A Single Garment of Destiny

Photo Credit: AP File Photo

Photo Credit: AP File Photo

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August 28th is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Watch live video (1 PM ET) or a recording on C-SPAN here. President. Obama, civil rights leaders, and contemporary movement leaders speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony to commemorate the anniversary.

On Monday, January 21, in the United States we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He would have been 84 on January 15th. Dr. King represents for us a man who used moral vision and courage to bring about a change that started first in people’s hearts, and then moved into actions and law. He fought for change in a way that highlighted injustice while calling people of all faiths and races to work together to overcome it.

Dr. King’s vision went far beyond garnering equal rights for his own racial group. His own experience of oppression and suffering led him to identify with all who suffer from systems and structures that exclude them. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King used the metaphor of a “World House” to remind us that we all inhabit the same fragile planet and that the way we live together will either make the house more habitable or destroy it altogether.

Dr. King talked about the great advance that humankind has made in science and technology, but then he contrasted that with another important aspect of humanity that had not seen the same measure of progress. “In spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.”

In some ways, Dr. King’s descriptions of scientific progress in 1964 accurately describe the field of microfinance after years of rapid and unchecked growth. We have made spectacular strides in the numbers of clients we serve and in the financial performance of the institutions that serve them. Yet, as our investors expand their material riches, we still struggle to reach that moral richness that so defined the original intentions of our industry, to serve those living in severe poverty, and to make it possible for them to improve their lives.

Dr. King goes on to say:

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: ‘Improved means to an unimproved end.’ This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.

In many ways we have seen the truth of Dr. King’s word played out in microfinance. We have greatly improved the means by which we deliver our services and measure our performance, but we are avoiding the moral imperative of our work. We are evading the responsibility to demonstrate whether we are accomplishing what we set out to do. Our “enlarged material powers” are leading to “enlarged peril” for clients in places like Andhra Pradesh , Nicaragua , and Morocco.

Dr. King then points to three interconnected global problems that grow out of what he called our “ethical infantilism”: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He describes poverty as “a monstrous octopus [that] projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world.”

“There is nothing new about poverty,” Dr. King points out.

What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it…There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed—not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.

In our work in microfinance we have tended to shy away from this fierce struggle. When our poverty measurement tools show us that we might not be reaching people very far below the poverty line, we blame the tool or we change our terminology to talk about serving the excluded. When academic studies show that financial services alone may not be enough to help clients move and stay out of poverty, we learn to talk about offering people better financial choices instead.

Dr. King would have none of this. He looked squarely at the mountain of global poverty and told us to start climbing.

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’ Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that [all people] are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see [people] hungry, to see [them] victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny [our emphasis].

Microfinance operates in that delicate space where personal good and social good overlap, where owners and operators of microfinance providers make decisions about how much profit our clients keep and how much goes to us and our investors. It takes moral discipline to make these decisions well, and the best way to develop that discipline is to keep Dr. King’s challenge in mind. We do that by measuring our success not by the size and profitability of our institutions, but by the number of people who have moved out of severe poverty.

Dr. King often talked about “the fierce urgency of now,” of not waiting to for a better time to take on the injustice that we see around us. We have an opportunity, now, today, to be part of a larger movement that brings an end to severe poverty in our world. It is time for us to take up the challenge of pursuing a remedy no matter how formidable the struggle, to openly and honestly measure our progress toward reaching our end goal, and to erase the deficit in human will to act in the fierce urgency of now.

4 thoughts on “A Single Garment of Destiny

  1. Mr Reed

    An interesting post, but misses the point in many ways. From my reading of his life and work, I think Dr King was actually of the opinion that small-scale help to the poor, which would surely include microfinance, was unlikely to make much of a difference to the poor. He argued instead that major systemic reform to the (capitalist) economic system was therefore required. This radicalism, as well as his work on equal rights for African-Americans, is why he was for so long on the ‘watch list’ at institutions like the FBI and consistently harrassed by so many US institutions and individuals. Yet it is precisely pro-poor reform to the economic system that microfinance is designed to preclude – as many supporters accept, it is really all about ‘bringing capitalism down to the poor’. This is why microfinance gets so much fanatical support from the powerful – it is certainly not because it ‘reduces poverty’ because genuine studies show there is absolutely no evidence for this. So I think the following quote from Dr King is important in this regard:

    ‘A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. […] True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’ Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

    (‘Beyond Vietnam – a time to break silence’, Speech delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, Riverside Church, New York, 4 April 1967).

    Milford Bateman

    • Thanks for writing, Mr. Bateman. Your comments remind me of a play I saw in South Africa called “The Meeting,” by Jeff Stetson. The play imagines a meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In the play, Malcolm is critical of Dr. King for his role in leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “We shouldn’t be fighting just for seats on the bus,” says Malcolm. “We should b e driving the bus.”

      Martin replies “I agree that we shouldn’t just be looking for better seats on a bus. And I think we shouldn’t just want to drive the bus. We should own the whole bus company! But, you have to start somewhere.”

      I think we agree in our desire that severe poverty be eradicated. Few of us believe that our approach, by itself, we lead to that end. We need lots of people starting in lots of different places converging together on a common goal.

      That is why I think it is important that “we keep our eyes on the prize.” Whether we are promoting microfinance, small and medium enterprise, or better legal systems, we need to measure the success of our efforts by whether or not they are leading to reductions in poverty.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Susy. I do fully support FI2020’s vision of full inclusion for all, including those that you mention that are often the hardest to reach. And we at the Summit look forward to partnering with you in the work of inclusion. Our focus will be to look for ways that inclusion leads to movement out of poverty, or at least movement away from poverty. I want us to go beyond access, use and quality to look at positive changes in people’s lives that helps them and their children escape from poverty. I think that is the challenge that Dr. King gives us.

  3. Larry, this is lovely. Thanks for introducing me to some of Dr. King’s words that were not familiar to me and that are truly inspiring. Thanks also for your clarion call to keep microfinance firmly focused on the fight against poverty. I do take issue, however, with your reference to the term “excluded” as a why of weaseling out of talking about poor people. Perhaps there are people who use it that way, but from my standpoint at the Center for Financial Inclusion, I believe that we have not achieved full inclusion if anyone is still excluded. We call for reaching the poor, the hardest-to-reach, the most marginalized–and, in the Financial Inclusion 2020 (FI2020) campaign, we talk not only about client populations that have received a lot of attention from the microfinance world, such as women, rural households, and youth, but also about populations the microfinance world has largely ignored, such as the elderly, migrants, refugees, and persons with disabilities–people who are among the most marginalized. (Yes, this will include reaching some persons with disabilities who are not poor–but I’m sure you would agree that is also a worthy goal.) I do hope when FI2020 refers to “full financial inclusion for all” we will be working hand in hand with our friends who are most passionate about focusing on the poorest and hardest-to-reach. Thanks again for your post and for all the ways you call on us to be true to our internal/moral/spiritual selves. FI2020 looks forward to partnering with the Microcredit Summit! Susy

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