Convention panel urges MEDA to promote what it has learned
MEDA needs to be less humble about its achievements in order to have greater influence and impact, Joy Anderson says. “I think the humility of MEDA gets in the way of the impact that it absolutely has to create right now, to be at the UN (United Nations) shaping the agenda, because if you’re not there, others less smart than you are,” she said.
Anderson, who heads Criterion Institute, commented during a panel discussion about innovation and leadership in international development at MEDA’s annual convention in Toronto. Criterion Institute is a non-profit think tank that works with social change makers to demystify finance and broaden their perspective on how to engage with and shift financial systems. It is one of the consortium partners in the MEDA-led MasterCard Foundation Africa Growth Fund, a $200 million initiative to create jobs in sub-Saharan Africa.
Other panelists at the discussion were Christina Juhasz of Women’s World Banking, Alejandro Escobar of IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), and Calvin Miller, a retired official of the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Both Escobar and Miller are MEDA alumni. Miller worked with MEDA as a country director in Bolivia before moving to CARE US as a director of economic development. “Working with MEDA for 15 years grounded me,” Miller said. “MEDA in Bolivia was ahead of its time doing rural finance and then branching into microfinance.” He praised MEDA’s role in partnering with other organizations and the lasting impact of its work. “It’s that staying power that I think is so important when international organizations are so (short-term) project focused. It’s a whole different mindset, and that’s why MEDA makes such a good partner.”
Escobar started working with MEDA in 1990 in Latin America, in Bolivia, and later in Peru. “A lot of the things that MEDA was doing in the field, even in the 80s and early 90s, it was really ahead of the pack, (what) we were doing with MEDA and with the collaboration of MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) in some cases,” he said. “From very early on, I think MEDA was a pioneer in this whole field of impact investing, and through my years at the IDB, we’ve taken this to scale, in a certain sense.”
MEDA’s ability to combine investment dollars with technical assistance was an important spark to innovation, he said. “These types of organizations that have the flexibility to work and to create, to create relationships which are risky sometimes and perhaps may not do well, but that’s what you have the capacity of doing. You can fail, and you can come back and try again because that’s what I think MEDA had done well in the past.” MEDA has had a reputation for being focused on access to finance, agriculture, and food, he said. “I think going forward into the future, we need specialized organizations like this.”
Juhasz believes that MEDA has a strong role to play in market systems. MEDA was one of the first investors in the first private equity fund that Juhasz launched in 2012. She praised MEDA’s ability to “do it right,” using rigorous evaluation without neglecting ethical considerations. “What business leaves behind is that ethical core,” she said. People who say that attending to ethical concerns in private equity investments reduces returns don’t recognize that “a lot of that private equity returns is more legend than reality,” she said. “They haven’t hit their own benchmarks. They don’t ever.”
“What business doesn’t do is pay for the treasure of the Commons that they use, right? Whether that be biodiversity, whether it be clean water, whether it be community structures and relationships that they disrupt, there’s no price tag being put on that.” In the US, there is currently a backlash against incorporating ESG (environmental, social, and governance) considerations in investment decisions, she said. Some argue “that it is fiduciarily irresponsible to consider ESG factors. An organization like MEDA, I think, is equal to the challenge of joining that conversation and saying no, in our experience, this is absolutely the only way that business and market systems should work.”
To reach different futures, “we need to ground in hope that a different future is possible.”— Joy Anderson, Criterion Institute
Anderson agreed. “I think MEDA has a moral responsibility to do what you were just naming and to be louder about what you’ve learned.” She also urged MEDA and others to tell stories of the future that they want to see. “I don’t think we’ll get to the future if we don’t tell stories of the future,” she said. “We don’t have that for women’s economic development in Africa. We don’t have that for .. rural communities in Latin America. We don’t tell stories about what would happen if all the things we did worked.” To reach different futures, “we need to ground in hope that a different future is possible.”
In The Mastercard Foundation Africa Growth Fund project, conversations are beginning around what constitutes a vibrant labor market for women who are youth in Africa, she said. “Picture that; what does that look like in 30 years? What are the trends that are leading toward that? And then how do we use our capital now to invest to create that future if we don’t have a picture of the future that we’re trying to create or pathways to it?” People cannot rely just on things that are proven to get to the future they want, she said. “We have to lean into our imagination.”
MEDA has some advantages in pursuing this sort of conversation, Escobar said. It is unique in being an association of businesspeople “who actually face similar challenges as the people you are trying to reach — environment, climate, technology adaptation, business decisions. One of the things that I always found interesting is that MEDA members can connect with the needs of the people that you are trying to serve.”
Escobar also urged MEDA to work at incorporating a younger generation “of MEDA members who will bring in perspectives that you’re not even looking at or considering.”