Participants of the Credit with Education program in Ghana, where Freedom from Hunger partners with socially-focused microfinance institutions that provide loans to women in rural areas as well as dialogue-based education on a variety of topics. The microfinance sector can deliver other services that can help poor people escape hunger and poverty and improve their health. Photo by: Karl Grobl / Freedom from Hunger

On August 18, we will mark the 500-day milestone toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals — global commitments which represent a promise to humanity on behalf of the international community.

As development professionals, we commit our lives to big goals such as eradicating hunger and poverty, or achieving universal education. We do what we do because we know that it makes a difference. We see it in the faces and stories of the people we serve.

Yet, the numbers tell us, there is plenty left for us to accomplish.

Since 1990, the child mortality rate for children under the age of five has been cut by 47 percent. This is remarkable progress, but more than 6.6 million children continue to die each year from preventable diseases.

Over the past two decades, maternal mortality has declined also by 47 percent. This is truly a momentous accomplishment; however, in 2011 up to 47 million babies were born without a doctor or other skilled attendant, and mothers continue to die needlessly.

It would be easy to look at these staggering figures and despair for the scale of the work left undone. It would be more productive, though, to look for ways through which we can continue to make progress, both in the next 500 days and in the coming years, as we continue to strive to live up to our word. Now is the time for us to renew our commitment, take action and promote new types of collaboration to deliver proven development interventions to those who need them the most.

As a development community, we must continue to evolve our thinking about how — and with whom — we will continue to make progress toward the MDGs. How can various segments of our community work more closely with each other and how can non-traditional actors such as the private sector contribute to meeting development objectives?

For the past 26 years, Freedom from Hunger has shown how financial services for the poor can be a tremendously powerful tool for poverty alleviation. However, while access is vitally important, we also know that alone it’s not enough to move the needle on the goals for hunger and poverty eradication, education, gender equality or health.

We have always believed that the real opportunity is to leverage the platform and infrastructure of the microfinance sector to deliver other services that — when combined with savings and credit — help poor people escape hunger and poverty and improve their health.

Microfinance grew out of a genuine concern about poverty. Muhammad Yunus and other early practitioners may have been overly optimistic about its potential to eradicate poverty alone, but their mission was crystal clear.

Over the years, the microfinance sector’s business model has caused it to diverge from the mainstream of development practice. Microfinance practitioners attend different conferences and many are driven by — and measured according to — different business imperatives, such as sustainability or profit-generation instead of social objectives. While many financial service providers (including MFIs, self-help groups, rural banks, cooperatives and savings-group promoting institutions) do embrace a social mission, the past few years have seen a march “up market” that is betraying the original promise of microfinance. As a result, we are missing a tremendous opportunity for deep and sustained impact for poor women and their families.

As of December 2012, the microfinance sector is reaching more than 203 million clients worldwide and more than 83 percent of clients are women. When measured purely on the basis of scale, this can only be seen as a tremendous success. However, the criticisms of microfinance are well-documented. While it may not be the “silver bullet” that some once hoped it would be, we remain convinced of its untapped potential, which will only be realized through collaboration, new types of partnerships and a renewed focus on serving the poor.

Illness, poverty and hunger are inextricably linked. Disease is both a cause and driver of poverty. Together, they contribute to a downward spiral, fueled by an increased susceptibility to disease, stunted child development and a reduced ability to learn and earn—thereby locking families and communities in a seemingly neverending cycle of hunger and poverty.

When a family suffers from ill-health, their ability to work and repay loans diminishes. There is, therefore, a strong business case for MFIs to provide other development services, such as health and education, to their clients. At the same time, there is also an opportunity for NGOs and businesses to leverage the scale of this sector to reach their target populations at a lower cost.

Let me share an example of what this collaboration can look like in practice.

In 2006, with support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we launched the Microfinance and Health Protection program. MAHP helps MFIs offer clients appropriate financial products (including health-savings accounts, loans and insurance) along with access to education (on topics like breastfeeding, child health and nutrition, family planning, women's health, business management and household money management) and health services and products. These services are delivered by the MFI itself through its own health clinics, or through NGOs, governments or for-profit hospital systems.

To scale this work, Freedom from Hunger established the Health and Microfinance Alliance in partnership with the Microcredit Summit Campaign. Today, the alliance is working with 26 financial service providers, reaching more than 2.6 million people at an average cost of less than US$1 per client per year.

As we mark this milestone, let us also reflect on the work that is still to be done. We made a promise to the world that we would do what must be done to address hunger and poverty, ensure that children are educated, promote gender equality, reduce maternal and child mortality, fight disease and protect our environment.

The final goal outlined in MDG No. 8 promises a global partnership for development that promotes the collaboration of the development community, government and the business sector to address humanity’s great challenges. While it may be the last goal, it may be the most important one, because it is provides the way forward. Only by working together, in a generous and collaborative spirit, can we ever hope to deliver on these audacious promises.

What is working, and what more can the international community do in the next 500 days to make progress on the Millennium Development Goals? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Aug. 18, 2014, marks the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

About the author

  • Steve Hollingworth

    Steve Hollingworth is president of Freedom from Hunger since September 2011. Prior to joining the organization, Hollingworth spent 26 years with CARE, most recently as COO. He has also held senior field positions in Asia (India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), Africa (Lesotho) and Latin America (Bolivia).