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Microcredit loans making major difference worldwide
BYU nurturing the ‘peer group lending’ program

SHARE Microcredit loans making major difference worldwide
BYU nurturing the ‘peer group lending’ program

A single mother of three peddles fresh-fruit popsicles at Little League games. Down the street, a craftsman carefully creates oversize caskets in his garage, while across town, a new caterer prepares ethnic delicacies for a local restaurant.

While it may sound like "business as usual" in any large urban center, it's a refreshingly traditional application of the golden rule -- one that flies in the face of its late 20th century mutation, "He who has the gold MAKES the rules."Recently poor and looking for a way out of a Miami ghetto, these three newly independent business people personify a concept that's catching fire around the world -- and nowhere faster than at Brigham Young University. They're recipients of microcredit -- small, uncollateralized loans of anywhere from $500 to $10,000 that allowed them to buy equipment and materials for their new enterprises, rather than waiting for another government welfare check.

The concept, pioneered in the poorest parts of Bangladesh, brings wannabe small business people together regularly in small groups to work for a common goal -- repayment of the loan after a credit history has been established and the business successfully started.

"Peer group lending," as it has been called, is based on "the golden rule in working capital: if anyone is late or defaults on a loan, none of the other members can go to a higher loan size until everyone is current. It's the peer pressure that makes this work," according to Kathleen Gordon. She's president of a domestic micro-lending program called Working Capital Florida, which provides small loans, business training and support for low-income people who want to be self-employed.

The largest working microcredit program in the United States, Working Capital operates in seven states and has a branch in Russia. "We have a 96 percent repayment rate on our loans," Gordon says with a smile.

It's a smile shared with hundreds of others who are watching the microcredit concept change lives in a dramatic way that has wide appeal for those who want to help solve world poverty but don't know where to start.

Enter BYU and a team of professors who are cultivating the concept in a big way. Next weekend, they're hosting the school's second MicroEnterprise Conference, with the theme "Investing in the Poor." Educators, investors and non-governmental organizations involved with the concept will gather. They hope to educate the general public about the movement and how they can help others help themselves. (See related article.)

"Many people are beginning to realize they can help alleviate suffering in the world without leaving home," says Donald Adolphson, chairman of the conference planning committee.

Gordon says there are few organizations better positioned than BYU to promote the concept and expand its influence worldwide. "Obviously there's a faith-based organization that happens to have a student body that speaks languages and has been out into the world.

"There's a sensitivity in the institution by professors, leadership and also students who want to do projects that will improve the quality of life for people around the world, above and beyond spreading the gospel. Separate from that, there's a real feeling for wanting to do something for the plight of the people they see and a genuine caring for others," she said.

The microcredit concept "is really starting to expand and take off -- in the U.S. but also around the world," Gordon said. She sees the growth firsthand.

She started a program in Miami after Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. She's now a resource person for BYU who spoke with students at the Marriott School of Management last fall, some of whom have formed a new organization, Students for Socially Responsible Businesses.

She wants to see the kind of success exemplified in Miami happening both locally and worldwide using the power of computers, e-mail and the Internet to expand opportunities for home-based businesses. "You can live in a small town and still have a big vision."

Or live in a big town with a big vision.

The woman who used a microcredit loan to buy the popsicle-making machine is one of her favorite stories. "She puts them in a cooler and goes to sell them at Little League games around the city. She's making anywhere from $100 to $200 a day."

Enough gold now to make her own rules.