Friendship Bridge offers ‘micro’ loans to Third World women
EDWARDS – It’s the kind of philanthropic enterprise that can warm the hearts of liberals and conservatives alike: Offer small loans to women in Third World countries to help lift them out of poverty. Then, have them pay the money back.That’s the model used by Friendship Bridge, an Evergreen-based nonprofit that uses the concept of “microcredit” to empower women in impoverished areas of the world. With loans as small as $100 to $200, women can start a business as simple as buying a few chickens and selling the eggs – or weaving rugs to sell to tourists. Pam Kennedy of Singletree got interested in Friendship Bridge when a friend told her about it last fall. In January, she took an “insight” trip to Guatemala to meet women being assisted by the organization.”It really brings tears to your eyes,” Kennedy said. “It’s very moving.”Kennedy, who owns Sintra Tile & Design in Edwards, said she saw the Guatemalan women full of pride and holding their heads up as they described what they’d accomplished with their loans.
Circle of womenWhat Kennedy hopes to do is raise about $5,000 in the Vail Valley. At that point, the local “circle” of women will be matched with a village in Guatemala, and a loan officer there will make contact with potential borrowers. From that pool of money, the microcredit loans will be made with an interest rate around 15 percent.When the loans are repaid, the interest helps fund the organization while the principal is made available to other borrowers. The repayment rate, Kennedy said, is around 99 percent.”It used to be no one believed poor people were good credit risks,” Kennedy said. “But if you give them the chance, they’re the best client ever.”
Part of the high repayment percentage is due, Kennedy said, to the way Friendship Bridge structures its relationships. The women who borrow the money must attend educational meetings and become part of a “circle” of other women in their village. If one of them defaults on the loan, her circle is prohibited from borrowing again. “It’s social collateral,” Kennedy said. “They help each other out so they’re all successful. If one woman has a child who’s sick, the other women in the circle will get her goods to market.”The other advantage to the circles is that they reduce competitiveness. Kennedy said the women accomplish more working together than in competition with one another. Yet another plus comes from the simple fact that the impoverished women may not have known their neighbors much until they were compelled to work with them. “They love getting to know their neighbors,” Kennedy said. “They get together and support each other.”
Mayan machismoThe women in Guatemala Kennedy hopes to help with a circle of Vail Valley women are Mayans. Photos from their homes and village show a people living in the depths of poverty and, Kennedy said, with the money they earn they do things as basic as put a floor in their house or tin on the roof. Mostly illiterate and uneducated, there’s a certain amount of education that has to take place initially just to acquaint them with the concept of a loan, interest and repayment.And then there are the men. There are some, Kennedy said, who resist the idea of the women working.”There’s an element of machismo in the culture,” she said. “But most of them come around to it after they see what a help the women have been. The men I met were very supportive.”
Kennedy said she hopes the secular, loan-based Friendship Bridge will appeal to local women who want to help others get on their feet. Comparing it to the old parable of “teaching a man to fish,” Kennedy said the Friendship Bridge model is not about hand-outs but, rather, empowering women to improve their lives.”It appealed to me not only because it’s a Colorado-based organization, but because it’s not so huge like some others,” she said. “It feels like the kind of place where a regular person can really make a difference.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado