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ISSUE 121 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/16/2007

Week promotes microfinance to alleviate poverty

By Annie Ashby
Contributing Writer
and Sara Thatcher
Copy Editor

Friday, November 16, 2007

From Sunday, Nov. 4 through Saturday, Nov. 10, the International Development Education and Action group hosted theWeek, a seven-day event promoting the economic humanitarian project of microfinancing. IDEA's events included a panel, two speakers, a simulation, a benefit concert and a silent auction.

Microfinancing is a form of international development aid that offers loans to encourage small businesses at a grassroots level. For this program, banks give small loans, usually around $50, to citizens of developing countries who want to improve their businesses. When the loans are paid back, they are recycled and given to other members of the community.

Vera Belazelkoska '09 and Nate Black '09, co-presidents of IDEA, both became interested in microfinancing after reading about Mohammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, a major participant in the microfinancing movement. Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his pioneering work in microfinancing.

"Microfinancing seems so different because it allows people to lift themselves out of poverty with dignity," Belazelkoska said. "It's a human right; everyone should have access to capital. When given that right to capital, they can do anything."

Black was also inspired by microfinancing's ability to change lives. "It's already touched 100 million people," he said.

Events such as massages, letter writing, a slideshow and a simulation demonstrating the power of micro-loans in Third World countries were highlight events of theWeek.

Belazelkoska and Black wanted to raise awareness about microfinancing on the St. Olaf campus to alleviate the pessimism and hopelessness they sense that St. Olaf students often feel after learning about development issues in developing countries. They believe students also are discouraged about the lack of bureaucratic opportunities to lessen the crises.

"There are alternative ways [to solve problems in developing countries]," Belazelkoska said. "Small amounts of money can make a difference."

Through theWeek, Belazelkoska and Black hoped to show St. Olaf students that even a small donation can make a difference. "Even though we're in college, we can do a lot to affect the world in a positive way," Black said, in reference to their efforts to generate student interest.

Another facet of theWeek was the Gumball Challenge, a national competition organized by five Stanford University students in which colleges compete to raise money for microfinancing. St. Olaf is the only liberal arts college in the challenge and is competing against Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, Yale University and Sewanee University.

The money IDEA raised throughout theWeek will go to the Gumball Challenge which will then donate it to microfinancing banks in third world countries through Kiva.org.

TheWeek began with a panel discussion and film Monday, where, according to IDEA's public relations director Colin Halverson '09, "it was blatant that nobody knew anything about [microfinancing]." However, as theWeek continued, the knowledge of microfinancing spread throughout St. Olaf.

Chingwell Mutombu, founder of a microfinancing organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke to students and faculty about the impact of microfinancing in such an impoverished country. Mutombu emphasized how a sum of money seemingly insignificant to Americans can change someone's life in the DRC.

"Fifty dollars can help someone start over, feed and clothe their children, send them to school and provide them with shelter," Mutombu said. "A small amount really can make a difference."

Mutombu also addressed the cultural change microfinancing has brought about in the DRC. "There's been a shift in power - women now have a voice," Mutombu said. "Men are usually the breadwinners, but 97 percent of our clients [of microfinancing] are women."

IDEA also brought in Helen Yuen, vice president of annual giving at the Grameen Foundation, an agency that invests in microfinancing organizations to ensure their success.

Addressing the pitfalls of micro-lending, Yuen reminded the audience that only 1 percent of microfinancing institutions are self-sustaining. "A barrier to bigger impact by microfinancing is that banks and microfinancing institutions aren't communicating," Yuen said. "There's a lot of wariness and mistrust."

Friday night featured a benefit concert of St. Olaf student bands. Although the lyrics of the music were not directly about microfinancing, organizers said that "people were dedicating songs to microfinancing."

TheWeek came to a close with a silent auction Saturday. In addition, IDEA sold T-shirts and bracelets, put donation jars in Goodbye Blue Mondays and the James Gang Hideaway and solicited contributions from churches. In all, IDEA raised $2,400.

St. Olaf students came away from theWeek with a greater appreciation for microfinancing. "I can buy an iPod for $200 or feed a bunch of malnourished kids. I realized that my consumer choices make that much difference, and I felt guilty for the impact I wasn't making," Jonathan Eugster '09 said.

IDEA was not formed just for theWeek. Rather, Belazelkoska and Black hope to sponsor a week-long event either once a semester or once a year. "We would choose an issue that's important to developing countries, like malaria, and focus on it in a concentrated week," Black said.

Belazelkoska also hopes to organize something similar to the World Issues Dialogue. "People would sit down and talk about developing word conflicts," she said. "I also want to try to organize students to go to conferences."

Even though theWeek is over, people can still donate money on theWeeks' website, www.theweek2007.org, through the end of November.





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