The University of Iowa

Connecting Iowa, India, Microfinance

February 10th, 2010

By Rangaswamy Rajagopal

This is an opinion piece written for the Press Citizen in coordination with International Programs’ February 12th WorldCanvass program titled “Explore India.”

The University of Iowa’s Winterim Program in India started out in 2006 as a single course on “Microfinance” taught by two faculty from geography and international studies with 25 people. It’s grown to 11 different courses taught by 14 faculty from various disciplines across the UI campus with 121 people participating in 2009-10.

For personal and academic reasons, I had gone to India several times during 2005 and 2006. During a visit in 2006, I had an opportunity to observe first-hand the work of several Tsunami rehabilitation programs across the coastal state of Tamil Nadu, India.

While in India, I met a physician turned social entrepreneur who has been assisting the poor, especially women, with his resources, time and energy by lending them small loans of $100 to $200 payable within a year. His organization had grown from assisting around 9,000 women in 2001 to more than 200,000 women in 2005.

My conversations with him started as an appointment for 15 minutes and then slowly turned into an eight-hour marathon discussion on every aspect of “microfinance.”

With the help of another one of my former UI colleagues and the concurrence of my physician turned social entrepreneur friend in India, we decided to provide a similar hands-on field experience to UI students wanting to learn about “microfinance.”

Lo and behold, two or three months after we announced the winterim course in India on “Microfinance,” the Nobel Committee announced that Muhammad Yunus will receive the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work on “microfinance” through the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh. The bank is one of the most innovative and unusual financial institutions in the world — a bank that is owned by the poor and that loans its money to the poor.

Loan applicants do not need collateral but must form a group of at least five friends.

The group makes it easy for a poor “nobody” to take the leap and become an enterprising “somebody.”
I wanted our students to have the opportunity to engage, interact, share and learn by being in the midst of hundreds of such enterprising somebodies. Winterim India was born. A very large majority of participating students claimed that such hands-on field experience in a different culture has had a life-changing and transformative effect on them.

In 2007, we took another batch of 24 people to India to study “social entrepreneurship.” Social entrepreneurs are described as “new heroes,” people who often work against the odds to find solutions where others only see problems.

Often working in developing countries, social entrepreneurs observe that part of society is stuck and find ways to get it unstuck. We worked with eight such organizations in India during 2007-08. In 2008-09, we offered five different programs with more than 70 people and seven UI faculty participating. During the recent 2009-10 winterim, just two months ago, we had 121 people from the UI program, including 14 UI faculty at 11 different sites in India.

The programs covered a wide range of topics including rural development, water resources, health care, palliative science, housing, gender and justice, human rights, environment, disability, art and culture, microfinance and social well-being.

I think we have just scratched the surface of what could be accomplished. We have a long way to go, but the biggest stumbling block, as I see it, is the availability of sufficient scholarship resources to fund as many Iowa students as possible that are willing to expand their horizon in a global context. These student minds and their creative potential are our future.

When so many participants say that the trip has had a transformative effect on them, it gives me great pleasure for having made such an experience possible. I also truly enjoy talking to hundreds of people in diverse organizations around the world and getting them on-board to create a global collaborative enterprise.

Rangaswamy Rajagopal is a professor Geography and International Studies at the University of Iowa. At 5 p.m. Friday, he will be participating in the live taping of the University of Iowa International Programs radio and television program, WorldCanvass, in the Old Capital Senate Chamber. For information, visit