As printed in The Marketplace - 2018 - September/October
Outgoing MEDA president pleased by continued success of early clients
When Allan Sauder looks back on 31 years at MEDA, the last 16 as president, he often thinks back to his early international work.
“There’s no substitute for living in a country to experience both the highs and the lows,” he says. “To experience the depth of the culture, the language, and after a couple of years, realizing that there are limitations to what you can understand.”
MEDA has seen massive growth and transformation during his tenure. Goals he articulated during his first week as president in 2002 were met and surpassed, many times over in some cases.
Sauder, who retires at the end of December, will leave behind a stronger and more diverse organization than the one he joined over three decades ago. Initially he served as a project manager in Tanzania, then as director of international operations before becoming president.
When Sauder started with MEDA in 1987, the organization’s North American staff was 10 or 12 people. It is now about 80.
MEDA’s revenues have grown more than five-fold since he became president. Donations have grown at an even faster rate. The organization now has a budget of $35 million, with projected donations of $8 million in the current fiscal year.
Those numbers, satisfying as they are for supporters and board members, aren’t Sauder’s fondest memory. He thinks instead of reconnecting with previous clients and seeing that MEDA’s mission of creating business solutions to poverty has resulted in lasting change.
“Being able to go back and visit people and businesses that I worked with 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 30 years ago and seeing that they are still doing what we hoped that they would be doing” is a major source of satisfaction.
For all the benefits that MEDA has brought to individuals, families and companies in scores of countries around the world, Sauder is a firm believer in letting them strike out on their own at the appropriate time. “Perhaps our best gift was leaving.”
In most projects, three to five years is the minimum to get things started. “Fortunately, at MEDA, we’ve had the luxury of other types of involvement, through an investment, or other types of partnerships that go beyond the life of that initial project.”
Not every venture had a happy outcome. Fraud at a Tanzania project in the mid-1990s was the most challenging experience of Sauder’s career.
“The reality is that if you’re working in financial services, fraud is a fact of life, and you’re going to have to either prevent it or catch it early or deal with it. When we had to deal with a major fraud, I think we were able to recover, first, because we acknowledged our responsibility in it and repaid money to the Canadian government that they had put in, which was challenging for us.
“We went to Washington and were part of a panel of the first three organizations that I’m aware of that ever talked about fraud in microfinance. As a result, we developed a course on preventing and managing fraud. We still teach versions of that course today.”
That period was difficult for Sauder and his family. He travelled to Tanzania eight times in 13 months, for three to four weeks at a time.
Dealing with risk has been a tightrope the organization has continuously worked to navigate.
Sauder recalls being asked by the board about failures and being told that if he couldn’t report any failures, MEDA wasn’t trying hard enough. At the same time, major funders such as governments and private foundations are risk-averse. “We probably haven’t had as much opportunity for risk-taking as we might like.”
He hopes a new in-house innovation fund will allow more opportunities to take measured risks.
MEDA’s programs have evolved over the years, with a major focus on scaling up to maximize impact. Early projects were aimed at one community or region, “measuring clients in the hundreds of thousands at the most.”
That’s no longer good enough for institutional or private donors. “We see opportunities to take something that works and put it out there to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.”
Scale requires a more complex management model, with greater emphasis on monitoring and evaluation. Attention to gender issues and environmental analysis are also important parts of the work.
MEDA’s emphasis on the western hemisphere has declined over time. Early work in Paraguay and Uruguay was followed by a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s, then a shift to Africa.
“Our interests have gone where some of the needs were the greatest. Certainly, that would parallel some of the institutional donors who are interested in funding the tougher situations rather than countries that are now considered possibly middle income.”
Asked about challenges ahead for MEDA, Sauder replies: “Challenges and opportunities usually go hand in hand.”
MEDA started 65 years ago as an investor in businesses that create opportunities for the poor. Many other organizations have caught onto that now, he said.
Blended finance, partnerships that add public and private money to development assistance to leverage investments from other partners, is an opportunity for MEDA. “But it’s also a place where we need to work hard to maintain our leadership, because a lot of others are entering that space.”
MEDA will address that challenge by focusing on things that it knows work to benefit the poorest members of society.
Among the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is eradicating the worst cases of poverty by 2030. That problem is most intractable in rural sub-Saharan Africa and fragile states where MEDA has experience. “Not all investments will benefit the poorest members of society, and we really want to keep our focus.”
Improved education results in a growing wave of entrepreneurial young people in many countries where MEDA works. When he travels, Sauder is amazed by the skills young people have. That presents both challenges and opportunities.
“We don’t have to send in a bunch of expatriates to show them how to do things. We just have to find ways to facilitate and support and build on skills and ideas that these next generations have.”
In an increasingly secular world, Sauder believes there is still a place for MEDA’s faith language. He is less concerned about how MEDA describes itself than a continued focus on walking the talk.
Having a deeper level of integrity, owning up when things don’t work and accountability for use of human, financial and environmental resources are important measuring sticks that he hopes will endure.
“The values we ask people to sign on to, we are looking for people that have a genuine concern for creating opportunities for the poor. I think it is the Christian values of our association, of our membership, which really set the stage for us to do some things that maybe more secular organizations wouldn’t even try. We go to some of the tougher places, we take financial risks through investment, and we share the joys and challenges of our partners by serving on their boards.”
The many friendships Sauder found through MEDA “sustain me now, and hopefully into retirement as well.” ◆