I recently watched a TV segment featuring the two founders of a partnership called the One Woman Initiative, which, as they describe it, promotes entrepreneurship and job opportunities for women in developing countries.
Among other things, they described one of their projects in Uganda, a trust fund for women farmers, and noted that a $150 microloan can change the life of a woman, her family and her community.
From my experience during the past six years among Maasai girls in Kenya, I have seen that this type of infusion of cash directly to individual women can certainly be one successful strategy to empower them. But it often is temporary and unsustainable without another important component — education opportunities that provide girls and young women with job skills for permanent employment in their local economies and the ability to provide for themselves, their families and their communities in an ongoing way. The International Center for Research on Women has presented research that, contrary to what many programs in developing countries will tell you, a high school education simply is not sufficient to accomplish real, lasting and measurable empowerment for girls and women.
Research by Joy Kiiru, an economist at the University of Nairobi, and other studies of the microloan industry in developing countries have found that these loans often do not reach the populations that truly need them. Rather, they are accessible only to people who have some collateral or ability to meet their basic needs and, while certainly struggling, do not exist on the edge of survival. And even if those in severe poverty can access such loans, they end up needing to use the cash to meet basic survival needs — food, water, fuel, emergency medical care, school fees, etc. — not as capital to start a small business
So, in using the loans to meet basic survival needs and not to generate more capital to repay their loans, they are left in even more dire financial straits. In Kenya, the average interest rate on a microloan intended to help women practice the entrepreneurship that programs like One Woman Initiative would promote is about 20 percent. That is far outside the reach of the very people who need the loans the most.
A potentially more effective answer, and investment, lies in education — a college, university or vocational education that will provide a young woman with job skills for permanent and sustainable employment, an economic livelihood and independence, and the ongoing ability to provide for herself and her family. With job skills as a teacher, nurse, accountant or computer specialist, a young woman can enter the permanent job force in her own country. A post- secondary education directly empowers a woman and propels the economic chain of events that can bring her and her family out of poverty permanently. It is more sustainable and operates more long-term than a microloan that, in too many cases, cannot be repaid and simply exacerbates a woman’s — and her family’s — poverty.
Aid is most effective when the emphasis is placed on how things actually are going on the ground, not just on fundraising numbers. The channels that donated resources travel through to finally reach a far-too-limited number of individuals in specific and meaningful ways must change. And this is not just a matter of administrative efficiency. It is a matter of doing the difficult work, both in terms of time and resources, of identifying the populations most in need. It is a matter of structuring resources to actually benefit individuals, families and communities in specific, sustainable ways. It is a matter of getting the resources to people who most need them, not just those who already have the best access to them, as Kiiru’s research is showing.
Far too often, populations and individuals get aid not because they are the most in need, but because they have connections through family, organizations or politicians. Items such as mosquito nets and solar-charging flashlights originally distributed by aid organizations to “the needy” end up for sale in markets in Kenya. Meanwhile, the people who actually most need free mosquito nets or solar flashlights (or anti-retroviral drugs, shoes, education, a bore hole for clean water, electricity, agricultural assistance, etc.) can’t even access them because aid organizations aren’t aware of them, can’t reach them or use local distribution systems without proper oversight. And it may seem very trivial, but poor roads may be the most potent inhibitor to aid reaching those most in need. When roads into a community are so poor that only a motorbike or Land Cruiser can reach it, that population will be bypassed because of the difficulty, time or expense of reaching them. This is unjust.
Thanks to the financial assistance of three Steamboat Springs women, Susan Karbolo started an accounting program upon completion of high school in 2009. Although she has suffered personal and academic setbacks along the way, she is moving through the program with just three semesters to go to complete the Kenyan equivalent of a CPA. Recently, she moved from her college in Nairobi to the town of Kilifi to work as an assistant to the accountant for a large cattle slaughter that provides meat to the Kenyan military. She takes her accounting classes during evenings and weekends. When Susan started her college program in 2009, our financial commitment to her was more than $2,000 per year to pay her school fees, dormitory room and board, toiletries, transportation and personal needs. Now, she makes approximately $150 per month at her job, enabling her to pay for her own rent for a small room in Kilifi, food and all of her other personal needs. We now help her only with her school fees of approximately $500 per year, and that expense will end in one more year when she completes college. When she finishes college, she will earn higher wages, meet all of her personal needs and be able to help her mother. This is sustainable, permanent economic aid through education.
Susan’s home area in Maasailand is barely accessible by motorbike and completely inaccessible during rainy seasons. Because of this isolation, her community lacks every conceivable amenity, and the produce from her family’s farm has to be sold at cut-rate prices to middle men rather than at the standard prices offered at government holding centers
Large-scale aid simply does not reach this area. But because Susan was able to go to college and earn a real salary, she and her family — and by extension her community — will begin to see that direct, one-girl-at-a-time educational assistance can pay off where other forms of aid are not able to reach.
Mary Walker, a 25-year resident of Clark, works as a volunteer at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre, which rescues Maasai girls from female genital mutilation and child marriage in Kenya. She now provides college and university assistance to several Maasai girls. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.