Carmen Velasco

This description of Carmen Velasco's work was prepared when Carmen Velasco was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


For over 25 years, Carmen has dedicated her life to ensuring that women at the base of the pyramid have access to the capital and support needed to transform their lives and improve their families’ standard of living. As the cofounder of ProMujer, a pioneer organization in the field of microfinance, Carmen has been a leader in the field of microfinance across Latin America. After stepping out of ProMujer in 2013, Carmen now uses her global influence to ensure that the microfinance organizations have the tools they need to measure impact and be held accountable to their goal of reducing poverty through access to capital.

The New Idea

After decades leading ProMujer in various roles, Carmen realized that a pivotal element needed in the microfinance field was the tools and methodology for organizations to hold themselves accountable for positive impact on those they serve. Carmen is now leveraging her roles in multiple regional and international associations to refocus the field on an effort for multidimensional impact measurement so that the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the models in use is clear. She focuses this accountability methodology on two points – those who provide the resources and those that receive them – and presents solutions for standardizing the collection of data for a baseline assessment of a community and their progress towards poverty reduction across multiple indicators.

Expanding on her work at ProMujer, Carmen’s now aims to refocus the microfinance field on its social impact results – rather than loan repayment rates and other, more typical measures, of capital provision. Carmen recognizes that without a reformulation of the indicators and goals, microfinance organizations will continue to quickly hand out credit as a catch all solution – at times leaving communities worse off – with no systematic reduction of poverty or gains in quality of life. Misaligned goals and indicators do not just have a negative affect on the client but also can be a cause of ineffective resource allocation on the part of the organization.

More broadly than the field of microfinance, Carmen's vision is to radically affect how second level organizations are held accountable, how the impact is measured and how we demonstrate progress towards the eradication of poverty. And at the same time she seeks to replicate her development model, which begins with women and thus impacts the entire community. In the words of Ashoka Fellow Solomon Raydan, who has a track record for important advances in the field of microfinance with global replication: "she is one of the most recognized people in Latin America and in the world of microfinance; having her as part of the Ashoka network would bring a great contribution to us all.”

The Problem

The problem of poverty in the Andean Region, and in Latin America more broadly, goes beyond just income levels and has deep effects on a multitude of social and economic outcomes for communities. It is especially hard felt by girls and women, who disproportionately experience hunger, disease , exclusion from education and violence.

Microfinance has long been heralded as a banking solution for the unbankable, thereby unlocking the economic potential of individuals, especially women. However, many microfinances organizations have lost the essence of their work – becoming more like traditional banks but with severe sustainability and governance issues. One of the significant reasons for this is a misalignment of goals with the true social goal of their work and thus, poor accountability methods to measure progress against relevant indicators. Overall, the field lacks consistent – let alone standardized – performance measurement. Communities are often selected and provided credit without a baseline assessment of their real needs. There is also little clarity as to what counts as “impact” – is it their ability to repay? The ease by which individuals can access the credit? the change in monthly income in the short and long term? Or the opportunity for upward mobility within and between generations? There is no consensus around what would constitute systemic change. With current indicators and goals as they stand, those that are supposed to benefit are often given credit too quickly or without support, leaving them worse off. A common refrain that exemplifies this is “before I was poor, and now I am poor and in debt.”

The Strategy

Carmen held the position of Director of ProMujer Bolivia between 1994 and 2013. In this role , and as co-founder, she also led the replication and expansion of the model to Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico and Argentina. In each of these subsequent countries, Carmen focused on adapting the model to local realities. From 2010 on, she took on a more international role, becoming Co-director of the Latin American network and then later the organization’s Ambassador for Latin America, Spain and the USA. In all of these roles, Carmen created and expanded a methodology of solidarity and cooperation amongst clients to reduce the risk of providing loan capital. After working with the organization for more than 25 years, she has transformed the lives of around 1.2 million families – however, she says that her greatest source of satisfaction comes from having truly seen the changed prospects for 20 percent of these women.

Carmen is now seeking to expand her current work on accountability through her role on the Global advisory Committee that stemmed form the 2016 Microfinance Summit – she has been a part of this team since 1999. This Summit is a global movement which unites the efforts of all microfinance entities so that 175 million of the world's poorest people can access microfinance services and 100 million families can overcome extreme poverty. Carmen is currently a reference point for standardizing impact measurement and joint accountability. She participates independently as a lecturer and is also supporting philanthropic organizations to provide funding for the measurement of impact of institutions along indicators of health, income, employment, education and empowerment - showing the true incidence of positive change.

For Carmen poverty is multidimensional and exclusively giving money to those in need does not solve it. She has fought for this comprehensive and social approach, and considers that the existing organizations dedicated only to the matter of microfinance are failing because these populations, when looked at very closely cannot be given money, without previously knowing their needs to generate development, health conditions, business management skills, entrepreneurial skills that reduce the risk, of them "remaining poor and in debt". Carmen considers that she has had an impact in social policy through the empowerment of women, where some of them have been mayors, leaders in their communities.

The Person

Between 1986 and 1987 she worked at Unicef as a consultant and has a background in education, since she was also a professor at the Catholic University in Bolivia. She worked at the headquarters of El Alto Interdisciplinary Center for Community Studies (CIEC), an institution of community work, which trains mothers to create centers for themselves. This nationwide institution had an ample range of action in the East and worked on health, education and community development. There, Carmen acquired the tools to, later, totally devote herself to the work of women's empowerment and the community.

During her experience at the Interdisciplinary Center, she noted that children either, repeated or deserted school and that their failures in the educational area were a more complex problem. This is the start of her entrepreneurial vein and she developed the first materials/instructions for the parents, to empower them and to be the first teachers. Together with her husband, she generated her first guidebook. She watched how women’s eyes sparkled when noticing the positive changes they were able to generate, being aware of their power. Carmen immediately detected the importance of women as heads of households and noticed the orphanhood they had. In guidebooks, she tried to include men, and despite the resistance of many (because they see parenting as "women's work"), they became interested due to improvements when they saw progress in knowledge and skills.

Women taught her the way - which motivated Carmen to work for them. They began creating children's centers as a way to generate income, they organized support centers for children and were aware of the roles of mothers, workers and housewives. She saw how solidarity and group power are the driving force of change. Carmen trained 40 women's groups of 30 to 40 members, with the mixed methodology of the Community Bank with the International Community Assistance Foundation (FINCA) and the methodology of Ashoka Fellow, Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. Her success was so noteworthy that Yunnus heard about her work and invited her to go to Bangladesh for three months to learn more and exchange ideas. She differs from Yunnus, by taking several methodologies and creating her own, with a gender approach as is the case of Promujer. She adds the health component, and her training is different and adapted to the Latin reality. Also, the administrative group system is different. She has traveled three times to Bangladesh, to exchange experiences. Beyond a bank, she has a comprehensive development strategy.

In working with several groups of women, she met Lynn Paterson, an American expat’s wife that worked in Bolivia at a time when there was much popular boom and an active conscience for development actors. Between 1989 and 1990 Promujer was created, using common contacts and alliances. Initially, she proposes legalizing the institution in the USA, as the main reason, to access USAID funds and ensure sustainability.

In 2013 she left Promujer, but continues to be very closely linked to social performance as part of Directories now dedicated to promoting microfinance social results, not only in terms of access to economic resources but to account for the social conditions of beneficiaries through conferences, lectures and participation in directories of other NGOs. Today she is very closely linked, as member of the Truelife directory, a global initiative to promote accountability in development projects. It was initially conceived as the "Seal of Excellence for Poverty Outreach and Transformation", but it was expanded and now is a frame of reference in microfinance and other forms of social enterprises that are committed to positive and lasting change for people affected by poverty. From TrueLift, Carmen promotes tracking beneficiaries who entered with social baseline for three years’ and then monitor impact in terms of education, health, and economic prospects. Each institution is required to use relevant indicators to measure the impact, so that it really gets done.

She has been part of the Social Performance Taskforce, a movement with more than 1,500 members between financiers, investors, microfinance executors, rating agencies, and there contributed in the generation of standards that ensure social performance. Carmen also promotes her cause through graduate courses through e-learning to promote social performance management. Carmen affects second level companies through support to companies like Pronafin, in Mexico, she is also part of the Directory of the company ‘Finanzas de Todos’ (FINDETO), an international organization that provides technical assistance, support, counseling and postgraduate courses to increase the number of people who see in ventures a power for change. She gives social performance management courses, both in financial institutions and to the community.

In addition to directing Promujer, Carmen was part of the Executive Committee of the Social Performance Taskforce (SPTF) for the Microcredit Summit Campaign. She also served on the board council and then was President of FINRURAL, an association of microfinance organizations in rural areas of Bolivia. In 2007, Carmen was awarded the "Business Woman Award" of the Veuve Clicquot initiative for economic development in France. Carmen holds a Bachelor Degree of Arts in Special Education from the University of Chile and has also completed postgraduate studies at the Microfinance Institute Boulder and Harvard University. In 2007, Carmen and Lynne were recognized together as "Community Crusaders" at the annual ceremony "CNN Heroes: A Tribute to the Stars."

Today, Carmen is involved in the ‘Finanzas de Todos’ initiative, an international company where she provides technical assistance, counseling to increase the number of people that create ventures with power for change in the communities as a development strategy to build capacities in institutions and this way ensure that these entities train their "clients" and know how to handle their business. Carmen wishes to transmit everything she has learned in regards to the thousands of beneficiaries who have gone through the institution. She sees how to avoid mistakes and how to duplicate successes, for thousands of women who still need to feel dignified and valued by their families and children.