Keynote speech: 'Microfinance in 2021: Past Imperfect, Future Tense'

  • Ela BHATT, Founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

Mrs. Ela BHATT began by saying she was honoured to deliver the EMW 2020 keynote speech, with the appropriate title ‘Microfinance in 2021: Past Imperfect; Future Tense’. She thanked the organisers, emphasising ‘micro-status’ as a development paradigm. She referred to her appearance in a 1975 UN Conference on women in development, in which she gave voice to self-employed women. The SEWA Cooperative Bank had just been established in 1973. The concept of microfinance came only much later, after a 1997 summit in Washington, when attention shifted from savings to microcredit.

Bhatt continued to say that, over the years, it has become clear that a much extensive approach is needed beyond microcredit, to include a much broader spectrum of savings, credits, insurance and green investments. The sector must focus on helping low-income households to enhance their incomes, investing in skills training, market access and broader livelihood approaches.

This is also needed to reduce the increasing number of men leaving rural areas looking for work. Self-help groups and savings groups of women in the communities serve as a survival model. This is once more articulated in the current COVID-19 crisis. There is for instance a need for nurseries and other provisions to secure daily food requirements, and new technologies to help build systems that are more self-sustaining. The Banking sector has to think harder on sustainability strategies; let us find ways to make microfinance work better for sustainable and profitable practices for those who need it most! Low-income households need to strengthen their financial position.

Bhatt mentioned that the SEWA Bank has also changed in this respect; financial tools have to serve clients, and not the other way around. She referred in particular to the need for ‘digi-touch’, meaning that service to clients will need to be face-to-face while making use of digital tools, and be localised, accessible and inclusive. The path of the future is nurturance; we are all together in this, with all living beings under one sky, breathing the same air; this should create a bond between us. She thanked the audience and the organisers.