You Think the Recession Blows? Well, Sure. But Try Living On One Dollar a Day.

Sure, our economy's grim, but consider this: In Haiti, 80 percent of the population lives under the poverty line and two-thirds lack formal jobs. Altering such circumstances is the mission of the Chiapas Project, a local micro-finance group that raises money for loans to impoverished women in Latin America. While the organization has been successful in reaching families who live on $2 per day, staffers are redoubling efforts to help those who make less than $1 per day.

"Now the goal is to develop ways to reach the poorest of the poor," President Tricia Bridges tells Unfair Park.

One approach is referred to as Microfinance Plus, which means issuing grants to improve the health and education of poor communities so that those living on $1 a day have access to enough food and education to be able to start a self-sustaining small business.

"We realize, 'Well, we gave her a loan to start a business, but how can she take out a loan if she can't write her name? Let's teach literacy,'" Bridges says, explaining that the new trend is to give grants for projects like health education or literacy classes. "If I have the flu, I'm not going to get up and go to work. If these women are sick, they're not going to go make their shawls and make their payments."

Sam Daley-Harris, whose RESULTS Educational Fund helped popularize the practice of giving small business loans to poor people who wouldn't qualify for conventional ones, talked about creative ways to strengthen communities and increase loan repayment rates Thursday night at SMU's Meadows Museum. Speaking about the practices of micro-finance pioneers like Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunas, he told of one lending group in Africa that discovered most business owners struggling to repay their loans had a family member in the hospital.

That spawned a rare collaboration with local mission hospitals that led to a non-traditional group insurance plan of sorts, and the problem was solved. It was this sort of "creative rule-breaking" that allowed Yunus and others like him to put microfinance on the map as a powerful development tool for poor countries, Harris said, and only by continuing to come up with similarly renegade solutions will we be able to take poverty eradication to the next level. "People say, well, why would you give loans to thieves?" he said, "But someone figured out how to do it." Many of the successful business owners in Africa, Asia and Latin America who got started with funding from a microloan began as beggars or criminals, he said, because the terms of the loans that were available to them before made it impossible for them to make a profit. 

Providing people with a way to survive outside of begging and crime is precisely what moved Chiapas Project board member and donor Anne McGee-Cooper to start putting money toward micro-loans on holidays. "Our family started giving loans as gifts  -- that way you don't buy into materialism and all the ways it's undermining our planet's health," she says. "This could be the solution to wars and terrorism." 

Pioneering new ways of fighting poverty and hunger often means working around traditional principles and institutions, Harris said. He pointed out that when asked about his strategy, Nobel-Prize winner Yunus -- a friend and mentor to Harris -- would say that he looked at big banks and did the opposite of whatever they did (if they loaned to the rich, he loaned to the poor, if they loaned to men, he loaned to women, and if they required collateral, he didn't).    

As part of his talk, "Microloans to thieves, and other revolutionary acts that demand championing," Harris complimented the Dallas audience for being part of the fight against poverty.  "I want to acknowledge this group for being a community that holds a positive vision when there are so many negative ones," he said. "What's unique about Dallas compared to other cities is you don't have to reinvent anything -- you can actually join a [local micro-finance] organization."

The Chiapas Project has since 2003 collected more than $4 million for small loans to female business owners in Latin America. As of this time last year, Dallas had more donors than any other city to the local group and the Washington, D.C. based Grameen Foundation. Bridges says donations have held steady despite the recession ("There's a sense that these women living in huts with dirt floors are depending on us, so if people have to cut out a couple of nice dinners, it's worth it," she says), and stresses that she and her organization are always exploring new research and new ways to make each investment dollar go further.

Brian Weinberg, a recent SMU graduate and Chiapas Project volunteer who in addition to organizing last night's event at SMU launched a cell phone recycling program that raises money for microcredit, says he and others can learn plenty from Harris, whose D.C.-based group in January hit its target of reaching 100 million poor families around the world with microloans.

"He and his campaign are setting goals for the entire industry -- kind of like the Millennium Development goals," Weinberg says. "When he talks about putting poverty in museums, he's serious."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman