Rising From the Wreckage: How Microfinance Services Help in Times of Trouble

Eduarda Rodriguez watched helplessly as her livelihood went up in an ominous tower of flames. She had been slowly building up her market stall business in this back corner of the Mercado Huembes in Managua, Nicaragua for over a decade. The vegetable stall, though humble, was the lifeline that supported Eduarda and her nine children. And, just like that, the fire reduced it to a bed of smoldering embers.

As we witnessed in Haiti this year, calamity often lurks just around the corner for the 2.7 billion people worldwide living on less than $2 a day. Whether victims of an earthquake in Haiti, a market fire in Nicaragua, a famine in Sub-Saharan Africa or a tsunami in South Asia, those who have the least usually stand to lose the most. In a matter of minutes, homes are swept away, businesses are reduced to rubble and dreams of a better life go up in smoke.

Microfinance is not emergency aid. However, it is well-positioned to be a source of support and stability to people who live in poverty after they endure a disaster. ACCION's 23 partner microfinance institutions are firmly established in some of the world's poorest communities and can quickly mobilize assistance to their combined 3.3 million clients when disaster strikes. And microfinance isn't going away--sustainable by design, it provides a permanent stream of responsible financial tools.

Diversifying Microfinance Services to Meet a Variety of Needs

Increasingly, the microfinance institutions ACCION builds and supports can offer clients financial safety nets to help them deal with disasters in a diversity of ways--including with grants, microcredit, interest-earning savings accounts, insurance policies and remittances services. Following the January earthquake in Haiti, ACCION's longtime partner microfinance organization, SOGESOL, quickly mobilized its staff to search for clients in affected areas. Walking the devastated streets of Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Petit-Goave and Jacmel, SOGESOL staff located each surviving client and helped them assess the damage to their home and business. Leveraging relationships with international partners like ACCION, SOGESOL was then able to issue grants to clients to facilitate the rebuilding process.

Microfinance has a role to play in helping people deal with calamity in other, subtler, ways as well. ACCION and other microfinance providers are pioneering the delivery of savings accounts to people who have never before had access to a safe, secure place to store their earnings.

To help bring savings accounts to millions more people, ACCION has initiated a sweeping new program, supported by a $5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that will extend savings accounts to more than one million people in Latin America within the next five years.

We have also invested heavily in the emerging area of "micro"insurance. Offering health, life, crop and a variety of other types of insurance policies that start as low as $1 per month, microinsurance providers are proving that the poor are worth insuring, that they are capable clients and that the demand is there.

For our part, ACCION has invested millions in ParaLife, a microinsurance holding company that specializes in providing insurance policies to low-income and disabled people, and LeapFrog Investments, the world's first microinsurance fund for companies that insure people living with HIV in Africa.

Over the last six years, ACCION has also studied the impact that remittances, or money transfer services, can have among the world's poor in times of need. Remittances represent a significant amount of resources in poorer countries: In 2006 immigrants in the United States sent more than $300 billion to family members in Central and South America. Sending money via a microfinance institution allows recipients to leverage funds and take advantage of other financial products--such as savings accounts, home improvement loans, and microinsurance--that can serve as safety nets for the poor.

Out of the Ashes, a Better Business Grows

When particularly hard times hit, the world's poor need all the assistance the local and global communities can raise. We at ACCION recognize the unique role that microfinance has to play and are committed to making sure people have a place to turn for responsible and reliable financial services when they need them most.

Thankfully, Eduarda's story did not end with her and her family living in destitution. Financiera FAMA, ACCION's partner microfinance institution in Nicaragua, was quick to step in after the market fire that destroyed her stand. They offered her an emergency microloan that she applied, along with her tenacity and ingenuity, to restore her business to profitability and move forward toward a better future.

Bruce J. MacDonald writes articles about microfinance related topics for the Accion International.

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