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Getting an idea past the parking lot


WHILE SHE WAS growing up in a mining camp in rural Bolivia, Fructosa Quispe probably never imagined that one day she would be traveling to Washington, D.C., for a world summit where she would participate in press conferences and even meet the first lady of the United States.

Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ms. Quispe is smart and energetic. But life has offered her fewer opportunities than those available to ambitious young women in the United States. As Mrs. Clinton pointed out in her address to the Microcredit Summit last week, simple lack of opportunity often makes the difference between lives of poverty and lives of plenty -- a message that resonates well in a country built by immigrants offered new opportunities.

"Most people who are eligible for microcredit around the world work as hard as they know how, from sun-up to sundown," Mrs. Clinton told the international gathering. "And yet too often, those of us in positions of influence or authority or power dismiss them. We seem to have a belief that if they are poor, they are meant to be poor and will always remain poor.

"Yet many of us come from families, generations back, who themselves were poor. And through hard work and sometimes lucky breaks and opportunities and an extended helping hand, we were able to climb our own way out of poverty. . . ."

For women like Fructosa Quispe, opportunity has come in the form of microcredit programs -- small loans to poor people imbued with skill and entrepreneurial drive but ignored or rejected by traditional lenders. As a woman entrepreneur in Denver told Mrs. Clinton, "Too many good ideas die in the parking lots of banks."

Ice cream mini-tycoon

Unlike many Bolivian women, Ms. Quispe was able to get enough schooling to become a teacher in a rural area. In 1992, when she was 30, she began selling ice cream. She and her husband were able to keep a tiny business going, but without access to credit they had no opportunity to expand.

Then, with three other small-time entrepreneurs, she created a "solidarity group," through which they could guarantee each other's loans, and approached a Bolivian microcredit program affiliated with ACCION International.

The first loan provided each borrower $120. Ms. Quispe used hers for ingredients. With a $300 loan three months later, she and her husband began to expand production. Now they are on their fifth loan, this one worth $1,200, and for the first time they are able to save money, reinvest in the business and lay the foundations for a new home. Best of all, their three children are all attending school.

Inspiring stories such as this can belie the grinding, daily routines that make a business successful, or the discipline and energy it takes to persevere. But to meet the beneficiaries of microcredit programs is to be reminded that their hard work is the same kind of entrepreneurial energy that fueled the American Dream and transformed this country into a world power.

What better issue than microcredit for Mrs. Clinton to champion as she eases back into policy issues and the public eye. She knows these programs inside out -- the Clintons were among the earliest proponents of the idea in the United States, establishing the Good Faith Fund in Arkansas in the 1980s.

Even better, microcredit combines some of her most cherished causes -- the well-being of families and the empowerment of women. There is ample evidence that microcredit lending programs to poor women not only improve the standard of living for their families and educational achievement of the children, but also give them the confidence to participate in community affairs.

Americans already know that the entrepreneurial spirit cuts across ideological, geographical and economic lines. Microcredit may be one of the best ideas yet to spread the ideals that are essential to efforts to reduce poverty (the goal of last week's summit), as well as to shore up a value that is crucial to democracy -- the dignity and worth of every person, no matter how poor.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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