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Into Africa

A donor’s gift enables IR doctoral students to join fight against poverty

By Wayne Lewis
October 1, 2006

Into Africa

To sit down and speak with USC College doctoral students Yesim Ince and Geert Poppe is to be energized. These international relations scholars are excited to talk about what they did this summer.

Their enthusiasm for both the Grameen Foundation — the Washington, D.C. nonprofit where they spent the summer as interns — and the donor — Texas real estate developer and philanthropist Lucy Billingsley —who made the experience possible is contagious.

“Grameen offered us such a wonderful job environment. And I feel very grateful to Lucy Billingsley,” said Ince, a native of Turkey who received her undergraduate degree in business. “I never imagined how much this opportunity would change my life.”

Ince and Poppe are the first Billingsley Fellows of the four-year USC-Grameen Foundation USA Microfinance Fellowship Program.

Focused on microfinance, the Grameen Foundation arranges for a large number of small loans to be offered to the underprivileged in developing countries. The loans are designed to improve individuals’ quality of life and jumpstart grassroots entrepreneurship.

Economist Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh and the Grameen Bank he founded, which is the model for the foundation’s worldwide activities, were awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering work alleviating poverty.

“It’s a very dignified form of development for everybody,” said Poppe, a former law student from Belgium, “because it’s not a handout.”

The fellowship’s sponsor saw Grameen’s microfinance operations as eminently worthy of support.

“Microfinance is the most powerful tool in the world to eradicate poverty,” said Billingsley. “We’re giving the poorest people in the world a chance to solve their own problems.”

As a Trojan parent, Billingsley knew USC College was the perfect place to give.

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of universities,” she said, “and the strategic vision, the thoughtfulness, the creating of leaders for the future — it’s all happening better at USC than anywhere else.”

Although the Grameen Foundation has extensive microfinance operations around the world, they were doing business in only three countries in Africa. The USC Billingsley Fellows were charged with producing a strategic plan for the foundation’s expanding operations in Africa.

There was one catch.

Poppe said, “Going in, I didn’t know the first thing about microfinance.”

“And I had no idea about the African continent,” Ince echoed.

But these Trojan scholars had complementary skills. Ince had already taken classes in microfinance and was beginning her dissertation about microfinance and women’s issues. She described Poppe as “an expert on Africa.”

Ince and Poppe interviewed the foundation’s African Task Force and performed market research. The foundation could invest in countries with a mature microfinance industry already in place, where they could anticipate greater impact. Alternately, the money could be directed to countries with no microfinance in place, where the need is the greatest.

Ince and Poppe’s strategy struck a balance between these options.

“What we ended up with,” Poppe said, “was a smorgasbord of microfinance.”

Their plan met with approval from the foundation and will be implemented in Africa next year, as well as being adapted to Grameen’s work elsewhere.

“A lot of times,” Billingsley said, “interns learn a little bit and do a little bit, but it doesn’t have a long-term effect.  

“These two interns were smart enough, talented enough and focused enough to go very deep into the strategic issues of microfinance in Africa — not an easy task — and they wrote a thoughtful, supported and significant report that is driving the next wave of microfinance,” she said.

Trips to Africa were the highlight of the students’ internship. Poppe spent a week in Senegal and a week in Ghana. Ince traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya.

“It really was tremendous,” Poppe said. “We met borrowers, the poor people who borrow $50 or $100, but we also talked to people in the ministry of finance and the central bank. You really learn through all the layers of society, so to speak.”

The experience has piqued the interest of both Ince and Poppe in pursuing careers in microfinance.

“I want to be in a job where I can see the results of my work,” said Ince. “In microfinance, you give all these funds, but then in the follow-up, you can ask people about the effect on their lives.

“I really love seeing how their lives have been changed,” she continued. “They are getting out of poverty and building self-confidence. It’s wonderful to see that.”