards that end. The seeds of an idea that would become SKS were planted in my mind.

Vikram Akula is the Founder and CEO of SKS Microfinance, the largest microlender in India, and the largest anywhere traded publicly on a stock exchange.

He is also the author of A Fistfull of Rice: My Unexpected Quest to End Poverty Through Profitability.

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Tonight's Democratic debate is a must-watch for followers of the 2020 election. And it's a nice distraction from the impeachment inquiry currently enveloping all of the political oxygen in America right now.

For most people, the main draw will be newly anointed frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, who has surprisingly surged to first place in Iowa and suddenly competing in New Hampshire. Will the other Democrats attack him? How will Elizabeth Warren react now that she's no longer sitting alone atop the primary field? After all, part of Buttigieg's rise has been his criticisms of Warren and her refusal to get into budgetary specifics over how she'd pay for her healthcare plan.

The good news is that Joe Biden apparently counts time travel amongst his other resume-building experience.

Keep Reading Show less
Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert

This election cycle, six women threw their hat in the ring for president, but is their gender holding them back? Would Americans feel comfortable with a woman leading the free world? Based on the last election, the answer is a swift no. And a new study backs this up. The study found that only 49% of American men would feel very comfortable with a woman serving as the head of the government. By comparison, 59% of women said they would feel comfortable with a woman in charge.

The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, which measures attitude towards women leaders, evaluated the attitudes of those living in the G7 countries as well as Brazil, China, India, and Russia. 22,000 adults in those 11 countries were surveyed on their attitudes about female leadership in 22 different sectors, including government, fashion, technology, media, banking and finance, education, and childcare.

Only two countries, Canada and the U.K., had a majority of respondents say they would be more comfortable with a female head of state. Germany (which currently has a female Chancellor), Japan, and Russia were the countries least comfortable with a female head of state.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

If you are totally ready to move on from Donald Trump, you're not alone. According to a report last April from the Wason Center National Survey of 2020 Voters, "President Trump will be the least popular president to run for reelection in the history of polling."

Yes, you read that right, "history of polling."

Keep Reading Show less
via Around the NFL / Twitter

After three years on the sidelines, Colin Kapernick will be working out for multiple NFL teams on Saturday, November 16 at the Atlanta Falcons facility.

The former 49er quarterback who inflamed the culture wars by peacefully protesting against social injustice during the national anthem made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday.

Kaepernick is scheduled for a 15-minute on-field workout and an interview that will be recorded and sent to all 32 teams. The Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions are expected to have representatives in attendance.

RELATED: Joe Namath Says Colin Kaepernick And Eric Reid Should Be Playing In The NFL

"We like our quarterback situation right now," Miami head coach, Brian Flores said. "We're going to do our due diligence."

NFL Insider Steve Wyche believes that the workout is the NFL's response to multiple teams inquiring about the 32-year-old quarterback. A league-wide workout would help to mitigate any potential political backlash that any one team may face for making an overture to the controversial figure.

Kapernick is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) so any team could have reached out to him. But it's believed that the interested teams are considering him for next season.

RELATED: Video of an Oakland train employee saving a man's life is so insane, it looks like CGI

Earlier this year, Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a financial settlement with the league in a joint collusion complaint. The players alleged that the league conspired to keep them out after they began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

Before the 2019 season, Kaepernick posted a video of himself working out on twitter to show he was in great physical condition and ready to play.

Kaepnick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC Championship game in 2013.

He has the 23rd-highest career passer rating in NFL history, the second-best interception rate, and the ninth-most rushing yards per game of any quarterback ever. In 2016, his career to a sharp dive and he won only of 11 games as a starter.