On Campus: Forum Provides Funding to Women in Developing Countries Mike Field ----------------- Staff Writer In a forgotten barrio near the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where a black and fetid stream runs past tin shacks and barefoot children play their games amid the debris of their more affluent countrymen, a woman has started a business. Her name is Balbina, and like many of her neighbors she has endured some of the worst poverty in the Western Hemisphere in a country where the gross domestic product stood at only $950 per person in 1991. At dawn each morning Balbina builds a scrap wood fire beneath an enormous black kettle on the path before her house. In the kettle she fries chicharron, the popular meat dish sold commonly on the streets of the capital city. Every evening Balbina's husband and four young men from the community sell Balbina's chicharron. The money they earn helps keep body and soul together; a small portion of each day's sales goes to repay the loan that helped make the business possible. Balbina says her business would never have come to life if she had not received help. Like other entrepreneurs around the world, she discovered that an appropriate-sized loan at market rates could make the difference between success and failure in her struggling concern. But in Balbina's case, the total loan amounted to just $80, an amount so small that ordinary lending institutions are simply unwilling to get involved. Instead, Balbina was able to borrow the money through the Women's Opportunity Fund, a growing international effort that promotes economic development by lending small amounts of money to women entrepreneurs in developing nations. Recently, a group of women associated with the Johns Hopkins University Women's Forum decided they wanted to participate in this unique experiment in grassroots-level economic aid. "One of the things that we are trying to address is helping women help each other," says Gayle Mowbray, a senior sponsored projects officer at the School of Medicine and chair of the Women's Forum. "This is an opportunity for us to be a little more global." On Monday, Nov. 27, the forum will sponsor a special program about the Women's Opportunity Fund at 7:30 p.m. in the Garrett Room of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library on the Homewood campus. Susy Cheston, executive director of the fund, will present a slide show and lecture on the organization's work in eight countries, to be followed by a question and answer period and homemade refreshments. Admission to the event is free, and it is open to the public. "The Women's Opportunity Fund started in 1992 as a response to the need to make a real impact on poverty in developing nations," says Cheston in a telephone interview from the fund's Chicago headquarters. "There has been a growing trend in the field of international development to recognize that micro-lending can have a tremendous impact on a person's life. A loan of just $50 can often double a woman's income in many of the most undeveloped economies." The fund seeks to identify and work with "the poorest of the poor" in countries ranging from Columbia to Zimbabwe. A revolving pool of money that is meant to cycle in and out of the community, each locally administered loan fund represents not a single loan, but a line of credit for program participants. When the first loan is paid off, women entrepreneurs are encouraged to apply for a second, larger one. The idea is to gradually capitalize their businesses in small, incremental steps. Borrowers are organized in a group structure for solidarity and support. Even though loans are made to individuals, repayment is looked upon as a group obligation. Often, other members of the group will step in to help a member with repayment if she has suffered some financial setback. The incentive of being able to borrow larger amounts--and thus expand her business--keeps most loan recipients closely tied to their repayment schedule. The Women's Opportunity Fund has a near-zero default rate and a repayment rate that most commercial banks would die for. "In five of our eight projects we have a 100 percent repayment rate," says Cheston proudly. "And in the other three it's right around 95 percent." She credits the group solidarity-- many of the individual trust funds have chosen names like "Aspiring Women" and "Women United for Progress"--for keeping individual members on course. "The women tend to really band together because they know if they don't they'll get stuck." The market-rate interest charged on the loans helps to grow the loan pool and cover the small administrative costs. Enlarging and creating new funds is the responsibility of the international organization headquartered in Chicago. "I think the thing that is most important is that when you give a woman a loan you have established a business relationship," Cheston says. "This is no handout, but an encouragement of self-reliance. Any difference made in this woman's life is made by her. She can choose to spend her extra income on providing an improved diet for her family, or installing a new latrine, or shoes for her children. It's up to her because she's the one who earned it." It is this emphasis on autonomy and local control that appeals to Cheston. She says the Opportunity Fund is unique because it delivers maximum effectiveness with minimal dollars: "There are lots of different interventions on behalf of the poor, but for me, this model is the most powerful because it enables and perpetuates itself." "While the Women's Forum is not at the stage where we're prepared to take this on as a personal project, we do want to support the efforts of a group that helps women support themselves," Mowbray says of the upcoming event. "Our advisory board elected to support the Women's Opportunity Fund by sponsoring this event. We hope men and women from across the university and in the local community will join us to learn more about how they can help."
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