Giving credit where credit is due


OAK BROOK, Ill. -- She is the sun in her child's life, the source of unconditional love and the bedrock of security in a world of chaos and complexity.

The weight of a mother's responsibility is tremendous, even in affluent countries. But the burden is so much greater for mothers who live in poor countries.

For 90 percent of the children who go to bed hungry every night, the problem is not an absence of food at the local market. The problem is insufficient income to buy enough food.

Moreover, the world's poorest are women, often the sole support of their children. Women do 67 percent of the world's work, earn 10 percent of the world's income and own 1 percent of the world's property. Most poor, uneducated women are denied both jobs that pay a living wage and loans from commercial banks to start a simple business.

One of the highly effective ways to fight poverty is by providing small collateral-free loans, or microcredit, to the poorest of the poor in developing countries. Most borrowers are women. These loans translate into self-sustaining businesses that enable mothers to survive, to gain hope in their ability to steadily improve their family's nutrition, health, education and safety and, ultimately, to thrive.

The reasons for giving the poor assistance through business loans rather than handouts are compelling.

First, repayment of loans gives a donor's money staying power. Money is recycled to help the next fledgling entrepreneur start her business or to expand the initially funded business with second and third loans.

Second, when a person repays a loan, a great sense of dignity, empowerment and self-esteem is restored -- a wonderful gift to someone who has felt the futility of being trapped in chronic poverty for years.

Rosal Venzon joined a Trust Bank in one of Manila's worst slums. A Trust Bank is a group of 20 to 40 individuals who guarantee each other's loans and meet regularly to form a support network.

Ms. Venzon was raising her children in a shack made of packing cases. They ate one insubstantial meal a day. Her new friends in the Trust Bank co-guaranteed her $100 loan for a large stock of fruits and vegetables, a market stand and a cooker. After several such loans, Ms. Venzon was sending all of her children to school and providing regular nutritious meals to her family.

Grace Mazundo has a business making bed covers in a village near Harare, Zimbabwe. In her five years as a Trust Bank member, her loans have allowed her to increase her profits and improve her home. Even more important, she has been able to care for her extended family in a time of acute need, for her part of Africa is overwhelmed with the AIDS epidemic.

Besides caring for their two children, Ms. Mazundo and her husband support her widowed mother and the two children of her sister, who died of AIDS.

Every mother of hungry children deserves to be given the opportunity to put three square meals a day on her family's table, to send her children to school, to realize her dreams for them.

Charles L. Dokmo is chief executive officer of Opportunity International in Oak Brook, Ill., a global network of microcredit institutions working in 24 developing countries.

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