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Practical solutions, integrity, building trust

By Allan Sauder

As Printed in The Marketplace - September/October 2017

One of the things MEDA holds very important is our values. For us, it’s a faith-based value system that calls us to unleash what we believe is God-given potential in all people to earn a livelihood.Girl with Apricots Tajikistan 6 049

 Often, when we talk about MEDA’s approach, we talk about a mantra – will our work be sustainable? We have to leave something behind that can carry on long after MEDA’s no longer there. Businesses that will continue to support the poor. Our work has to be measurable, we have to be accountable for resources, we have to measure our results. Our board is constantly pushing us to make sure we can measure what we are doing, and to compare the results to the cost of doing it.

We also believe all our work has to be scalable. It’s not enough to just help one community, one family. It has to be something that we can do across countries, across the world. Our work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has certainly pushed us in that direction. They are very concerned with having something that will scale to millions of clients, and help millions of families to change their lives.

Finally, at MEDA, we say it has to be replicable. We are willing to share everything we learn to help others learn how to do it. If it works, we’re happy to share, and we’re also happy to share if it doesn’t work.

Those are our standard mantras of operating values. But I believe there is something about MEDA that goes deeper. Sometimes people ask me: “Where’s the Mennonite in this? Where does the Mennonite name come (from), or how is it reflected in what you do”?

I think the first thing is: practical, creative business solutions. If Nike hadn’t coined “just do it,” I think MEDA should have. Don’t waste a lot of time thinking about things, yeah, make a plan and just do it. If it doesn’t work, fail fast and fail early.

The other side of being practical is sharing risk. We’re one of the few organizations that don’t just do training. We actually make an investment alongside of those businesses, and take a risk with the poor. That’s a real distinctive for MEDA.

The second way I think our Mennonite roots shine through is in our honesty, integrity. Every organization I’ve ever encountered has integrity somewhere in their value statement. For us, integrity is more than simply speaking the truth. It’s also about accountability for resources. Sometimes I share the story of a project we had that was funded by the U.S. government, in Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe. The partner in Nicaragua was great. We left behind a very solid financial institution, lending to the poor. The partnership in Zimbabwe was failing miserably. Finally, we said to the partner: “We can’t carry on.” We turned around and gave money back to the U.S. government. “We said: we can’t do it. Here’s the money back.”

We became known as the organization who gave money back to the government. Turns out, no one had ever done that before. For me, that’s a little snippet of what I mean by deep integrity.

The final thing about our Mennonite roots is: I believe it calls us to build trust in all our business relationships. Probably marriages and business relationships are some of the toughest tests of relationships. By working honestly and building trust with our partners, I think we are also creating the building blocks for peace, for people and society. Fourteen years ago, we started working in Tajikistan, in an agricultural project which became an institution called IMON. We were given money by the Canadian government to help fruit farmers, apricot farmers to get their crop to market. Produce was just falling on the ground and rotting. We started working with the processors and the marketing people. It was clear (there was a problem with) the processors. You would put lovely apricots into the machinery, and out would come mush. It was not the kind of packaging, processing that you wanted to be doing. So, we took the processors to Turkey and different places to introduce them to better equipment. Then they found out they had no place to finance it. Nobody would invest in these farmers and processors. The banks didn’t want to have anything to do with that. We went out and looked for some other source of funding.

We found a couple of women that had a real heart for helping women. Sanaubar and Gulbahor had come out of the Soviet period with a real desire to help women and youth. They taught women how to sew and do other businesses. They had a Junior Achievement program, they had a centre for women in abusive relationships, yet they came to the same place that we did. These women needed access to finance to grow their businesses. So, they started lending circles, a lending program. When we came to them, they said: “We don’t know anything about lending to farmers.” We said we think we can work on this together. We found from the Canadian government, $1 million to put into their capital fund to test this idea of lending to farmers and ag processors. We went back last year with some former directors who had signed some of the original documents. We found an organization that is just blooming. It’s the largest microfinance bank in all of Tajikistan. They’ve got 27 major branches across the country, probably over 100 micro-branches, 2,000 staff, $80 million portfolio and over 100,000 clients.

One of things I’m also asked is: When something gets that big, does it stay true to its mission? Average loan size is $1,100. So yeah, they are still lending to the poorest.

That for me is the kind of sustainability we are looking for, the way that we can take your support, multiply it on average by seven times with support from our institutional supporters — the Canadian government, the U.S. government, the Gates Foundation, and reach 46 million clients. ◆

This is adapted from remarks MEDA president Alan Sauder made at an Inside MEDA event in June.