“It took steady support to call it development“

Mia Adams 20 ans

25 years ago, Mia Adams launched the idea of ADA - Appui au Développement Autonome - a development organization that would provide support to the poorest so that they could bring their projects to life. We interviewed her.


ADA was founded on May 11, 1994 and we owe it to you. How did you come up with this idea?
Before ADA, I was already involved with the idea of development. Initially because I was lucky enough to accompany my husband, who was then a World Bank officer, in projects in Africa. I then started working with the NGO Frères des Hommes (Brothers of Men). I realized at that time that “free” assistance in the form of gifts and projects, as conceived by donors, produced more dependence on grants than active people willing to really change something about their lives.
So, I started by writing some articles in magazines to convey a message stating: “this assistance should end”. I was not very comfortable with just putting money on the table and declaring “we'll do such and such project”, without first checking whether the local population would own it.
Those facts led to the creation of ADA — Support to Autonomous Development — back in May 1994: an organization meant to be, as its name aptly puts it, a support, i.e. a backing over time of the projects needed by people willing to make them happen. We helped people grow from just being helped to being the stakeholders of their own development. It was a way of making people accountable, of creating a bottom-up dynamic and not the other way around. ADA was to work as a facilitator by means of external support: both financial and logistic, as well as through consulting and training. This implied that ADA was to listen to people and to understand their situation before engaging into a collaboration. This called for professional rigor, expertise, on our part.

Development problems are aplenty, so you have to specialize in order to be effective. This is why ADA chose microfinance. My professional training in economics helped me in this analysis. Microfinance makes you work continuously analyzing and sharing. Right from the very first year, thanks to the open mind of the government of Luxembourg, ADA started publishing a periodical of analysis and insights about microfinance entitled “Dialogue”. Each year, ADA would organize discussion seminars with organizations in the developing world and those specializing in microfinance in Europe and elsewhere.
Very quickly, ADA found its way into international microfinance networks such as Microcredit Summit, CGAP, WWB, USAID, Accion, Novib etc. thus, enriching its know-how and establishing relationships. In order to activate the expertise exchanges, ADA created a center of study, analysis and documentation called CEREMLUX (Centre de Recherche et d'Études à Luxembourg: Luxembourg Center for Research and Studies).
Next, in order to call it development, it was necessary to provide continuous support. So, a 4-year project leads nowhere. During the first years we started a series of small projects, one after the other, but there was continuity in our projects. The idea of progressive and continuous development implies permanent access to financial resources. In order to facilitate this kind of access, ADA launched a banking guarantees pilot program allowing at the same time the Luxembourg banking sector to get acquainted with the microfinance environment, and to support the partners in the developing world in their access to the financing facilities of their local banks.
A few years later, we launched the first investment fund jointly with the Luxembourg government and BIL: LUXMINT.

Microfinance was little known at the time. How were you able to sell your idea?
At that time, microfinance was practically non-existent, especially in Luxembourg.  The idea that poor people could repay a loan was unheard of. It was even perceived as dishonest. There was this preconceived notion that poor people were incapable of anything, thus the idea that they were to receive from us who were richer and more developed. So, at the beginning, I had to strive to make ideas evolve. I made presentations conveying the message: “poverty is not destiny”. Implying that poor people were able to take care of themselves, to be responsible and active. We wrote many articles about microfinance. Our newsletter “Dialogues” was the vehicle for it. And it garnered lots of interest in the outside world giving the impression that we were a large organization. Our participation in the Microcredit Summit during its inception with Muhammad Yunus, and in the CGAP — still a young organization at that time — as well as other networks, helped us achieve recognition in Luxembourg and to reinforce our expertise in the field of microfinance. For the organization of seminars, several banks — and European banks — had their doors wide open for us. People attending our seminars from other countries were under the impression that this all was bound to be serious. Mainly, we were at all times very professional. I always stated that we had two main organizational principles: firstly, to undertake development projects in the field; secondly, to reflect, analyze and reinforce our expertise, seeking to continuously improve our effectiveness in the support to our “Southern” partners. ADA has always been true to these guiding principles.

What were the first insights at the time of ADA’s inception, first projects?
The first project failed. It was a working capital project for fishermen in Mali, close to Kayes. When I went there, I realized that the money intended for the project had been diverted. ADA requested its reimbursement. Admittedly it was difficult, but I wished to remain true to the principle we had adopted, namely that of making people accountable. This made us understand the difficulty of working directly with small micro entrepreneurs. So, from that time on, we chose to operate through intermediary organizations such as MFIs or cooperatives to carry out the projects.

ADA started it operations with 300,000 Luxembourg Francs (some 7,500€). This was too little. Therefore, the funding had to be scaled. We then started raising capital through small projects in order to be able to undertake more important projects. An example of this was the banking guarantee project. The idea of the guarantees was completely new, but it allowed the involvement of Luxembourg banks in the dynamics of microfinance, as well as familiarizing our “Southern” partners with their local banking environment. That was well received by the BIL and the government. We devised a pilot project with four organizations for the banking guarantees: RCPB (Burkina), Kafo Jiginew (Mali), FIE (Bolivia) and ProEmpresa (Peru). We thus set up an 8 million fund at the BIL in Luxembourg — up to 2 million by organization — in which the Luxembourg government and ADA both participated. BIL payed us then a rather generous interest rate on the deposits. And with this fund, the BIL issued 4 letters of guarantee. ADA was able to support the partners in the negotiations with local banks to obtain loans with multiplier effect. Eventually the multiplier was 10.

Was your initiative well received by the Luxembourg government?
ADA was welcomed by the government as its project was both innovative and interesting to support.  In Luxembourg, we had also the advantage of being in a financial environment. Given its professional approach, ADA had no trouble asserting itself. The recognition of ADA by international networks has certainly been favorable. On the other hand, some NGOs, used to receiving donations, were very critical towards ADA, mainly in meetings and in radio interviews.

Who were the first key partners ADA collaborated with?
The first partners were based in Mali (Kafu Jiginew), in Burkina Faso (FCPB), in Namibia, South Africa, Bolivia (FIE) and in Peru (ProEmpresa). As to the experience and expertise interchanges, there were so many people involved that it would be difficult to name them all. Dominique Lesaffre of Rafad — currently SIDI — was an invaluable friend and adviser. Also Kimanthi Mutua, CEO of K-Rep Group Limited in Kenya. We never developed any projects together as K-Rep was too important when it came to what ADA could offer moneywise. Nevertheless, we did a large number of seminars, debates and analysis together. Damian Von Stauffenberg of MicroRate, etc

How was the state of the sector when you left ADA?
When I left ADA, microfinance was well established in Luxembourg. Certain large NGOs had already started granting loans in a similar way as ADA. We did not have any problem taking funds from the government. Our reputation both abroad and in Luxembourg was sound. Before my departure, Axel de Ville was well prepared to take over. Now that ADA is much larger, I can only be delighted by the progress made and I tell myself “I was right to take up this challenge”.

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