The swearing in of Barack H Obama, the 44th President of the United States, on a cold and crisp winter's day in Washington DC was watched by millions across the world. It was a historic moment, indeed. I was particularly struck by the following refrain from the presidential address: the need for dignity building. President Obama underscored the fact that dignity building was required not only in the United States but also in rest of the world. In the midst of this address, the newly elected American president talked about the power of hope, "the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." The president, it seems, wants to work towards the goal of establishing a new world-order where access to happiness is universally available. In other words, the president wants to see a world where access to happiness is, to quote Thomas Friedman, "flat." Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and the Pulitzer Prize winning author, came up with the idea of a flat world in his 2005 book, The World is Flat. In the book, Friedman propounds the notion of a level playing field where all can compete equally in a global environment. Friedman's hypothesis of a flat world was based on the convergence in technological forces resulting from the and the internet revolution - a world where outsourcing and cheap imports have become the norm. However, the fact remains that where our world has become flat with respect to technology, it is still not flat in terms of access to finance. The promise of an economically flat world - that offers the same economic opportunities for all - does not hold true at the bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP). Empirically, access to finance is important for economic growth, social cohesion, employment generation and poverty alleviation. Essentially, financial inclusion empowers people, allows them to open an account, plan for the future, insure against disasters and take loans to build up their income capacity. In other words, access to finance brings economic stability and provides people with the choice of tackling poverty with dignity. Hard evidence also points in the same direction. An extensive research conducted by the World Bank on financial access across 99 countries concludes that a broad based financial system with a high level of formal banking penetration is a pre-requisite for the growth and viability of small and medium firms, especially for job creation for the BOP. In other words, we must believe that poverty is caused not by the lack of resourcefulness of the poor but by the inequitable distribution of capital. In Pakistan. The total banking sector in Pakistan serves around 6 million borrowers and 25 million depositors, implying a penetration rate of 3.6 percent and 15 percent respectively. In terms of access to microfinance, which means the provision of small loans, micro deposits and micro-insurance services to low income households, the current penetration rate is only 10 percent. In other words, 85 percent of Pakistan's population does not have access to any financial services at all, which inherently implies an uneven and an inequitable economic world, where the majority of people are financially marginalised. Implying the poor have to rely on informal sources of funding like the moneylender, where the calculus of the relationship works to the detriment of the borrower. "Dignity building" in today's world is about the tackling of big problems, the most imminent of which is the world's growing poverty. The toughest crisis in Pakistan is not the one in energy but the lack of access to financial services for the poor. 85 percent of our population is denied the right to equal happiness - asset building and dignity building have to go hand in hand. Despite the many challenges that the microfinance industry has been facing over the past year including ill-advised political intervention in the sector, there are many good measures that have been undertaken to strengthen the sector in terms of promoting a fair and equitable environment. For example, recently the Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN) launched its code of consumer protection as a self regulation tool - the code articulates that microfinance providers need to be fair, disciplined and respectful in the provision of their services and must preserve and uphold the dignity of their clients at all times. For starter, an equitable financial sector cannot prosper without a focus on financial literacy. Financial literacy provides microfinance clients with the tools and the knowledge to make sound and correct financial choices. One of the most important metrics of a sound financial relationship is the provision of complete and understandable information to clients regarding all transactions - the principle of "truth in lending." Provision of such information must be then embedded in an organisation-wide code of consumer protection. Financial literacy training is the pre-requisite for any loan decision, this holds especially true when loans are provided to women who are traditionally not involved in financial decisions. I strongly believe also that microfinance is about confidence-building, especially at a time when most financial institutions are shying away from further lending. Initially, when I started working as a loan officer in a small community outside Lahore, we required that all borrowers learn how to sign their names. The idea behind this initiative was to allow illiterate female clients, who had never picked up a pen or a paper in their lives, to realise that they could be active economic agents with visible financial rights. I still remember the initial shyness and fear on the women's faces when I coerced them into practising writing their names. When they were able to prefect signing their names, many of them used to exclaim: "I am now a person with a valid identity." Such is the power of microfinance Dr Muhammad Yunus writes about his philosophy when establishing the operations of the Grameen Bank: "Whatever banks did, I did the opposite." The wisdom of Dr Yunus' mantra seems all the more prophetic, given the behaviour of big banks today as they confront the pervading economic depression. All that the banks are doing in the midst of the current crisis is absorbing billions in public funds and hoarding them for a rainy day. While, at the same time, the tsunami of the pervasive economic downturn is washing away companies and jobs all around. As the big banks perpetuate the infamous liquidity crunch, microfinance providers continue to disburse loans everyday in order to nurture millions of small-business start-ups all around the globe. In Pakistan, however, despite the best intentions of microfinance institutions, the sector is confronted by an existential challenge today. The proximate cause of this challenge is the ill-advised and ever-increasing political involvement, whereby elected representatives continue to announce loan amnesty. Not only this, these self-serving and myopic political agendas are also leading to growing credit indiscipline. As a result, MFIs are now unable to disburse loans. This is especially concerning as against the backdrop of the current economic crisis, the poor need these loans now more than ever before. I would like to end with another quote by Dr Yunus in order to underscore the massive public cost of such irresponsible behaviour of our local politicians: "We have to get out of this mindset that the rich will do the business and the poor will have the charity." The writer is the founder of the Kashf Foundation, Pakistan's first specialised Microfinance Institution.