Understanding Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

      FRED WEHREY, an expert on the domestic influence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a Senior Policy Analyst at RAND, spoke at Wagner on October 30, 2009.  His lecture, “The Rise of the Pasdaran: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iranian Politics and Implications for the U.S.,” emphasized the domestic role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and highlighted potential policy options for the United States.

     Wehrey described how the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military, became more assertive in Iranian domestic life after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Guard rose to its current position of power primacy after violently quelling the Green Revolution, and changed Iran from a theocracy into what he called a military dictatorship. The Guard’s presence is now pervasive, and cuts across the social, economic and political life of the nation; it cannot be challenged by other without fear of violent reprisal. Even so, there are political fissures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he said, giving the U.S. opportunities to understand and influence its future direction as it relates to U.S. strategic interests.

     For, in addition to preserving its political power, the Revolutionary Guard has to be concerned with its long-range financial stability, Wehrey said – namely its continued ability to generate revenues. Wehrey believes that the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran by the international community would only play into the Revolutionary Guard’s hands, allowing its leaders to keep their stranglehold over the Iranian market and black market. Isolating Iran economically would also give the Revolutionary Guard an opportunity to stoke fears of external interference and forced regime change. As long as Iran and the Guard can participate in the world economy, economic pressure applied through the business sector can be effective in forcing it to act responsibly and rationally vis-a-vis Iranian society and the world.

      Wehrey, meanwhile, said he sees the Iranian nuclear program as more domestically focused than has been portrayed. Since the Revolutionary Guard is the only state entity capable of maintaining and expanding the country’s nuclear program, the issue of the program’s sustainability in the face of external opposition has become a measure and a symbol of the Guard’s power – a power that even Iran’s powerful clerics cannot equal. The nuclear program has taken on a life of its own and a symbolism that prevent its easy discontinuation.

     Wehrey laid out four U.S. policy options that he believes should drive American relations with Iran from now on: Highlight the opportunity costs of the nuclear program to other elites in Iran; stress the positive economic effects that the discontinuation of the nuclear program can bring; indicate the negative effects of the Revolutionary Guard’s extremist positions and policies; inform the merchant, bazarri class of the effects of the Guard’s no-bid contracts.

National security beyond al Qaida, according to Juan Zarate

     ON OCT. 21, 2009, in the first installment of the “Middle East Speaker Series,” Juan Zarate, who formerly served as deputy assistant to the U.S. president and as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, spoke to students and others in the Wagner community. His lecture, entitled “Beyond al Qaida: National Security in an Age of Globalization, Terror, and the Internet,” outlined his views of the “new security environment”–post-9/11–in which the growing importance of non-state actors, impending resource crises, and the shift in U.S. hegemony toward a plurality of international voices, pose threats to the security of the United States. 
     While Zarat believes that Al-Qaeda’s power has diminished, it remains a powerful and salient model for other extremist groups and individuals to follow, he said. He stressed the danger and importance of “marriages of convenience,” wherein non-state actors collude with rogue or politically outlying states.

      Zarate described his work at the Treasury Department and the National Security Council, where he encouraged the use of smart financial sanctions to prod decision-makers in the banking and private sectors to cut off the flow of money to threatening groups. By identifying the financial trail of extremist groups posing a security risk, and blocking transactions that have to pass through U.S. banks, the United States can influence the ability and decision making processes of extremist groups worldwide, he said.

     Zarate’s talk explored the threats the United States is facing in Afghanistan.  He stressed the need to focus on what instability in Afghanistan means for the Afghan state and people, as well as for the region.  The current focus on troop levels exclusively fails to take into account the limitations of U.S. power.  He stated that human rights and women’s rights need to be included in the calculus of decision-making in Afghanistan, but added the U.S. needs to understand better the tribal nature of the country in attempting to foster development and stability.

     The ongoing Middle East Speaker series has been organized by NYU Wagner Visiting Professor Michael Doran, an historian and an expert on the international politics of the Middle East, and the author of the book “Pan-Arabism Before Nasser.”

Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers, and Fighters

Traditional images of war generally depict men as fighters and women as passive victims. While women are certainly victimized in conflicts, the narrow view neglects the roles women play as agents in armed conflict. In some cases, women often occupy a space between fighter and victim.

On Thursday, October 29, in the final installment of the Conflict, Security, and Development Series of the fall semester, Wagner welcomed Jeannie Annan, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the International Rescue Committee and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Addressing an audience of over 50 NYU students, faculty and staff, as well as members from outside the NYU community, Dr. Annan discussed the topic “Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers and Fighters,” based on paper she co-authored on the reintegration of women and girls abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The full findings of the study challenge the conventional wisdom regarding women and war.

The overall findings of the study challenge traditional understandings of the roles of women in armed conflict and, fortunately for a Wagner audience, expand upon the policy implications in post-conflict settings. By including policy and programmatic choices that can address the experience of women at war, the conversation was very concrete for an audience of current and future practitioners.

With most demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs tailored towards the needs to men, women are often under-served. The programs that do address women in post-conflict situations are based on assumptions that women will be marginalized and/or stigmatized upon their return and are highly exposed to sexual violence.

While not disputing that women are victims of sexual violence and do have special reintegration needs, Annan challenges preconceived notions, stressing that post-conflict programs should be tailored to meet needs based on evidence, instead of our assumptions. Dr. Annan’s work attempts to improve our understanding of humanitarian needs, both policy and programming, based on rigorous research relying on evidence.

Annan’s research arrived at a variety of intriguing conclusions: first, women abducted by the LRA are not simply sexual victims, nor are their experiences the same as men. Sexual violence is not used as a “mad theology” but rather based on strict hierarchies to increase control. For example, civilian rape is prohibited. Finally, upon reintegration into their community, women are not more disadvantaged than their male counterparts who had also been abducted, nor is either group completely marginalized by society. In fact, the level of trauma is highly concentrated in a significant minority, instead of being diffuse across the population.

Annan’s presentation ended with a particularly poignant quote from a woman who had been abducted by the LRA advising parents of other women who had the same experience: “Take good care of her. It is not the end of her life. She should forget what happened. Be a good example for her. She is still surviving. She should not see this as the end of her life. She can still continue.”

Students at Risk: Nutrition, Obesity and Public Schools

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, Rogan Kersh hosted a panel discussion of obesity, and only four people showed up in the audience.

But on October 13, 2009, about 140 people attended as Kersh, now a professor and an associate dean at NYU Wagner, moderated a lively exchange on what has now become an undeniable epidemic in this country.

Among the panelists was Nancy Huehnergarth, a parent who became the director of New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance after she found that the junk food her children were exposed to in their school cafeteria was turning them off to the more healthful lunches she packed for them. Jorge Collazo, the head chef at the New York City Department of Education — who faces the unique challenge of feeding 860,000 students a day on a budget of 90 cents per person — weighed in on the challenges of combating obesity, as did Roger Turgeon, the principal of the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, and Kathryn Henderson, director of School and Community Initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Henderson opened up the dialogue with a clear statement of the problem: 25% of students in New York City primary and secondary schools are obese, even more are at the very least overweight, and as a society we spend billions of dollars each year treating obesity-related ailments.

Turegeon, meanwhile, noted that he is seeing more and more students coming to his high school struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

An additional problem, Henderson later said, is the 90 percent failure rate in treating obesity among adults and the only slightly better success rate with children. This drove the point home that obesity prevention is a critical policy issue, and not easily resolved.  

So the panelist took to offering a variety of opinions on some of the causes. Huehnergarth and Henderson in particular pointed to the prevalence of fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell and  McDonalds within schools, saying their fare competes with more healthful school lunch options available to children.  Henderson scoffed at the current ban on minimally nutritious food in city schools, saying the ban covers just six items: seltzer, jelly beans, gum, cotton candy and some other seldom-seen snacks.

Turgeon highlighted the temptations that exist just beyond the school walls, in  the bodegas and fast food chains that students pass on their way to school.

Collazo rounded out the conversation by bringing attention to the cultural and social issues that are involved in convincing students to eat a balanced diet. After all, even those of us who are now far removed from high school can imagine that it would hardly be considered cool for a teenage boy to chow down on fresh food plucked from the salad bar.

The challenges are broader, too. The panelists said that many low income neighborhoods where obesity is most profound have limited access to fresh food markets, and families in any area are sometimes reluctant to follow nutritional guidelines that fly in the face of traditional home cooking.

Kersh challenged the panelists to identify policy solutions at the school level, local level, and federal level As they did, the complexities revealed themselves. Turgeon offered that increased nutrition education could help, but Huehnergarth countered that kids have the nutritional knowledge but will invariably consume junk food if it is right in front of them. Henderson advocated a ban on schoolhouse fast foods, but Jorge said that many schools depend on the revenue derived from those concessionaires in order to fund academic and extracurricular programs. The experts agreed, though, that the idea of serving breakfast in the classroom may improve eating habits, student concentration and attendance, though it sometimes draws resistance from custodians.

Across the board, there was support for re-authorization of the national Child Nutrition Act, which would require schools to have a wellness policy that outlined nutrition standards for all foods sold on school grounds. One audience member asked, however, Do we really want the government telling us what we are allowed to eat?

The NYU Wagner event was co-sponsored by the Wagner Education Policy Studies Association (WESPA) and the Wagner Health Network.  

Mayor Cory Booker Takes The Fate of Newark Seriously

IN A PUBLIC  conversation at NYU Wagner before more than 125 students, Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker offered hard-won insight, progress reports and humor in describing how his administration’s strategies to reduce recidivism are contributing to broad civic improvement.

Mayor Booker fielded questions October 8, 2009, about his pattern-breaking efforts from Ellen Schall, Dean of Wagner, and the audience on a day when, as it happened, he was attracting national attention for countering quips delivered by TV talk-show host Conan O’Brien at Newark’s expense. The mayor told students that New Jersey’s largest city is simply “not the butt of jokes,” but conceded that matching O’Brien laugh-for-laugh is no easy challenge.

But Booker had the audience chuckling at several points, even as he described serious and substantial efforts since his election in July, 2006, to set a national standard for urban transformation. He noted he has created several public/private partnerships and brought together civic group to rehabilitate and green the city’s parks and playgrounds, doubled affordable housing construction, and set up model programs to assist at-risk youth and empower ex-offenders to thrive in meeting their family obligations.

Booker said with evident pride that only 3 percent of the ex-offenders who participated in an innovative fraternity on fatherhood begun by the city two years ago have been re-arrested, showing that carefully tailored programs can end a publicly and personally tragic cycle of recidivism. He said he calls the fatherhood program DADS, or Delta Alpha Delta Sigma, he joked. He hopes that by working to bring proven business analytical measurements and operational management techniques to the city administration, such efforts will be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. “Most cities,” he said, “don’t have a mature prisoner-reentry system.”

The 39-year-old Mayor Booker said he’s working to turn the city’s well-regarded charter schools — currently overseen by Wagner alumnus De’Shawn Wright — “from “islands of excellence to hemispheres of hope.” With the help of philanthropic organizations and researchers, transferring the Newark charters’ formula for high achievement to the rest of the 45,000-student school system is achievable, he said.

“Hopelessness is probably one of the worst toxins in any city, it’s a cancer, and it really undermines what you’re trying to do,” said the mayor. But in referring to his deepening involvement in public service, he then added, “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been so rewarding.”

The evening event was sponsored by The NYU Wagner Students for Criminal Justice Reform and The Black Allied Law Students Association. And, in the wake of it, it was interesting to read Bob Herbert’s take in The New York Times on Newark and the O’Brien put-downs.


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Demystifying the US Health Care Reform Debate

MANY OF US have become increasingly perplexed by the current US health care reform debate.  And that is understandable.  Exaggerated by partisan politics and media hype, issues that are complex and personal to begin with have become distorted and disguised, making the policy proposals being discussed in Congress all the more challenging to understand. 

Against the backdrop of an increasingly complex national debate, NYU Wagner Professor John Billings successfully honed in on the key problems facing US health care. On October 7, 2009, at the Wagner school. Billings kicked off the first of a two events aimed at explaining the key problems embedded in the current US health care system.  In the second part of the series, Professor Paul Light will join Professor Billings and journalist Trudy Lieberman in a discussion of the proposed solutions being debated in Washington.

Professor Billings, an expert on safety net services and barriers to optimal health for vulnerable populations, had no shortage of data-heavy slides equipped with graphs and charts that clearly show that our health care system presents a problem we have ignored for far too long.  Billings spoke of several primary interrelated problems: un-insurance, cost, and health disparities.

But more than simply state current trends in these areas as obvious problems, Billings successfully defined why these are crises we must address.

“Insurance matters,” said Billings.  Approximately 45 million people in the US are uninsured and a whopping 39% percent of uninsured hospital admissions are avoidable, a burden we all bear, both morally as well as economically.  Billings argued that health care costs have soared, at a rate of nearly 9% a year, comprising less than 6% of the GDP in 1962 and nearly 16% in 2007.  Why does this matter? Why is this a problem? Because increased health care costs eat up government budgets, diverting money from other sectors of the economy like education and social services, while simultaneously suppressing wages.  And to make matters worse, increased costs have not been met with increased quality and better outcomes.  In fact, the US ranks 103rd in infant mortality rate.  

Billings said that health disparities, differences in treatments and outcomes based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, present the most challenging problem in our current system. Studies show that when controlling for age, gender, and income, blacks get fewer cardiac tests than their white counterparts, a dynamic that won’t be addressed simply by getting access to an insurance card.

Nothing in the health care reform being debated in Washington will attack this problem, Billings said.  But to find out more about the Congressional debate brewing in D.C., you will have to come to the next installment on October 26, 2009.

While Billings touched upon possible solutions like changing the way doctors are paid, creating smoother communication between health care delivery systems and instituting service checklists, Part II – on October 26, 2009 –will truly shed light on what our representatives are planning for the future of our health care system.

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Through the eyes of immigrants

      HUNDREDS OF guests and speakers from all over the Northeast gathered together at Washington Square Park on April 3, 2009, with NYU Wagner’s student group The International Public Service Association (IPSA).  The event was IPSA’s spring conference, “Living Migration: Spanning the Local & Global Divide.” It explored how local experiences in New York City, quintessential American city of immigrants, are enmeshed in global migration patterns.

      Following a welcome delivered by Wagner Professor Paul Smoke, Professor Natasha Iskander opened with how the lived experience of migrants often spans the segmented conversations that typically separate local and global concerns.  Iskander stressed the importance of understanding the lives of individuals in  addition to the aggregate picture of population flows.  Indeed, the only effective way to accurately examine migration is by exploring the stories of immigrant lives.

     Iskander moderated a morning panel featuring a trio of leading experts: Janice Fine, an organizer of worker centers for low-wage immigrants; Devesh Kapur, who explores the social and political effects of global remittances, and Michael Piore, a definitive voice on migration, labor and political economy for more than 30 years.

     The commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Guillermo Linares, gave a heart filled keynote speech about the past, present, and future of immigrants in New York City, addressing, as well, many of the citys recent policy initiatives designed to help newcomers.  

      Linares came to America at age 15, supported his family and put himself through school working in a bodega and as a taxi driver.  He was the first Dominican elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on the New York City Council in 1991.  

       Ten of New York City’s leading practitioners and academics who work closely with immigrants led afternoon workshops, facilitating discussions about their daily challenges and opportunities.  The highly participatory groups each explored different themes: labor organizing and rights, citizenship and legality, and transnational connections.  

        Workshop leaders included:  Ana María Archila (Make the Road New York, Latin American Integration Center), Héctor Figueroa (32BJ SEIU), Victoria Hattam (The New School), Monami Maulik (DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving), Maritsa Poros (CUNY), Haeyoung Yoon (CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities), and Saru Jayaraman, Fekkak Mamdouh, and Sekou Siby (all of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United).

       IPSA concluded the conference with a fun-filled reception, featuring the soulful musical stylings of Beatriz Maass (a Wagner student) and Paula Restrepo (Wagner alumnus) and accompanied by the migration-related visual graphics of Arya Iranpour (Wagner student).  

‘You know, it’s a wonderful place, with security’

     “ONCE YOU KNOW Israel, go there, live there,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriella Shalev said. “You know it’s a wonderful place, with security.”  Ambassador Shalev on April 30, 2009, discussed the condition and challenges of Israel at its 62nd anniversary at an intimate forum sponsored by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, JeWPA (Jewish Wagner Professional Association), Hagshama, the Israeli Consul General and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
       Her discussion focused on the historical and current relationship between the UN and Israel.  Though both were established at about the same time out of necessity for preserving Jewish and other minority communities, the conversation has been at times hostile, as when Zionism  has been likened to racism in UN forums. While the UN has criticized Israel’s actions in conflicts with Palestinians, Israeli society often views the world body as “nonsense” and anti-Israel, even though the UN also works with Israel on problems such as those in Gaza.  Diplomatic confrontations while attempting to change the perception of Israel in the UN (as well as the world) has made Ambassador Shalev’s job difficult.

         Shalev stressed the need to see Israel as a country facing global issues just like any other nation (such as swine flu, climate crisis, and terrorism).  Iran, she said, is a global threat, not just a problem for Israel and the US. While Israel is facing all of the same global problems, its problems are magnified by being a small state surrounded by enemies.  On top of it all, Israel struggles in the global public eye, often singled out in international debate.
      “It is like pushing a big rock up hill at times,” she said, adding that over the long term, education and persuasion might be the only way to improve public opinion on Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.

       But the ambassador reassured the audience that all Israeli leaders strive for the same things as everyone else in the world: peace, happiness, and a good life.  At the UN, every nation should speak out about their national agendas with greater transparency so that all countries can work together to improve our globalized society and, too, eliminate the threat of terror.  Indeed, she said, borders matter little anymore.

       She also showed that there is a new sense of worldwide hope given the Obama Administration’s fresh involvement with UN and international affairs; the hope is felt worldwide.  Obama is the personification of youth and hope, and his main prerogative of engagement is hugely needed for global cooperation and collaboration, said the ambassador.

      Shalev also said she believes women are at the forefront of achieving a modern and equal global society, including in Israel.  She holds herself as an example, as its ambassador to the UN.  Perhaps, given all Shalev said, Israel and similar nations will appoint more women leaders to work together to ease cross-border conflict and tensions.

‘Fear can be paralytic, but it can also be a great motivator’

     GOOD MANAGEMENT is good management, and the current fiscal and economic crisis has the potential to impel nonprofit organizations toward making the tough decisions they should have been making all along, according to consultant Jack Ukeles, founder and president of Ukeles Associates, Inc.

      The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner welcomed representatives from philanthropies, nonprofit organizations, and the general public to a March 4, 2009, forum where Ukeles and Barbara Cohn Berman discussed “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?”

      The particular characteristics of the nonprofit field–such as a tendency to diffuse authority, the difficulty of measuring success, and dependence on outside sources for funding– mean that nonprofits require a particular approach in responding to a society-wide economic recession/depression. If a nonprofit can manage in a crisis, manage the crisis, and use the crisis to improve management, it has the potential to emerge stronger than ever. Ukeles shared tactics for applying these strategies, with a focus on management improvement: streamlining operations, setting priorities, managing performance, and examining restructuring options. Cohn Berman emphasized the importance of gathering information from all possible sources, including clients, and of keeping interested parties invested in the process.

       Ukeles and Cohn Berman’s counsel grows out of significant experience in the field. Ukeles advised the New York City government during the 1975 fiscal crisis, and has consulted for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. Cohn Berman is Vice President of the National Center for Civic Innovation and its sister organization, the Fund for the City of New York and the founding director of their Center on Government Performance. Her focus is on helping the government and nonprofit organizations manage change.

      To make their expertise available to a wider audience, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner has published “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?” and it is available on bjpa.org

How the Bottom Billion Get By on $2 a Day (Hint: It Takes Savvy)

MANY OF US HAVE a mental picture of the world’s so called Bottom Billion — or 40 percent of the planet — as a desperate, hand-to-mouth population. And that’s understandable, considering that one of the most common poverty thresholds in developing countries is an income of $2 a day — what many people in developed countries might pay for a latte.

But those who take the time to read the new book “Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day,” written in part by economist Jonathan Morduch of NYU Wagner, are likely to come away with a far better understanding of the financial lives of the world’s poor — and the notion that their financial lives are, in fact, surprisingly complicated.

The book, newly published by Princeton University Press, has particular relevance for the development and anti-poverty community, and tackles the fundamental question of how the poor make ends meet. The work is based on the financial diaries of more than 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa compiled from bi-weekly interviews over the course of one year. 

On May 7, 2009, Morduch launched the book — which he wrote and researched with Daryl Collins, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven– at an event cosponsored by New York University’s Africa House and the Financial Access Initiative, a research consortium that Professor  Morduch heads. Other participants included Professor Rogan Kersh, associate dean at Wagner, Matthew Bishop, chief business writer/American business editor for The Economist, Bill Easterly, NYU professor of economics and author of “The White Man’s Burden,” and Yaw Nyarko, NYU professor of economics and director of Africa House.

The book refutes the assumptions people often make about the very poor, such as that they fail to plan for the future or save for a rainy day. The opposite is true. In their case, necessity is the mother of financial savvy — which, as Easterly noted (and The Economist.com reported) far exceeds that of some of the celebrities and aid workers who speak on their behalf. “Portfolios of the Poor” finds that the poor are active money managers. People in South Africa, for example, participated in informal, locally operated savings club, in part to help them fight the temptation to spend in the short-term or because they lacked access to traditional banking. Other households, as in Bangladesh, used shopkeeper credit, saved with a money guard, accepted interest free loans from relatives and friends, and relied upon remittances.

In addition, the authors found that the poor don’t usually earn a steady $2 a day as many might imagine. Rather, the book reports that the more typical income stream at the lowest economic strata includes many unpredictable highs and lows, also a lack of  basic financial tools to help them manage those ups and downs.
Morduch and Collins shared stories about Hamid and Khadeja, a Bangladeshi couple who earned only $70 a month but were active money managers. Another voluntary financial diarist, Pumza, a sheep intestine vendor in South Africa, never knew how much she would sell on a daily basis, and was forced to use informal and often unreliable financial tools to address her irregular cash flows. Still another interviewee, Nomsa, an elderly South African woman supporting her five grandchildren on a government old-age grant of $115 a month, managed to save $40 a month using informal mechanisms.

In other words, the poor are doing all they can with what they have. They are saving, borrowing, managing risk and looking toward the future. But they could do more with better financial tools. It’s not financial savvy they lack, but access to financial services

To some, such as Easterly, who made brief remarks, “Portfolios of the Poor” shows that the microfinance strategy to alleviate poverty has limitations in its current incarnation, since the carefully amassed anecdotal evidence of the book shows that micro-loans are used for day-to-day living purposes rather than entrepreneurship.

The book puts forth new ways to think about poverty; broaden the scope of microfinance to deliver loans for general purposes; enable savings; add meaningful consumer protections; and ultimately create the next generation of banks for the “bottom billion.” Through the ongoing work of Morduch and the Financial Access Initiative (www.financialaccess.org) a new, 21st century vision for microfinance may evolve, grounded upon a careful review of its notable successes, potentially expanded use (as in insurance), and limitations. Enlarging our understanding of the real lives of the poor is an important first step .