“More than Micro” Milestone 3: “Microenterprise Development in a Globalizing World” (June 2006)
Just as a coming-of-age party marks the transition from being a child to an adult, the “Microenterprise Development in a Globalizing World: A USAID Learning Conference” marked Microlinks’ maturation. This “More than Micro” learning forum facilitated discussions among microenterprise development and microfinance practitioners to learn about and discuss the most innovative and advanced approaches and ideas in the field.
Microlinks leaped tall buildings with this milestone. The conference addressed two major gaps in the field. One goal was improved development practice and outcomes in economic opportunity for vulnerable populations. As former USAID Microenterprise office director Kate McKee shared in her closing, “I hope you all feel some sense of urgency to seize the opportunities that are out there… The endgame is not finance or enterprise; it is making a dent in poverty.” The second goal was a better understanding of what knowledge management could bring to development challenges. How could we better connect and integrate donors, researchers and practitioners? How could we move beyond research generation to a culture where learning really comes to life, not just at a conference, but on an ongoing basis?
“We were trying a lot of things for the first time at this conference: curated panels woven together around a central intellectual framework; interactive sessions where participants also engaged as experts; key informant interviews captured for multiple uses; recording of sessions for repurposing. All at a very difficult time for the Agency, when such convenings were attracting a lot of critical scrutiny,” recalls Stacey Young. “A lunch session on the then-new ‘F framework’ gave Agency leadership a stake in the event and provided partners with a chance to ask questions about the implications for their work. Everything that happened at the event was both substantive and strategic.”
This learning conference was no typical conference, beginning with soliciting panel topics and an intensive process with USAID subject matter experts to arrive at optimal combinations of session proposals that would ensure a cohesive and thoughtful discussion throughout the event. The event itself employed what was at the time a fairly innovative and dynamic approach to learning, from small group discussions to frequent networking breaks to interactive boards for the audience to ask questions and offer comments openly on the proceedings. Key participants were also pulled aside for substantive interviews on a wide range of micro topics; these recorded interviews captured the rich experience and insights of seasoned experts on emergent topics in the sector, as well as heated topics of debate. Moreover, the conference brochure went beyond being a mere agenda.
Stacey Young recalls that “It presented a well-articulated analysis of the intersection of microfinance and enterprise development, and the role of USAID in leveraging both to catalyze increased opportunity for the world’s poor. This was at a time when the enterprise development and value chain focus was new, and treated with suspicion by practitioners who feared that USAID was dialing back on microfinance, which of course had been revolutionary when it first emerged. The brochure, the interviews and the recorded conference sessions – all posted to a special conference page on Microlinks – became immensely useful resources for a long time afterward, and useful tools in our effort to expand USAID’s approach to – and stakeholders’ understanding of – strong programming in opportunities for poor households and entrepreneurs.”
Also noteworthy, in retrospect, was the appearance of Dr. Rajiv Shah on one of the panels. Shah, who worked at the Gates Foundation at the time, of course went on to become the Agency’s Administrator during the Obama Administration, serving from 2010-2015.