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Micro-Finance Loans Help in Fight Against AIDS - 2003-08-20

According to many of those involved in the battle, winning the fight against HIV/AIDS will take more than affordable anti-retroviral drugs and condoms. Helping people hang onto their businesses and livelihoods is vital as well. Activists who are helping people do that gather for an international Micro-finance Training Program in Boulder, Colorado.

At a small university in Boulder, 200 experts in business and finance gather around picnic tables to compare notes and swap stories about one of the most under-rated weapons in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They come from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central America and elsewhere, and many have a service-oriented mission.

What brought them together is a three-week micro-finance training program, being hosted by Naropa University. The small school is based on Buddhist values, including community service, so its mission statement fits well with the focus of the conference. Micro-finance is a way to provide small loans, along with business education, to people in developing nations, without having them go through the traditional lending procedures required by banks and government agencies. It's a form of assistance that's becoming increasingly popular among non-governmental organizations.

"There are probably 20,000 NGOs around the world doing micro-finance these days," says Bob Christen, who directs the Micro-finance Training Program at Naropa. He says there are several reasons this approach has grown. Micro-finance loans are generally paid back on schedule. But even more important than that is the relationship between borrower and lender. To secure credit from a typical bank, a business owner must submit an application and provide financial statements and credit checks in order to prove that he or she qualifies for a loan.

In contrast, Mr. Christen says, micro-finance lenders market themselves to potential entrepreneurs. You talk with someone in the corner store, the school, the religious leader, and you let them know what you're up to, and then you literally walk house to house and let them know, and then you invite them to a meeting of a group," he says.

At that meeting, micro-finance representatives explain their program and try to generate further interest. Sometimes, a micro-finance loan is $20 so a family can buy a dozen chickens and sell their eggs. Other times, it's a loan for a child's emergency trip to the doctor, so that the family doesn't have to sell half the chickens to pay for it. "The finance allows them to smooth out the problems they have along the way," he says.

Bob Christen says micro-finance is even smoothing things over from a disaster that's killing farmers, laborers and businesspeople throughout the developing world: the HIV/AIDS pandemic. "HIV devastates the working core of an economy. It's sort of like war," he says. "It takes the best and brightest out of a local economy."

Micro-finance loans can help HIV positive parents plan ahead so that their children can take over a family business after they themselves have died of an AIDS related illness. This monetary support, and emotional support from others who attend micro-finance meetings, create an atmosphere where people can fight harder against the epidemic, according to a finance expert from Ivory Coast.

"In the HIV program, you have a lot of education, but when you are surviving, education in itself does not really match with your survival problem. But if with education, you also have money, then education take on its meanings," says Mariam Dao. She works in an Ivory Coast credit institution that gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to micro-finance organizations, especially those offering money to women, whose traditional role is looking after family health.

She says that the training meetings teach women how to manage a business and also give them a chance to talk about preventing as the spread of HIV/AIDS. "Micro-finance is a great tool to approach the people, and what is also important is that by lending credit, empower woman, and the more empowered you are, the more you can say no," she says.

That can mean saying no to unsafe sex, even unprotected sex within a marriage, in areas where HIV rates are high and testing for the virus is low. A micro-finance expert from Zimbabwe, Constance Sekete, agrees that micro-finance programs which give women more financial independence can also help them speak up about HIV. "Do you have the power, as a woman, just to suggest, let's use protective measures. It brings a woman up to a level where she can be listened to," she says.

These micro-finance experts say their approach often takes more educational outreach and "people time" than traditional credit institutions offer. But in human terms, the payback is worth it.