In the latest post in our ongoing Q&A series, we talk to Tom Sanderson. Many of our supporters will be familiar with Tom and the work he did kick starting Five Talents UK, so we wanted to touch base with him to talk about the successes and setbacks of those early years, and to find out about his current post with the BBC.
After over ten years as part of the UK government, you upped sticks and moved to Uganda to work for the Church Mission Society, can you tell us about that transition?
Several years earlier I had felt a strong “call” from God to serve Him overseas. My wife and I were beginning to put down roots in London, with three young children, a big mortgage and good careers. But, we sensed it was “now or never” if we were to obey that call. So we made enquiries with a number of mission agencies, offering my services as an economist. Most of them didn’t know how on earth an economist could be useful! But Church Mission Society did – the Anglican agency – saying that a newly appointed bishop in SW Uganda was very developmentally minded, and would think he had “died and gone to heaven” if I was to help him manage all the different projects. So I went to visit for a week to check it out, and 6 months later we all packed our bags and went.
You spend over half a decade working in Uganda, how do you look back on these years?
They were times of immense learning: a kind of full immersion experience in international development and cross-cultural mission. Every day brought new surprises – good and bad – and we learn to be resilient and flexible and keep our faith and sense of humour! Our children coped amazingly, attending the local school and making friends with all our Ugandan neighbours.
Your position in the Church Mission Society focused on impact evaluation and monitoring, did this inform your later work?
My work involved visiting all the church’s development “projects” – the full range from widows’ schemes, to tree nurseries, a carpentry business; a transport business; orphan care; projects rearing goats, pigs; dairy cows and chickens; a pineapple project; bee-keeping; water schemes etc. Many of them had started enthusiastically with a church gift (hand-out) and the expectation of community involvement and sustainability. However, on closer inspection, many of them fizzled and failed. Except, it seemed, for the fairly consistent success of the microfinance programme where individual entrepreneurs had borrowed money and were building their enterprises slowly but surely based on personal conviction and hard-work. As an economist this outcome intrigued me, and rhymed with my understanding of the profit-motive, aligned incentives and market systems.
Five Talents UK was founded a number of years after the US branch, what were the events that lead up to the establishment of the London office?
After spending 5 years in Uganda it was time for our family to return to the UK and I needed a job! I considered various avenues. I had got to know the Five Talents USA team fairly well over the years on their visits to Uganda and they invited me to consider launching the UK office. It seemed an ideal fit building on my first-hand experience of the programmes. We went to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams at the time, and he gave the green light and helped us appoint the first UK Trustees.
How were those early years? What were the great setbacks and successes?
I remember working from home, from a small desk in my bedroom, gradually building contacts and spreading the word. It was fairly crazy, saying yes to every opportunity to speak in churches or at events. Going to meet people in their shiny offices wearing my best suit and talking about alleviating poverty through microfinance. We had a launch event with George Carey at the Commonwealth Club in London, when I spoke about the fact that “wealth” is certainly not “common” in most of the world, and yet we can make a difference through this practical approach pioneered by Five Talents. We were “off” – and beginning to grow and get established.
Following your term with Five Talents you went on to chair the UK Microfinance Club. There is a natural degree of competition between small charities working in similar areas, but this group focuses on networking, can you talk a little about the lessons that can be learnt from each other and the importance of cooperation?
The Microfinance Club is a great place to meet people interested and involved in the sector, and keep up to date with latest developments. It’s clear that each organisation has its unique approach and set of values. I think we can learn a lot from each other and gain collective strength by cooperating in public fora, debating the “good, the bad and the ugly” and refining our models.
We should point out that the Microfinance Club has recently changed its name to the Financial Inclusion Forum, is this a result of the stigma attached to the industry?
No not at all. The word “microfinance” is often closely associated with “microcredit” and some people fail to realise that it actually includes micro-savings; insurance and money transfers too. In addition, the microfinance sector has been a springboard for improving financial literacy, and is increasingly linked to formal banks, mobile money services and other technological improvements. We also recognised the growing peer-to-peer saving and lending approaches that were being developed in the UK and internationally, and the big push to see more digital transactions rather than cash as a means to improve security and transparency. We decided to change our name to reflect this growing breadth and maturity of the sector.
You have spent many years of your life working in the microfinance sphere, and you obviously believe in the effects it can have despite the challenges. Given that many organisations like Five Talents have moved away from a traditional microfinance model, do you think that modern microfinance is misconceived by the general public and by the development community?
I think it is great that Five Talents’ approach has developed and improved over the years, responding to clients’ needs and industry best practices. I still think the development “community” underplay the importance of micro-enterprises in household livelihoods. I think if you were to stand in the shoes of a so-called “poor person”, you would quickly realise how vital such small enterprises are - to provide income and resilience to face the myriad of “shocks” that poor people face. Supporting and strengthening such initiatives is, I believe, a really strategic long term investment.
There are parallels to be drawn between Five Talents’ strategy, and the BBC Media Action’s emphasis on empowerment through education and relationships with partner organisations. Can you discuss this method of development a little further?
In my present role at BBC Media Action I recognize the considerable barriers that people face in changing their behaviour – be that in adopting new farming methods, new crops, new businesses etc. It is said that poor people face the biggest risks and the biggest costs in addressing those risks. My role is to use media (radio, TV and online) to help people reduce those risks by enabling them to ask questions, get information, learn from their peers and build their confidence. Five Talents’ approach to group-based mutuality and learning fits very well – bringing the best out of people, helping them to “be the change” and of course, unlocking their talents.
On this 10th anniversary, I am proud to have played a part in Five Talents’ journey and the tens of thousands of people that have taken part in improving their own lives, families and neighbourhoods. Here’s to the next ten years of Talents!