Small Is Not Always Beautiful When It Comes To Money
EDITH M. LEDERER
Sep. 07, 1995
BEIJING (AP) _ The new buzz word in Beijing is ``micro-credit'' and the bank on everyone's lips is the one that started it all, Grameen of Bangladesh. Hillary Clinton talked about it. So did Jane Fonda.
But some at the U.N. women's conference think that ``micro-credit'' is about as liberating as the micro-mini.
``What I look forward to is seeing women handling millions,'' says Ugandan Vice President Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe.
With the ranks of the world's poor dominated by women, suddenly Western governments and lending institutions have fallen in love with ``micro-credit.'' The mini-loans of anywhere from $25-$100 help women start their own businesses and escape the poverty trap.
But with women pushing against the glass ceiling and trying to make it into presidential suites and boardrooms, the focus on tiny loans wasn't entirely welcome.
``It's a little something,'' former New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, who heads the Women's Environment and Development Organization, said Thursday.
``But it's got to be a lot bigger,'' she said. ``I want macro.''
So does Kazibwe, one of the highest ranking African women in government who describes herself as ``a product of affirmative action.''
In a speech on the first day of the conference, she said ending discrimination against women requires a lot of money, ``not micro-credit'' which leaves women better off but still poor.
``Money is power,'' she said, ``and those with economic power control national and international'' affairs.
``Micro-credit'' has been around since 1976 when economics professor Muhammad Yunus started the Grameen Bank to give Bangladesh's landless poor small amounts of capital to help them earn more on their own.
The bank now serves more than 2 million people who could never get credit before, 94 percent of them women. They borrow an average of about $100 to build homes, buy cattle or start small businesses _ and 98 percent of them repay their loans.
Yunus has been feted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, and appeared on the same panel Wednesday as Mrs. Clinton, who praised his inventiveness. ``When we help these women to sow, we all reap,'' she said.
Grameen was so successful pioneering small loans that more than 40 countries have copied the idea.
Dato Seri Datin Paduka, the Malaysian first lady, told a news conference Thursday that her country had successfully adopted the Bangladesh model _ and 99 percent of women were repaying their loans.
``They are very proud to have their own capital without any hassle from their husbands,'' she said. Some Malaysian women used the money to go into business selling banana fritters, others making envelopes.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Melinda Kimble called ``micro-credit'' one of the most powerful tools to expand economic opportunities for the poor. ``I think this is going to be the crux of future development,'' she said.
Two months ago, the World Bank, which normally lends only to governments, helped set up a $200 million fund to make small loans through private organizations and special banks for the poor.
Actress and feminist Jane Fonda told a news conference Thursday that the fact that the World Bank got on the ``micro-credit'' bandwagon ``was a huge, big deal'' because it showed a real commitment to helping the poorest women.
But even the bank acknowledges the program's limits.
The $200 million earmarked for ``micro-credit'' is ``really peanuts compared to the need,'' said Minh Chau Nguyen, the bank's manager of gender analysis and policy. ``But we thought we would do that in order to demonstrate to governments that it works.''
Today, about $5 billion of the bank's $20 billion annual lending addresses specific women's concerns, and this figure is expected to increase, she said Thursday.
Minh said she was very sympathetic to women like Uganda's Kazibwe who were thinking big, because it is important that women in big business generate employment for poor women.
``But the point is ... the women who apply for medium loans and big loans don't really need any special help because they do have collateral. They have their jewelry. They have their houses. They have wealth,'' she said.