Microfinance in the Middle East
My name is Ying Wang, and I am an analyst in Oliver Wyman's Boston office. This summer, I will be spending three months in Amman, Jordan, working with Women's World Banking (WWB) to coordinate the design and launch of a new health microinsurance product.
I joined Oliver Wyman soon after graduating from Harvard in 2008. Having studied a bit of microfinance and development economics in college, I'm excited to have the opportunity to apply what I learned and the skills I've gained at Oliver Wyman toward implementing microfinance practices in the field.
Through this blog, I hope to document the sights and sounds of my experiences in Jordan, captured through images and words. I am eager to learn firsthand about the region’s people and culture, and I plan to share my discoveries every step of the way.
Thursday, August 27, 2009 - 4:02 PM IST
Even as we wrap up the product and process development phase of the Caregiver microinsurance project, marking the end of my fellowship, there's still more to be done. It's now time for MFW to start thinking about how to market the final product to clients.
Microinsurance, like any commercial product, needs to be actively promoted and sold. While insurance can be a hard sell anywhere, it is even more difficult to pitch to low-income individuals who may have never heard of the concept.
Luckily, MFW isn't the first to market a microinsurance product and can learn from interesting strategies employed by other institutions around the world. Because many microfinance borrowers are illiterate or unaccustomed to reading, marketing materials should be highly visual.
For example, Zurich Microinsurance developed a colorful comic (see above) to illustrate the benefits of a homeowner's insurance policy to prospective clients in rural India. Other organizations have staged community events, including puppet shows, street performances, and concerts, that increase awareness of microinsurance and help people understand the concepts behind it. The main goal is to connect with the audience in the most accessible ways possible and use tailored examples to define an intangible product in concrete terms.
While designing the Caregiver microinsurance product, we also took a bottom-up approach to make the product more marketable to the target population. We negotiated with the insurance partners and underwriters to create a policy with very simple terms and pricing options as well as minimal "fine print." Ultimately, this should make the product easier to explain and understand.
Client understanding is critical because those who don't comprehend or who misinterpret the purpose or conditions of the insurance may end up missing out on its true value.
For example, clients who mistakenly think a product will pay for all of their medical bills when it only covers hospitalization events will be rejected when they try to claim benefits for the former. This negative experience could turn them away from the product (and potentially even the microfinance institution) for good. On the other hand, clients who understand the product well and are able to successfully redeem its benefits will be a powerful marketing tool because they can tell others how the product helped them.
I'm excited about how MFW is approaching its marketing campaign for the Caregiver microinsurance and expect they'll have their own lessons-learned and strategies to share with the microfinance community when the product is launched this fall.
When in Jordan (Part 3)Saturday, August 22, 2009 - 2:46 PM IST
1. Wadi Rum
Once entirely covered by the Red Sea, Wadi Rum is a stretch of desert in southern Jordan famous for its incredible rock formations. A few weeks ago, some friends and I caught a bus down to Wadi Rum just as the sun was setting behind the giant natural stone monuments. We spent the rest of the evening at a Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert, where we dined on campfire-roasted chicken, danced to tunes played on an Oud (Arabic stringed instrument), and slept under the stars. The area is also great for hikers and rock climbers, with its endless stretches of rock formations. In the top left photo, our local guide prepares tea for us in the desert. The photo on the right shows the great views from the giant rock formations.
2. When in Jordan...Leave Jordan
As this is the final installment of my "When in Jordan" series and my last week in here, I thought I’d mention a few of the other great places to visit in the Middle East. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Israel are all less than a two-hour flight from Jordan. Ground transport can be arranged too, though getting visas at the land borders can be a much lengthier and trickier process. The photo above, left, shows the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. On the right is the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.
A Spiritual Sojourn
Thursday, August 20, 2009 - 9:47 AM IST
This Saturday marks the first day of Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar that’s marked by fasting and repentance. Each year, MFW handpicks a group of exemplary clients, with consistent repayment and high renewal rates, to go on a mini-pilgrimage (Umrah) sponsored by the institution. Unlike the official pilgrimage (Hajj), the Umrah does not have to be taken during a specific time of the year but has additional significance if conducted during Ramadan.
Today, the head office was abuzz with staff members making arrangements for the 10-day expense-paid trip. MFW chose around 35 clients to participate and also gave each 50JD in petty cash. The trip begins with a stop in Medina, the city where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, and culminates in the holy city of Mecca.
In the afternoon, the clients arrived at the head office accompanied by their families. After a few brief statements by MFW managers, the clients were each given a tote with prayer clothes and prayer beads and ushered to the bus. Their families huddled around to see them off, kissing their hands and showering them with good wishes. It was very evident that this was a momentous occasion, and the fact that MFW made it all possible made it even more meaningful to witness.
To Be a Hijabi
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 2:15 PM IST
Around the world, people have varying perceptions of what the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women, represents and what it means to those who wear them.
Some view the hijab as a form of female oppression, especially in places where they are mandatory by law. For example, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, women had to wear not just head scarves but burqas that completely cover them from head to toe. A few places outside the Muslim world have banned hijabs because they are viewed as sectarian garb or religious symbols.
But having interacted with and befriended so many hijabi (slang for women who wear the head scarves) in Amman, I've come to view the scarves a bit differently.
My good friend Hayam, a spunky Jordanian girl in her 20's, is the only woman in her Muslim family who wears a hijab. Her parents are very open-minded and allow their daughters to live on their own and travel outside of Amman. But Hayam has never wavered in her desire to wear a hijab. When I asked her why, she confidently declared that anything God requires must be good for her. However, she quickly added that wearing a hijab doesn't prevent her from pursuing anything she wants or going anywhere she likes. She has also made it an important part of her personality, always carefully matching her shoes, handbags, and costume jewelry to the exact hue of the hijab she chooses to wear that day.
While some young women embrace the hijab as an integral aspect of their identity, others treat it as a mere necessity. At a local salon, I met a trio of sisters who were getting ready for a party. They were dressed in revealing rhinestone-studded prom dresses and had their hair coiled in fancy updos. But right before stepping outside, they draped themselves in shapeless, black abayas (long robes) and carefully wrapped their updos in similarly monochrome head scarves. I asked if they were bothered by the need to cover their gorgeous outfits, but none of them complained. They all said the abayas were customary, not a representation of their true personalities and unique fashion sense. Plus, they added, the point was to show off to their girlfriends, rather than attract unwanted attention on the street.
Sunday, August 09, 2009 - 3:04 PM IST
Not long after arriving in Amman and entering a work environment where most people don't understand English (not to mention being humbled by my "chicken boograh" incident), I decided it would be a good idea to learn some Arabic. After asking around about different programs available, I found a night course at a private institute called Qasid not too far away from the office. It was a course for colloquial Arabic, known as ammiyah, which seemed perfect since learning to speak with and understand those around me was my first priority.
The class was full of people like me, young professionals working or conducting research in the Middle East for the first time. It's been a while since I have been in a structured learning environment, so I had to re-acclimate myself to the idea of homework and exams. But I loved the fact that the moment I stepped out of the classroom and onto the street, I could apply everything I had just learned.
For example, after the course on food words, I found the nearest restaurant and ordered a falafel sandwich - with lettuce, tomatoes, no pickles, and a little dollop of tahini sauce - in Arabic. After we finished the class on orientation words, I hopped into a cab and directed the driver to take me home by going doughrie, then eala shmael, then over the jisser, and finally making a U-turn at the isharah (though he was obviously frustrated that I didn't just say the name of the street).
While I'm still far from discussing business strategy or making data requests in Arabic, I can at least engage in casual chats with my MFW colleagues and ask them simple questions. They certainly appreciate that I'm making an effort to learn their language and are excited to help me improve. Many days during lunch, I'll face a mini inquisition of spelling tests or vocabulary quizzes (The first time I successfully wrote out batata, the Arabic word for french fries, the whole room erupted into cheers). During the focus group discussions last month, knowing some Arabic also allowed me to greet clients in their native tongue and help them feel more comfortable opening up around me.
As much as I could've picked up on my own, choosing to study the language in a structured setting was definitely a good choice.
Translation: doughrie = straight; eala shmael = to the left; jisser = bridge; isharah = stop light.
Feedback from the Field
Sunday, August 02, 2009 - 7:05 PM IST
After nearly two months of working at MFW, I'm excited to see the different parts of the Caregiver health microinsurance product we're designing start to come together. But before a final product can be minted, it's always critical to solicit client feedback to ensure that it adequately addresses the needs of the target population.
Over a week, I conducted several focus groups with MFW clients to test Caregiver’s key features. Accompanied by two colleagues from MFW’s head office, I traveled to various branches to meet the participants. We gathered the women, many with young children in tow, into an empty office and asked them to discuss their recent hospitalization experiences.
Almost everyone had a story to share. The participants described everything from spending a few days in the hospital for a caesarean delivery to spending weeks in an infirmary taking care of injured or ailing family members. One woman reported staying in the hospital for nearly two months so she could take care of her 10-year-old son after a hit-and-run car accident.
The common link between all their stories is that the clients' business operations were seriously jeopardized during the hospitalization events, resulting in large financial losses and compromising their ability to support their families. Many clients lamented that they had to shut down their businesses or beg relatives to help out. One client even had her 13-year-old daughter run the business while she was in the hospital.
This helped confirm the importance of a microinsurance product that helps cover clients’ lost income and other indirect costs when they or their family members are hospitalized. For these women, the cost of forgone opportunities was often far higher than the direct medical expenses due to Jordan’s subsidized public health system.
Through the focus groups discussions, we were also able to better quantify a suitable insurance benefit as well as understand what clients are willing to pay for such a product. Certainly, without the feedback, we could've ended up with a much less attractive and valuable product.
Matrimony in the Middle East
Sunday, July 26, 2009 - 5:42 PM IST
Despite the heat, summer is the most popular season for weddings here in Amman. Every evening soon after sunset, I am treated to a smattering of brief but exciting amateur fireworks displays that signal the start of wedding celebrations around the city. But I finally got the chance to be more than a spectator this past weekend when I attended a Jordanian wedding for a loan officer from MFW's branch in Russaifeh. His fiancé was a school teacher in her early twenties from Salt, a city north of Amman.
Meal for the masses
The festivities started Friday afternoon, when more than 300 friends and family members gathered for a feast of mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Around 2 p.m., I arrived at the venue - a wide dirt lot with two large tents pitched in the middle. I walked past the first tent, which was reserved for the men, and entered the tent at the back, where the women sat fanning themselves amid the afternoon heat. I poured myself a cup of Arabic coffee and whetted my appetite with some Syrian sweets being passed around.
Then the mansaf arrived. Massive platters of the lamb and rice dish were set in the middle of clusters of women, and no one was shy about digging in. The children didn't bother with spoons, opting to pick out the tastiest morsels with their hands. Nearby were pitchers of jameed, a pungent yogurt dressing, which some used to drench the rice and others drank as a creamy beverage. When I asked where the bride was, I was told that she wasn't supposed to attend the lunch and was busy preparing for the evening ceremony.
A scintillating soiree
The formal ceremony at night was attended by a much smaller crowd but was no less festive. The groom and his bride, dressed in a dazzling white wedding gown with a black cape covering her hair and arms, arrived together, ushered into the reception hall accompanied by a brass band and a swarm of dancing relatives.
Once inside, the men and women separated once more. I followed the women to the banquet room, filled with tables cloaked in golden tablecloths adorned with white lilies. After a bit of waiting, the bride and groom emerged from the double doors and walked to the dance floor. The bride had removed her cape, showing off her gorgeous strapless gown to the room of wide-eyed women. After the couple's slow dance, the music picked up and the women flowed onto the dance floor. I, too, was propelled by the upbeat Arabic tunes and tried to match the other women's graceful yet saucy moves as best I could.
After a bit of dancing, the women sat back down as the men from the bride's family came in to bid her farewell, as she will now move in with her husband's family. Her male relatives, young and old, lined up to shower her with kisses and present her with gifts of jewelry and money, as is the custom. The bride was soon draped in gold, but her cheeks were covered in tears expressing how much she'd miss her family. Soon after, the groom’s male relatives lined up to wish him well. Finally, the music picked up again and the men gathered for the traditional Palestinian dubka dance. They clasped each other's hands and danced in step, forming a long arc that curved around the dance floor.
When I left around midnight, the hefla (party) was far from over. But I certainly didn't depart before accumulating a fair share of exciting memories and a renewed appreciation for the Jordanian culture.
MFIs vs. the Financial Meltdown
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 - 11:33 AM IST
Back at my apartment, the only English-language channel I can get on our satellite TV is Bloomberg – the 24-hour financial news network that prides itself on providing “up-to-the-minute coverage on banks in distress.” While they’re certainly referring to the financial behemoths at the center of the credit crisis, it’s hard not to wonder how smaller financial entities, particularly microfinance institutions, are weathering the storm.
Not long ago, MFW held a firm-wide employee meeting to announce its second quarter results and present some new initiatives. Early one Saturday morning, all 200 MFW employees from the 17 branches across Jordan gathered in a cozy convention hall to catch up with colleagues and hear the quarterly financials. I decided to tag along – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to witness the congregation of the whole organization. While I could make out only a few words of the presentation, the numbers that flashed on the screen were clear: MFW’s revenue and gross loan portfolio were up noticeably compared to the same period last year as well as the first quarter of 2009. The organization also announced plans to open a few more branches in underserved areas of Jordan by the end of the year.
So what’s driving these enviable results? That’s not an easy question to answer, but in the past, microfinance institutions (MFIs) were somewhat resilient in economic crises because they had few ties to the traditional banking sector and domestic financial markets. That is less true today, as many large banks and private entities are investing in MFIs because of the attractive returns.
Nonetheless, the market for microfinance remains large and much of the estimated global demand for microcredit and related services has yet to be satisfied. The economic crisis has even increased demand in some places. Many individuals in developing nations can no longer rely on remittances from relatives, who have lost their jobs abroad, and so they seek loans from MFIs to initiate their own income-generating activities. Organizations like MFW are offering new services, including basic training in business principles and marketing, to help clients more effectively employ their capital and grow their businesses, which encourages clients to return for even bigger loans.
Regardless of demand, the growth of MFIs may be constrained in the current economic environment because they themselves are finding it more difficult and costly to access credit. But as global markets remain sluggish in the near term, MFIs will hopefully continue to find creative ways to stay sustainable.
When in Jordan (Part 2)
Monday, July 13, 2009 - 2:29 PM IST
With its sprawling desserts and arid summer temperatures, Jordan can certainly lead one to pine for a dip in a pool. But while public pools are hard to find, there are plenty of superior alternatives.
1. Dead Sea
While it’s not recommended to actually swim in the Dead Sea, which is eight times saltier than the ocean, floating on the waves of this massive lake is an unparalleled experience. The minerals in the water and surrounding mud are known to have great health benefits, but will sting even the smallest cuts (I can attest). Because the water is warm, it’s generally best to go in the afternoon and stay for the sunset. If you have a day to spare, you can pay a fixed amount to use the private beach and pools of one of several resorts lining the shore. You can also opt for the public Amman Beach or pull over by an open segment of the shoreline. Just a 45-minute drive from Amman, the Dead Sea is definitely worth a visit (or several).
2. Al-Pasha Hamam (Turkish Bath)
If you’re looking to escape the heat, this might not seem the place to turn. But with its saunas, hot tub, and head-to-toe body scrubs, the Al-Pasha Turkish bath in Jabal Amman is a great place to relax and get squeaky clean after a long day of trekking through the city. Be sure to call before you arrive, since there are specific hours for women (daytime) and men (evenings).
Mansaf & Eggrolls
Saturday, July 11, 2009 - 1:33 PM IST
Jordanians are known for their warm hospitality – and their favorite way of expressing it, I’ve quickly found out, is by feeding their guests. My landlord frequently delivers fresh sweets made by his wife, and the women at work will often bring me homemade goods.
But this weekend was the first time I joined a Jordanian family for an authentic home-cooked meal. After spending a lot of quality time visiting MFW branches with me last week, my colleague Lwana invited me for lunch at her home. She told me she would make mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. I was warned about mansaf the day I arrived in Amman. A meal unto itself, Mansaf is made with meat cooked in dried fermented yogurt and served over a thick bed of bread and rice. It’s one of those things you are told to definitely eat once – but just once – because of its pungent smell and ridiculous caloric content.
I arrived at Lwana’s home with a bold and empty stomach. I brought along a side of eggrolls since I thought it’d be nice to share a bit of Chinese culture with her family (even if this “culture” was purchased frozen from a local supermarket and deep fried in my kitchen).
Once the mansaf was ready, we spread some newspapers over the living room floor and set out the food. Everyone hovered around the single large plate and began spooning hearty helpings into their bowls. Lwana’s husband ate it the traditional way, by kneading the rice and meat into a ball with his fist and popping it into his mouth. While I decided against using my hands, I did enjoy every spoonful. The taste was strong yet slightly citrusy, and the chicken was delightfully tender. One bowl was more than enough to fill me up for the rest of the day. Luckily, Lwana’s two adorable children kept me active after lunch, otherwise I would’ve certainly fallen asleep on her couch!
Friday, July 10, 2009 - 2:36 PM IST
Yesterday, an associate from the Microinsurance Centre led a day-long training session to educate MFW management and certain staff members about microinsurance. While the focus was on fundamentals, I still collected many new insights and ideas. Here are a few:
- The goal of microinsurance is to help protect the financial and social gains made possible through microfinance.
- Because it is made possible by pooling premium payments and comes at a cost, microinsurance targets low-income, rather than severely destitute, populations.
- Microinsurance is not a specific product. Rather, it is insurance designed to address the needs, risk profile, and ability to pay of a particular population of low-income individuals.
- Education and marketing are especially critical for microinsurance because low-income individuals are unfamiliar with insurance principles and are therefore reluctant to spend what little they have on a product that doesn’t offer immediately tangible benefits.
Educating low-income consumers about insurance and designing products that meet client needs are important in Muslim-majority countries, where religious tenets forbid traditional commercial insurance. For example, because catastrophic events are considered part of Allah’s plan, insurance that covers these situations may appear sacrilegious. Additionally, insurance can be viewed as gambling, which is forbidden in Islam, because it involves payouts only for high-risk, low-probability events.
Thus, the way a microinsurance product is structured and marketed can have a huge impact on how it is received. Many microfinance institutions in Islamic countries re-position microinsurance as a product that offers family protection, rather than calling it insurance. The communal model of microinsurance is also popular because it reinforces the idea of mutual assistance – we all pitch in a little now so everyone can get help when they need it – and is permitted under Islamic law.
The Price Is Right?
Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - 1:52 AM IST
Microfinance institutions, unlike traditional non-profits, primarily rely on interest revenue from client loans rather than donor funding to support their operations and services. While they don’t focus on turning a large profit, MFIs must nonetheless maintain a reasonable margin to stay sustainable and enhance client services. If prices, or interest rates, are too high, clients may leave for competitors (yes, it’s quite a competitive market!). If they’re too low, the institution may not be able to support all of its business activities.
Over the past week, I’ve been helping MFW develop an activity-based costing system to allow the organization to better price its products. Activity-based costing involves measuring employee activities, assigning a cost to them, and allocating the costs to various product categories.
My MFW colleague Lwana and I visited several branches to introduce the initiative to the field staff and train them how to complete the timesheets we designed. I anticipated some reluctance, since tracking employees’ activities in such detail (including breaks) may be perceived as nosy. Luckily, I had Lwana – a friendly and familiar face to the staff – who delivered the training in Arabic, and the branch managers, who voiced their support for the process. By the time we reached our last branch, Lwana was running the show and fielding questions with ease. Seeing the MFW folks embrace and take ownership of this initiative made the consultant in me feel quite pleased.
Café for a Cause
Thursday, July 02, 2009 - 9:41 AM IST
Earlier this week, I met a friend at the Wild Jordan Café in Jabal Amman, one of the seven hill regions on which Amman was originally built. The café is unique because it’s operated in partnership with Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains some of the country’s largest nature reserves (including Wadi Mujib). The café serves dishes made with locally grown food and also sells handicrafts made by artisans who live around the reserves to benefit those rural communities.
As we sipped lemonade with crushed mint (a local favorite), our conversation turned to microfinance and the potential for MFIs to support their clients’ businesses by selling their merchandise in larger retail settings. Many microfinance clients, particularly women, are engaged in time- and skill-intensive trades, including embroidery and weaving. While intricate and high quality, the handicrafts are often difficult to sell locally because demand is low in poor, rural regions. In contrast, people in larger cities and tourist spots are often more than willing to pay a premium for these specialty items, especially when they know the money is going to support a good cause. If MFIs could help microfinance clients distribute and sell their goods more productively, perhaps by providing them with alternative retail channels or commercial venues, then both the clients and the MFIs would benefit.
MFW currently does something like this, by sponsoring a booth at the Friday flea market Souk Jara in Jabal Amman. Each week, clients take turns selling their goods at the booth – pickled vegetables and pastries to woven clothes and ornaments -- to benefit the institution’s borrowers. While the scale of this operation was small, it’s certainly a step toward helping clients access new distribution channels and promoting the institution’s brand in the public eye.
When in Jordan (Part 1)
Monday, June 29, 2009 - 10:02 AM IST
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Jordan, there are some sites and activities you can't afford to miss. Kicking off my “When in Jordan” series, I'd like to recommend two tourist destinations that I visited recently – one quite obvious and the other much less so, but both equally thrilling.
The magnificent and surprisingly well-preserved architectural ruins of the city of Petra are absolutely stunning. Built over 2,000 years ago as the capital of the ancient Nabatean civilization, Petra was eventually conquered and ruled by the Romans. Perhaps best known to foreigners as the site where “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was filmed, Petra is one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and should top your list of places to go (~3-hour drive from Amman). Just bring lots of water, some sturdy cleats, and a map, although Beduoin guides are also available for hire. More pictures of Petra here.
2. Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve
Right along the Dead Sea, there’s a stretch of majestic gorges – one of which is Wadi Mujib. While you’ll start off the hike ankle deep in fresh water, soon you'll be swimming against a brisk current and climbing over rock walls as you navigate upstream. The effort is worth it when you reach the amazing five-story waterfall at the end of the gorge. But don’t just drive to Wadi Mujib – I highly recommend the bike-and-hike daytrip sponsored by the Tareef Cycling Club. You’ll be dropped off at the Dead Sea with a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts and bike from the coast to the canyons until you reach Wadi Mujib (20 km, not for the faint of heart). Bicycles, water, lunch, and motivational support are all provided. More pictures from Wadi Mujib here.
Monday, June 22, 2009 - 9:52 AM IST
While microfinance institutions primarily focus on providing the credit-constrained poor with access to affordable loans, many – including MFW – are also offering valuable nonfinancial services to help clients on multiple fronts. This week, MFW and the Jordan Breast Cancer Program entered into a one-year partnership to provide MFW's clients with breast cancer awareness sessions and screenings. The top cancer-related killer of Jordanian women, breast cancer is close to 100 percent curable in the early stages, but can quickly spread and turn lethal if untreated. Low-income individuals tend to be the least educated about health risks and are much less likely to seek treatment.
On Sunday, representatives from the Jordan Breast Cancer Program came to MFW’s head office to speak with the female staff about disease detection and treatment, giving us a taste of the information sessions that would soon be available to MFW's clients. While timid at first, the women quickly opened up when one attendee mentioned that she had had breast cancer but was able to get it treated successfully upon early diagnosis. Another woman then expressed her concern for her sister, who had recently discovered that she has the cancer. What are the chances of full recovery, she asked, and how harsh are the treatments? These sessions do a great job at presenting facts about breast cancer and, more important, provide a safe and comfortable place for women to ask questions, learn from one other, and establish support networks.
The interesting thing about these nonfinancial programs is that they benefit both the client and the microfinance institution (MFI). By educating clients about certain health issues and referring them to treatment, MFIs can build a healthier client base that is less likely to default on loans. A large proportion of delinquent microfinance clients report that they cannot make repayments due to a health crisis facing them or a family member. Thus, health education (and other similar services) can help clients address ailments before their quality of life is severely impacted, enabling MFIs to maintain a more stable portfolio. It's really a win-win situation for everyone!
Saturday, June 20, 2009 - 4:51 AM IST
Earlier this week, Jordan announced its first cases of swine flu. It just so happens that the cases reported so far all came over on a flight from the US the same day I landed in Amman. I thought I'd be rid of swine flu worries after leaving the H1N1 hotbed that is New York! Luckily, I wasn't on the same flight as those individuals and haven’t developed any symptoms so far, but people at the office here asked that I get checked out to allay any concerns.
So this Thursday, I visited a public hospital in Amman to get examined. In Jordan, there is a network of health facilities that offers free or reduced-cost in-and out-patient medical care to all people. After checking that I had no symptoms and taking my temperature, the nurses confirmed I was fine. They cautioned me to stay away from hospitals, since the chance of contracting the virus was much higher there (somewhat futile advice at this point). But I was glad to have visited a public hospital and experienced firsthand the range and quality of care that MFW's clients have access to.
While public hospitals here do a good job at offering subsidized basic care, they don't cover certain medications / tests and are often extremely crowded. But since many of MFW’s clients cannot afford private health insurance, they also do not have access to private clinics. Thus, understanding the relative significance of affordability and accessibility of medical care to its clients, as well as how to bridge the gap between the two, is going to be a critical part of the research efforts supporting the design of MFW’s insurance product.
Bayader and Beyond
Thursday, June 18, 2009 - 9:44 AM IST
I've been exposed to so much already in my first few days of working with the Microfund for Women (MFW). Serving nearly 40,000 clients across Jordan, MFW is the leading microfinance institution in the region in terms of reach and breadth of services. What impresses me most is how the institution truly embodies its core mission of empowering women. Not only are 96 percent of MFW's clients low-income women, but an extraordinary number of its staff members, managers, and senior leaders (including the general manager, COO, and CFO) are female – certainly a great accomplishment in any country, not to mention one with a Muslim majority.
The very first day of work, I visited one of MFW's 17 branches – a two-year-old office in the Badayer area of Amman.
With the help of a translator, I spoke with the branch manager about her local operations as well as about client satisfaction with the insurance product MFW currently offers. In addition to its traditional loan offerings, MFW provides “credit life” insurance that provides financial remuneration and loan forgiveness to family members if a client passes away or becomes disabled during the loan term. The branch manager mentioned that she knew of a case where a client passed away, and her family would've been completely destitute without the insurance claims payment.
While she acknowledged that credit life insurance is valuable to clients, she also mentioned that many people ask if the product covers health care. Later in the visit, this confusion was confirmed at a loan disbursement meeting with a few of MFW’s clients, which I sat in on. When it came time to go over the insurance contract, one woman participating in the group loan asked if it would help pay for her family's healthcare costs. Medical emergencies can place an extreme burden on poor working women, who have the dual responsibility of being a family's breadwinner and caretaker. Hearing this from the client was a great affirmation that there is a need for the product we are now designing.
Lost in Translation
Monday, June 15, 2009 - 9:44 AM IST
It's little episodes like these that remind me how much of a foreigner I am here…
During lunch today, I asked the MFW receptionist where I could get some food near the office. She seemed a bit confused, but understood the "food" part and asked if I wanted to order something with the group. She suggested "chicken boograh," which sounded pretty exotic and tasty. I had promised myself I'd try all the different local foods and stay away from Western grub, so I was totally ready to experience this "chicken boograh."
I was sitting at my desk dreaming about all the exciting things my "chicken boograh" could have in it (saffron, garlic hummus…) when someone came by and handed me a brown paper bag. I kindly asked him how to pronounce the name of this dish, since I wanted to be able to order again if it was tasty.
"Boograh," he said, eyeing me a bit oddly. "Booograaahh," I repeated after him several times to get it right.
I reached into the bag and the first thing I took out was a carton of fries. That’s OK, I thought, they put fries in falafels too. Then I took out a round aluminum bundle. But before I could even unwrap it, it dawned on me what was inside. I had just ordered a chicken burger – and a rather subpar one (chicken patty with mayo and lettuce). I felt so silly for not understanding their accents and for asking them how to pronounce burger; and especially for repeating the word ad nauseum without realizing what I was actually saying.
Anyway, here's my exotic chicken "boograh." Quite uninspiring.
Sunday, June 14, 2009 - 1:09 AM IST
It's been a day since I landed in Amman, and I've already learned so much. You really don't realize how much you take simple things for granted – like knowing how to make a phone call or being able to give a taxi driver directions – until you have to do them in a foreign country! The first words I learned in Arabic were "hello" (marhaba) and "thank you" (shukran). Paired with my random hand gestures, those phrases got me decently far with most people. I also learned that while speaking Arabic, it is customary not to smile. So, I felt a bit ridiculous saying "hello" and "thank you" repeatedly while trying hard to keep a straight face.
Luckily, I was able to meet up with my college-friend April, who has been living in Amman for half a year or so. She brought me to a convenience store and helped me secure a cell phone (most Jordanians have three cells phones, one for each of the wireless networks here, because they're so cheap). We also went to a local falafel shop, where I experienced my first authentic middle eastern meal. To be bold, I asked the chef for "the works," which included a helping of every topping and condiment possible, most of which probably didn't belong in a falafel. The chef was so intrigued that he offered us our meal for free, an extremely warm gesture. I picked up a few more words from that encounter as well, including "hot," "delicious," and "eggplant."
Overall, my first day in town was incredibly enlightening and greatly helped by the fact that I had a friend to show me the ropes. It's nice to be a bit more acquainted with the region and language before starting work tomorrow. I hope my colleagues will be able to understand the smattering of Arabic I've collected so far!
Thursday, June 11, 2009 - IST
The day has finally arrived to begin my journey to Jordan. I leave from JFK tonight on a rather painless 11.5-hour direct flight to Amman and arrive Friday afternoon (on account of the 7-hour time difference).
With any luck, I'll be lucid enough on Saturday for my meeting with the head of the Microfund for Women (MFW), WWB's affiliate microfinance institution in Jordan and the purveyor of its new health microinsurance product. With the workweek starting on Sunday, there will be plenty of things to figure out and many goals to discuss. This coming week will certainly be busy! Our partners from Zurich Financial Services are also coming down for the week and will be working on the insurance side of things while I begin assessing MFW's current processes and systems. There's a ton of information to collect about MFW's operations, cost structure, and client base to ensure that the implementation and delivery of this new product is as efficient as possible.
Right now, the plan is for me to stay at a small hotel across from the office for the first week, while I scout for more long-term housing. I've got a few leads, but I definitely want to check them out and see the local area before deciding!
A Nod from the Chief
Friday, June 05, 2009 - IST
During his much anticipated speech at Cairo University today, President Obama specifically addressed the ongoing plight of women worldwide, and in the Middle East in particular, and their struggle to achieve equal rights and access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts. He specifically pointed to microfinance as an important tool in helping women achieve their full potential through economic empowerment and financial independence, which is the precise philosophy and goal of WWB.
Here is the excerpt:
"The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights. I know, and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.
Now, let me be clear: Issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we've seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams."
Monday, June 01, 2009 - 12:27 PM IST
So the countdown officially begins: I have just 10 more days in New York before I ship off.
In the last week or so, I've been soliciting advice from anyone and everyone who has been to the region. I've gone as far as to contact people with up to three degrees of separation from me, and everyone has had some helpful tips to share:
What to wear: No shorts or bare shoulders allowed – even in the summertime. Apparently, the dress code varies with respect to class, with those in the lower class dressing very conservatively (completely covered up for women) while members of the upper class wear more Western garb.
How to get around: Taxi; there's no public transportation and the city is pretty spread out, which makes walking from place to place difficult.
Working: The work week starts on Sunday and runs through Thursday, with Friday and Saturday serving as the weekend. Typically, business (and government office) hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Spending: Adjusting for the exchange rate (1 USD = .71 Jordanian Dinar), most items are more expensive, except for food.
Not Your Typical "Hardship Assignment"
Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 5:47 PM IST
Today was my first day working out of the WWB headquarters, a cozy two-floor office overlooking Bryant Park in New York City. The office is filled with an assortment of unique furniture from far and wide – bamboo armchairs, hand-painted coffee tables, wicker napkin dispensers, braided rugs – all a pleasant departure from the uniform work pods I'm used to. If the décor isn’t exotic enough, the places some of my new colleagues are planning to head out to (like Kenya and the Dominican Republic ) are definitely quite impressive and serve as a nice reminder of WWB’s broad network and the good microfinance work its member organizations are doing worldwide.
After I introduced myself and my role to several WWB colleagues, a few people quickly informed me that my project in Jordan would not be a “hardship assignment.” That was their way of describing projects that involve living in regions with no English-speakers and few, if any, modern conveniences (both of which are present in Amman). Aside from the cheery 110-degree weather, they promised that adapting to life in Jordan would be very straightforward. Good to hear, though I was ready to take hardship face on. However, I was later assured that my work won’t solely be in the city center. I'll also be visiting several rural field offices and speaking with clients of WWB’s local-partner microfinance institution (MFI), the Microfund for Women.
WWB partners with a network of MFIs worldwide, including the Microfund for Women. MFIs are traditionally local lending institutions that provide low-income people, who are shut out of traditional lending schemes due to lack of credit or collateral, with loans to finance projects and invest in income-generating activities. The popularity of microcredit offerings has grown in recent years, and with it the volume and needs of clients. Other products have emerged, including microsavings and microinsurance services – my work in Jordan will focus on the latter.
Microinsurance for the poor is interesting because it emerged out of the realization that many microfinance borrowers were actually saving part or all of their loan disbursements to provide a buffer in the event of unforeseen events or medical emergencies. This undermines the purpose of microcredit, which is to encourage investment in entrepreneurial activities, and also makes it harder for the borrowers to come up with money for repayments. Thus, providing individuals with a separate, affordable insurance product will protect them against unpredictable risks while allowing loans to be used for their intended purpose.
WWB has partnered with Zurich Financial Services Group to design a new microinsurance product targeted at women. The product is intended to cover the incidental expenses incurred and income lost by women who take care of hospitalized family members. Our task will be to pilot the product as a new offering of the Microfund for Women, monitor its performance, make necessary tweaks as the market demands, and build up best practices for launching it in other parts of the world. Pretty exciting stuff!
Also, here's an interesting interview with Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of the microcredit movement, in which he discusses how microfinance has expanded to cover non-credit products including health insurance.
The Inaugural Post
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - IST
Greetings from New York City! While I’m only here for two weeks, I wanted to kick off this blog in anticipation of my upcoming trip to the Middle East.
For the next three months, I will be taking an Oliver Wyman Non-Profit Fellowship to work with Women’s World Banking (WWB), a non-profit organization that supports a worldwide network of microfinance institutions which provide low income individuals, particularly women, with financial resources, tools, and education. While WWB’s touch points are global, the specific project I’ll be working on will take me (and anyone who follows this blog) to Jordan.
The Middle East is an underserved market with few mature microfinance institutions. Because political conflict and the lack of infrastructure in remote regions have made it hard for institutions to reach many potential borrowers, only a very small portion of overall demand for microfinance products is met in that region (something like 7% in Jordan). Additionally, the oppression of women in the Middle East contributes to making them one of the poorest demographics in the world. But provided with economic assets, many of these women could potentially gain financial independence by developing and leading businesses that help sustain their families as well as the local economy.
I plan on using this blog to detail my adventures in Jordan (work and otherwise). I'll also try to post lots of pictures and video once I'm over there, so check back often!