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TALKING IT OVER
October 11, 2000
Poor families around the world stand to gain unprecedented access to economic opportunity with last week's passage by Congress of the Microenterprise for Self-Reliance Act, a bill that authorizes $155 million in each of the next two years for microenterprise development programs around the world.
Despite the current economic prosperity in our own country, more than 1.2 billion people in the developing world -- one-fifth of the world's population -- subsist on less than $1 a day. Even those who generate income by selling food, crafts and the like, find themselves trapped in poverty with no access to credit to expand their businesses.
Microenterprise programs can offer these willing workers the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and improve their families' welfare. Women, especially, could alter the face of global poverty by having an impact not only on family incomes, but also on child nutrition, health and education.
As I have traveled around the world, I have met women whose lives and communities have been transformed by small loans. In March of 1998, when we were in Uganda, I took my husband and President Yoweri Museveni to a microenterprise program that neither man had heard about before.
There we met Robinah, a brickmaker who has used loans from the Foundation for International Community Assistance, or FINCA -- a non-profit borrowing group devoted to extending credit in order to improve the lives of poor families around the world. Her loans built a brick business that employs two workers with enough left over to pay her children's school fees. Proudly explaining that she has put aside bricks to build herself a house, Robinah says, "I have a happy marriage, and my husband respects me. ... My children are also happy and respect me because I can provide for them and feed them."
Margaret, too, has put enough money aside to build a house for her family. Now on her fifth loan, Margaret has financed the purchase of poultry, rabbits and materials for hutches. The mud hut where she and her husband used to live now houses the rabbits.
A tailor by trade, Teddy runs three profitable businesses, thanks to her FINCA loans. In one year she has bought two sewing machines and employed two people who help her make uniforms for the local school. With her next loan, she hopes to buy 10 more sewing machines so that she can start a tailoring school.
Microcredit works not only in foreign countries, but in many parts of this country, as well. After I first heard about the work of the Grameen Bank in India and the South Shore Bank in Chicago 15 years ago, I was determined to translate those success stories to other regions. Today, microcredit enterprises flourish in many parts of this country.
My husband has become such a proponent of microcredit that when he hosted the recent White House Conference on the New Economy: Bridging the Digital Divide he invited not only powerful business leaders, but also microcredit experts like Marai Chatterjee from the Self-Employed Women's Association in India. She spoke eloquently about what poor people -- especially women -- need in order to close the digital divide: technology and health care, education, credit, employment and self-empowerment. In short, all the things that microcredit offers.
Three years ago, I stood with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to support USAID's microenterprise initiative. The Microenterprise for Self-Reliance Act institutionalizes that initiative and authorizes support for programs that provide credit, insurance, training and other services to entrepreneurs -- 50 percent of whom must be very poor or women. Much of the credit for its passage goes to the women themselves -- 97 percent of whom have repaid their loans in full and on time.
But this bill goes beyond helping women develop small businesses. The programs it supports will change the face of foreign aid, expanding access to financial services and making microlending a component of U.S. foreign policy.
This bill is the product of tireless leadership on both sides of the aisle. Upon passage, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, the Republican Chair of the House International Relations Committee, noted that the microenterprise programs are the most effective manner in which the United States can deliver anti-poverty foreign assistance. His co-sponsor, Democrat Sam Gejdenson, agreed: "Through modest loans going directly to those who need them most, we are able to break the cycle of poverty by helping to promote self-sufficiency, individual responsibility and free enterprise -- the very principles that drive our democracy."
Three years ago, I was invited to give the keynote address to the Microcredit Summit in Washington, D.C. Whereas today microcredit is helping more than 20 million creditors, the summit set a new goal five times that number. This bill will go a long way toward helping us meet that goal, and I applaud all who voted for it.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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