Foster PhD student wins Dare to Care Dissertation Award for microfinance research

Ussama Ahmed Khan

How do organizations fighting poverty form relationships with their beneficiaries based on trust, respect and support? How do these relationships allow people in poverty to experience growth in their financial, social, emotional and cognitive well-being?

Ussama Ahmad Khan is examining these vital questions in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

This enlightening work-in-progress has earned him an inaugural Dare to Care Dissertation Scholarship from the organization Responsible Research in Business Management (RRBM). The scholarship supports business school doctoral students who are conducting dissertation studies that follow the organization’s principles of responsible research. This year’s scholarship program focused on topics related to economic inequality and racial, gender or other forms of social justice in organizations.

Khan is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Foster School’s Department of Management and Organizational Behavior. He has collaborated with Foster faculty members Andrew Hafenbrack, Christopher Barnes and Ryan Fehr on his wide-ranging research, which seeks to understand how some of the most pressing challenges we face in the world today—climate change, poverty, slavery, for instance—impact our lives and work.

A small business owner in Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Akhuwat.

The stream of research that won the Dare to Care Scholarship seeks to increase the effectiveness of microfinance in the developing world. “One of the most promising interventions for poverty alleviation was the advent of the microfinance model where poor people were offered micro-loans to start or expand their business ventures,” Khan explains. “However, recent evidence has suggested that microfinance has not had the transformative effect that was hoped for.”

One of the main reasons for this, he argues, is that microfinance has been used primarily as an economic lever to alleviate poverty and inequality. But it does not address other significant challenges to the poor, including health inequity, trauma and human rights violations.

In his dissertation, Khan deploys the lens of organizational behavior to theorize that relationships based on respect, trust and support can make microfinance organizations more effective in helping people living in poverty heal from the social, emotional and cognitive effects of poverty. To accomplish this, he is studying a microfinance organization called Akhuwat that aims to eradicate poverty in Pakistan through both zero-interest loans and the extension of compassion, equity and dignity. He will test the emerging insights from extensive interviews with clients and stakeholders in Akhuwat as well as with a series of field studies.

“This research has the potential to change the landscape of the microfinance industry in Pakistan and other developing countries,” Khan says. “And it has important implications for how organizations conceptualize helping the poor.”