In my humble opinion, poverty is the most pressing problem facing the world today. It either magnifies the devastation of other global issues like HIV or is the direct cause of epidemics like vitamin A deficiency in infants. The 1.2 billion people living on less than $1/day confront a fight for survival on a daily basis. Their plight has been well documented. Equally, people are recognizing the poor’s inalienable ability to be their own change agent with the rise of microfinance. This was never more apparent than with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, which acknowledged the direct link between peace and prosperity.
Recently, I traveled to New York City to visit newly inaugurated Grameen America, which is bringing this method of microlending to the United States. The women here were not starving or struggling to clothe their children but they shared the same excitement for a new future that I have seen before on the faces of poor women from Guatemala to Bangladesh. This sort of relative poverty is less publicized and far easier for people to dismiss but is the root cause of many other problems facing our society.
The women that I visited in New York reminded me of the borrowers funded by Whole Planet Foundation in the Grameen Costa Rica program. For the most part, they are literate, have crossed the extreme poverty threshold and have a hope for a better future for their families. Although these women may not need to fight the risk of malaria or starvation, they are confronted with higher rates of crime and drugs, impacting their ability to raise their children in a safe environment. In Limón Costa Rica, where Grameen operates, there is a pervasive problem with crime and drug trafficking that crosses this region en route from Colombia to the United States and elsewhere. This creates instability and uncertainty in these communities, which threatens to widen the disparity gap, both educational and economic, for these relative poor.
Even in the face of skyrocketing gas prices, a global food crisis and a tenuous world economy, it is these microentrepreneurs that give me comfort. After visiting borrowers, I am always inspired by the power of individuals, even during the most difficult of times, to prevail. Whether the extreme or relative poor, the story is the same; there are too few opportunities for women who live in a financial system that has forgotten them. For communities like Jackson Heights, New York and Limón, Costa Rica, microfinance is a tool for women, and in some instances men, to capitalize on their skills so that they themselves have the financial wherewithal to overcome any obstacle, which in turn creates healthier, safer communities.