A group of 25 Harvard students is reaching far beyond the boundaries of Harvard’s Cambridge campus – into developing nations to lend a hand to microfinance organizations seeking to help low-income residents pull themselves out of poverty.
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A Drop in the Ocean
A Drop in the Ocean (ADITO) was founded in 2004 by students who had interned at a Peruvian microfinance organization and who saw firsthand the troubles such organizations can have getting the financing they need to lend to customers.
Harvard senior Dustin Saldarriaga, the group’s managing director, said microfinance is a critical tool in allowing people with few means start their own businesses. The investment of small amounts of money, as little as $50 or $100, can make a difference and get an enterprise off the ground. As many as 10.4 million people rise out of poverty each year through microfinance organizations, according to the ADITO Web site.
Though microfinance is a well-known tool to fight poverty, Saldarriaga said ADITO’s founders, Melissa Dell and Jacquelyn Kung, realized that even microfinance organizations were missing the poorest of the poor. They found that well-financed organizations often didn’t have the grassroots connections to know where the need was greatest, and microfinance organizations that serve the poorest people often did not have the connections to capital that they needed.
ADITO was established to support organizations that serve that neediest segment of the population, helping establish links with potential financial backers and providing direct technical assistance through impact reports that examine an organization’s efficiency, through Web site design, and by recruiting college students to serve as summer interns.
“We look for organizations that are struggling to provide funds for clients,” Saldarriaga said. “ADITO was founded to help microfinance institutions who help the poorest of the poor.”
Saldarriaga said the organization tries to help however it can. If a group is well-capitalized but needs help designing a Web site, the students take on that job. If a group needs connections to financial resources, they help with that. If they are having problems with their business operations, the students can crunch numbers and come up with recommendations.
ADITO is still working with its first partner, EMCOP, a women’s microfinance organization in the Peruvian Andes. EMCOP hosted ADITO’s founders, and ADITO subsequently put together a 60-page impact report analyzing EMCOP’s operations.
The organization is working with a second organization in Mexico and is in the process of starting new projects with organizations in Argentina and India.
ADITO itself is organized into three groups. One group focuses on the technical aspect of the aid they give, writing impact reports, developing Web sites, and other activities. The second is a strategy team whose aim is to establish relationships with microfinance organizations abroad through personal contacts with professors and others who may know of suitable partners. The third group works on campus awareness and fundraising to keep the organization going.
“It really boils down to what a group of 25 undergrads can do while they’re taking four classes,” Saldarriaga said.