April 11, 2011




March 10, 2011

Many years ago, in the early 90s, I travelled to Jinja, Uganda, where I established our first village banks in Africa.   Skeptics in the banking sector had told me:   “You are wasting your time, Mr. Scofield.   First, no one will want your small loans.   And if they do take them, watch out, because they won’t repay you.”  

I was sufficiently rattled that I called up Muhammad Yunus, who was serving on FINCA’s board at the time, and asked him if I should change the village banking methodology from how we did it in Latin America, since people were telling me Africa was totally different.    “Don’t change anything,” Yunus advised me.   “Do it exactly as you do it in Latin America.   If it doesn’t work, then change it.”

It was sage advice.   We didn’t change it, and in those early years, we spread the village banking methodology first to Uganda, then Malawi, and finally to Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo.   It has suffered some modifications since then, but it’s still holding up well. 

Given the shallacking microfinance is taking in the media these days, it helps to remember why we do what we do, and how, at least in the early days, capital was so scarce in all the markets where we worked that our clients normally enjoyed very high returns to their microbusinesses, if they were among the fortunate few who could obtain access to capital.   To be sure, it’s a different world now, and, thanks to the success of FINCA and others, accesss to capital is not an issue for millions of poor people.

I will be convening with the CEOs of a number of other MFI networks and MFIs this weekend at an undisclosed location, somewhere in New York (Beth Rhyne of ACCION already let the cat out of the bag in the Huffington Post today, narrowing it down from the lower 48).   Security will be tight, provided by Blackwater, I understand.    Our communications teams are already out there trying to dampen expectations, but we are secretly hoping for a positive outcome.   I can’t comment further at the risk of being gift wrapped head to toe and bundled into a windowless Econoline van.  

There is a momento from my early Uganda days hanging on the wall at FINCA headquarters, which expresses, better than any PR could if it worked for a million years on how to  best brand FINCA, how the clients used to feel about us — and hopefully most still do:

FINCA is our Mother

So remember, to those of you in the media.   Before you think about attacking microfinance, do you really want to attack your mother?

How Tweet It Is

March 7, 2011

Like all people who remember small box, black and white TVs (ours broke when I was still in grade school, and my father refused to fix it for 3 years, resulting in my a) reading more than most of my peers growing up in Levittown, New York, and b) suffering from terminal embarrassment when my 5th grade teacher gave us an assignment to watch “Death of a Salesman” on TV, and I had to lift my hand to admit I not only didn’t have a color TV {to this day I think peacocks are black and white), I didn’t have A TV) I suffer from TOT – Terror of Technology.

Thus, when my agent and publisher told me I would have to learn all the Black Arts of marketing my book online, I immediately began to dream (in dramatic, Italian primaries) of being caught in endless “Help!” loops, such as:

Help Desk:  Okay, you need help!  You’ve come to the right place!    Now, tell me a little bit about your problem.   Is it one of the following?

      (a list of 30 common problems, followed by “none of the above”)

Rupert:    None of the Above

HD:   Okay, it’s none of the above.   So let’s try to be a little more specific.   Is it one of the following:

          (a list of 300 less common problems, followed by “none of the above”)


HD:    Okay, I can see you’re getting a little upset because you have switched to upper case with one exclamation mark.   I’m not going to actually help you until I see more exclamation marks.   Is your problem:

        (list of 3,000 very uncommon problems, including “I am trapped in Libya, in a cross fire between the rebels and troops loyal to Muammar Khaddafi”, and “none of the above”)

Rupert:   NONE OF THE F##*&%$@$%$$%%$%G  ABOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

HD:   Okay, great.   I can see you are now blaspheming me, but you’re doing it with symbols, so you’re not quite at the boiling point yet where I MIGHT put you in touch with one of the three of us who run this help desk for a client base of 98 million, but only via a no reply email.   I also see that your curse word is appearing in blue and showing as a link.  Fascinating!  I didn’t know it could do that?  How did you do that?

      (a list of 3 million completely ludicrous problems, including “I’m beginning to wish I were never born”, and “none of the above”

Rupert:     Thank you accessing Rupert’s Help Desk!    I want to help you, I really do!    Is your question…..

Note:  I actually am going to attempt to set up a Twitter Account.   Stay tuned!   Watch for me on the evening news being led away by the Men in White!   I will be the one struggling in the net like a Luna moth caught in a butterfly net.

We take a break from microfinance, the Middle East, Yunus’ troubles to take on a topic which is weekend-friendly but no less controversial than the aforementioned:   Why Men Hate Shopping.

The obvious reason is evolutional:   most men, myself included, have assimilated ourselves at best grudgingly to the  forces of civilization, and highest on our long list of grievances is an aversion to having our animals and plants slain, harvested, processed and made ready for us in a grocery store, versus chasing them down with spears.

Buying clothes in the post Stone Age epoch is likewise devoid of pleasure for most men.   Visiting a large department store to purchase something to cover our nakedness, as opposed to lovingly curing animal skins amidst paleolithic drawings of their former owners, or, better still, tearing them off the backs of other cave men in single combat, just doesn’t do it for us.

We make no effort to conceal our disenchantment with this state of affairs.   In my own case, my wife and daughters never take me shopping with them because, in their words “Dad ruins it”.    They are referring to that fact, no sooner am I through the doors of Lord & Taylor, Macy’s , or  — God forbid — Saks or Nieman Marcus — than I begin wearing my “shopping face”.    This is where the corners of my mouth droop disconsolately, and my eyes take on a pathetic ‘Can we go home now?’ aspect.

 So I rarely go. When I do, I try to move quickly through the sections with terrifying names like “Louis Vuitton”  and “Versace” and “Pierre Cardin” .    To me, these bear the same message:   “Buy me and overpay by 400%!”  

I had to overcome my phobia last weekend as I had underpacked and needed a pair of business attire trousers.   So I struck out for Baker street, the throbbing heart of London’s shopping district.   I moved confidently past Selfridges and  The French Connection with it’s baffling “Are you Man?” and “Are you Woman?” signage, until my eyes settled on Marks & Spenser, a stolidly middle class purveyor of reasonably priced raiment where someone of my parsimonious bent could transact his business swiftly and without taking out a second mortgage — or so I had been led o believe.

I had rummaged through several racks of trousers purporting to be “inspired by” some Italian designer I didn’t recognize — what the hell does that mean, anyway?   Can we look forward to milk “inspired by a cow”? — when I noticed something disturbing:  whereas I could find trousers sized 36 waist, 31 length or 33 length, the metric I was seeking  — 36 waist, 32 length — was nowhere to be found.   A quick consultation with the sales clerk confirmed my fears:   their trousers only came in odd sizes.  Some “suit” in the back office had come up with a brilliant idea:  “Hey, we can save money on inventory if we force our customers to wear trousers that either drag on the ground (a serious problem in London, where, occasionally, I’m told, it rains) or are hiked up ridiculously to expose one’s calves. 

An idea, so brilliant, in fact, that I left the store, having purchased nothing.

Tomorrow:  Rupert goes shopping for shoes

Ready for Takeoff

March 4, 2011

I met with the McGraw-Hill London marketing team responsible for sending The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook rocketing to the top of the bestseller lists in the UK, Europe and beyond.    They are an impressive bunch.   They showed me around their studio, where we will be trying to set up interviews with the media.   I could already imagine myself sitting across from Sir Allen Sugar, parrying hardball questions about FINCA, microfinance, and, of course, my personal life which is always of unfailing interest to the tabloid empire.  

Sugar, for those unfamiliar, is the UK equivalent of our own Donaldo Trump.   He grew up in a poor section of London, and, starting with an initial equity of 100 pounds, built an empire of business and real estate just south of a billion pounds.   He hosts a clone of The Apprentice, with the same format of humiliating young Trump/Sugar wannabe entrepreneurs.

Unlike Trump, who is the king of swaggering, bombastic bragadaccio and outlandish hair, Sugar is the Master of the Glower.   The last time he was seen smiling was 1957, when his father broke down and bought him a piece of hard candy.   

If I get my shot at him, I pledge to make him laugh.

Meanwhile, on other fronts, Muhammad Yunus is having his “Take that, Madame Prime Minister!” moment by  accomplishing what she could not: a face-to-face meeting with Hillary in Washington to discuss the crisis caused by the Bangladeshi government’s ill advised efforts to boot him out of the Grameen Bank.   The spectacle of what my partner, John Hatch’s wife, Mimi, called “the world’s most evolved human being” being villified in his home country while in North Africa one of the most evil men on earth clings to power removes any remaining doubt as to whether the Gods have a sense of humor.    What would really be fun if Grameen’s millions of clients took a page from the Arabs and filled the streets of Dhaka, clamoring for the Prime Minister’s removal.   Nothing scares the hell out a politician like the sight of people in the streets.   

And, to complete today’s irony, I am just seeing that the head of the London School of Economics, where I may poke my head in this afternoon at a microfinance conference, has just removed its head because of his ties to Khaddafi.  Check it out, it’s an ugly one, complete with academic fraud, curiously timed donations, and the education of a Ghaddafi goon squad.

Have a great day!

I have the solution, and I got the idea from the financial services industry.   It’s called a swap.   The way it works is, when you have received a loan in hard currency (dollars, Euros, etc), but you operate in a country with an unconvertible  or not widely traded currency (Tajikistan som, for example), you can “swap” your dollars, leaving them on deposit at a local commercial bank, for local currency.    The  bank agrees, when it comes time to repay the dollar loan, to return the dollars at the same exchange rate + a commission.

Think about it, it’s a natural.   Both are oil rich nations.   Both are hot and tropical.   Both are run (at present) by ranting lunatics.   The people would hardly feel the difference.

Now, I know the naysayers will throw up a host of potential obstacles.   What about the languages?    This could handled by purchasing a Rosetta Stone package in Spanish for Muammar (“Yo soy un dictador brutal”) and Arabic for Hugo.    Taxation?   Both could be “made whole” through gross up or equalization.  

Call the State Department.   I think the idea has legs.

Good on You, Natalie!

February 28, 2011

I saw “Black Swan” over the holidays and, for the record, this was the email I sent Natalie as soon as I left the theatre:

Natalie, I just saw your latest work, and I have to say, I have never seen such an intense, riveting, sustained performance by an artist. It left me feeling drained emotionally and with my head shaking in admiration. I think you have reached a new level in your career, and if you don’t win an Oscar for this one there is no justice in the Academy.


Of course, as my wife constantly reminds me “It’s not about you.”   (At my funeral, I’m sure she will remind those present “This is not about Rupert”)

I first met Natalie in 2003, when she was “almost famous”, having starred in several movies, and won critical aclaim for a precocious performance in the French action film “The Professional” when she was 13.   She had just been graduated from Harvard and was about to graduate from “almost” to “very famous”, as she was working on the “Star Wars” prequel.   She’s pretty much the dream celebrity spokesperson:  brilliant, talented, gorgeous but as approachable as the girl next door.  In interiews, she often manages to steer the conversation to FINCA, even as the host tries, unsuccessfully, to pry into her personal life.

Natalie’s and my own movie career intersected briefly in “Stories of Hope” www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-PBFuOu1Xk       

which we shot on location in Mexico over the course of 5 grueling days.   In it you can see me perched on a hilltop outside of Cuernavaca, sweating through take after take under the tyrannical direction of Juan Carlos Rulfo, an award winning documentarian.  There were rumors that I would walk the red carpet for a statue in the category “Best Cameo in a Foreign Infomercial”.  It was not to be.   Industry politics, don’t you know.

That was my farewell to Hollywood.   I never really recovered from the disappointment of being passed over.   As a result, I returned to my career as a Social Entrepreneur.  

Of course, if Tarentino wants to talk about a “come back role” in Reservoir Dogs II , I’m listening.   


Devils We Knew Two

February 26, 2011

I always forget something important when I travel — mobile phone, lap top, socks, etc — but this time I’ve really done it:   I left without taking my copy of Don Quixote.   Five weeks without El Caballero de la Triste Figura and his faithful escudero Sancho Panza!   I’m already experiencing withdrawal pains, which are manifesting themselves in strange ways.   I have a forthcoming trip to Holland, for example, which has me shaking with anxiety.  

Clearly, this oversight is going to set back my timeline for becoming “an educated man” considerably.  

The good news is that, during my last reading, Cervantes had come to his senses and introduced another character, a goatherd (you remember Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: “Listen to the sound of the lonely goatherd, odeodeoheehee!), who introduced his own narrative, giving us several pages of relief from the stultifying intercourse between the priest and canonist.   At the end of the goatherd’s tale he made the mistake of dissing Knight Errants in general, suggesting they were fictional and didn’t really exist, which prompted DQ to whack him across the face with a stale bagette.   A brawl ensued, with goatherd getting in several good licks before Sancho joined the fray, turning the odds in his master’s favor.

The most interesting thing about the DQ – SP relationship is that, while Sancho knows his master is bonkers, because Don Quijote has promised his escudero a feifdom — complete with lands, peasants and title — at the end of their journey, Panza is reluctant to desert him in case Don Quijote actually delivers.   I think Woody Allen may have purloined this concept in the joke at the end of Annie Hall where the psychologist says he doesn’t want to cure his patient of his delusion that he is a chicken “because I need the eggs.”

And, although I realize I haven’t gotten to the subject matter suggested in the title of this blog, as the shrinks say:  “I’m sorry, but we’ve run out of time.”

A la prochaine, then.    Payment at the time of treatment would be appreciated. 


The Devils We Knew

February 25, 2011

I know, I know….    I was supposed to post “A New Beginning, or a New Bum?” several days ago.   Bloody day job gets in the way now and then.   I’m here in London for a couple of weeks, working on getting FINCA UK organized.   Even after doing dozens of start ups, I always forget how much is involved in birthing a new organization.  

Stop carping.    Get on with it.

 Watching the evacuation of foreign citizens trapped in Libya on the BBC took me back to the time I did a consulting gig for the UN in South Yemen in the late 80s.    The country was still communist back then, and when I called up the U.S. State Dept about getting a visa they told me “We don’t talk to them, and they don’t talk to us.   If you get there, you’re on your own.”

Ah, for those good old Cold War days!    During that trip, our delegation met with the Russian Ambassador, and as his young KGB adjutant served us tea, our mission leader, a Pakistani, asked if the Russians would be interested in co-financing some projects in the country.   The Ambassador pointedly looked at everyone in the room except me and said “You don’t understand.   The money that Russia contributes to the UN comes from the Russian people.   It’s not like in the U.S., which takes it from developing countries.”

What I wished I’d said, but didn’t think of until later, was “Now come on, Comrade Ambassador, you know these days our colonies are more of a drain on our resources than a source of them.”

The UN Res Rep at the time was a Canadian, and was something of a hero in the UN for having managed the evacuation of the UN staff after a period of civil unrest a few months before I arrived.   Nothing serious, just a few northerners trying to overthrow the government.   The buildings around the hotel where I stayed still had tank round holes punched through the walls where the tank rounds passed through.   But the Res Rep very upset with the British government, as they had sent a warship into Aden harbor, to the cheers of all the ex pats gathered on the beach, only to announce “Sorry, UK citizens only.”    What!   And the rest of us?

Back to our Devils/Bums.   It looks like Muammar is not going down without a fight.   Few people know this about Ghaddafi:   he’s a pracitioning Equal Opportunity Employer, which is uncommon in the Arab world.   Forty of his closest security guards are female, all virgins.   He has a Ukrainian nurse, Galyna, described as “a voluptuous blonde.”

That pretty much does it for his good points.  

The question is, after we’ve seen the Backs of the Bums in the Middle East, who will succeed them?   It all depends on what rises from the embers over the next critical months and years.    One would hope that our governments in Europe and North America are assembling teams of people to help in the rewriting of national constutitions, striking out those “President-for-Life” clauses in the existing ones.   But democracy can produce unpredictable leadership (how well we know!), and too many “elections” produce leaders who ensure that the one they rode to power will be the last free and open one.  

To be a fly on the wall of the war rooms in London and Washington right now.

All eyes are on Libya, as we watch what will either become the miniseries The Final Days of the Tyrant or Khaddafi:  The Enduring Dicatator.

Both screenplays are in production as we speak, trust me.

Prediction:   If it is the former that graces our big screens six months from now, then the the dominoes will still be falling, and they won’t stop until there is not a single Tyrant standing.   Why?   Because the Survival by Supression model of governance will have been tested, and will have failed.   The long suffering populations of 50 countries will ask themselves:   If not now, when?

What hath Zuckerman wrought?

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Ghadaffi’s security forces must be eyeing each other with great apprehension.   The jet is fueled and ready on the runway, but how many seats are already spoken for?   Who gets to go on that last flight to Caracas — and will there be room for the wife and kids?   “Sorry, colonel, but if you want to take a second suitcase of cash, there will be a $25 dollar charge.”    

Maybe better to cap the dude, and then declare ourselves “on the side of the revolution.”      

Tomorrow:   A New Beginning, or Just a New Bum?