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Mixing Theory and Practice: SIS Student Interns in India

Ben Williams, SIS/MA '11, conducts his research in Bhubaneswar, India. Photo courtesy of Ben Williams.

Ben Williams, SIS/MA '11, conducts his research in Bhubaneswar, India. Photo courtesy of Ben Williams.

Merely studying the impact of microfinance wasn’t enough for Ben Williams, SIS/MA ’11, a student in the International Development program (IDP). He wanted to see its effectiveness for himself. “I have always been curious about the huge economic and social juggernaut that is India,” he explains, “and wanted to broaden my academic and professional focus.”

So Williams applied for, and won, a Tinker-Walker fellowship - open to all IDP students studying overseas at least ten weeks - to study in India for the summer. (He adds, “The prospect of a summer spent eating delicious Indian food didn't hurt either.”)

Soon after he decided to travel to India, the Bay Area native added another accolade to his growing list: an internship with the Madhyam Foundation, an agency where, according to its website, “economic development is truly people-centered, sustainable, and equitable.” This kind of organization was just what Williams was looking for, since he wanted to not only examine how microfinance worked at the most basic level, but to study the difference between these programs in an urban versus rustic areas.

“Much of the academic literature on microfinance in India focuses on rural programs,” Williams notes. “The opportunity to work with Madhyam and carry out my own study on specifically urban microfinance among slum-dwellers in a regional capital provided me with unique insights into urban poverty in India, and proved to me that urban microfinance is an entirely ‘different ballgame’ than its rural counterpart.”

Throughout his time in India, Williams designed and carried out a study in the town of Bhubaneswar, India, looking at microfinance institutions (MFIs), and ultimately discovering that sudden urban growth led to an influx of entrepreneurs who have not realized the opportunity for loan assistance and MFIs who have not understood the potential capital. “Because the underclass in Bhubaneswar is composed of … individuals with different financing needs,” wrote Williams in his case study, “meeting these needs by customizing one’s loan products represents an opportunity for growth.”

Williams’ study was as focused as his post-AU plans are diverse. Having served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, he is interested in further researching MFIs in South America and is applying for both PhD studies and governmental programs. Wherever he goes, he will be prepared: “The AU IDP [has] offered the best mix of theory and practice tools to continue my career in development.”