UNVs help Pacific Islanders save and sell
07 December 1999
Bonn, Germany: Making a decent living is becoming an increasingly difficult task in regions around the globe, and the Pacific is no exception. United Nations Volunteers are making this challenge easier for more than 1,500 islanders, however, by providing training on how to plan and manage a business and save money in the best possible way.
Microfinance, which has proven to be successful in Asian, Latin American, and African countries, remains fairly new in the Pacific. Microfinance, however, is slowly gaining ground in the region. Where microfinance has helped millions of poor people around the world, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through its Pacific Sustainable Microfinance and Livelihoods through Empowerment Programme (SMILE), hopes to empower thousands of poor and disadvantaged people.
Consider Anita Bebe, who lives with her seven children in the settlement of Simbolo in the outskirts of Port Vila, Vanuatu. Making ends meet was a daily struggle. She worked as a domestic helper while her husband had to find work on another island. Her children were not able to attend school regularly. But with loans from the Vanuatu Women Development Scheme (VANWODS) and useful tips from UNV specialists, she opened a profitable trading store. With the proceeds, she was able to make improvements to her home and build a small shop. Her husband has returned to Port Vila and is now helping her with the business, her children attend school regularly and she is saving to send her eldest to the University of the South Pacific. For the first time she enjoys financial independence, is a well-respected member of her community and a recognized microfinance leader. She says she feels "very blessed and happy".
This is the kind of success story SMILE aims to replicate around the South Pacific. The SMILE Programme has a regional team of microfinance and livelihood development specialists providing technical assistance to Pacific Island countries through a network of national microfinance and sustainable livelihood projects. These projects are implemented in close partnership with local microfinance organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups and private enterprises. The primary goal is to build local capacity in providing financially-viable microfinance services targeting large numbers of people.
Manuel Palis and Ofelia Eugenio are based in Fiji with the UNDP/UNOPS SMILE programme, while Marjorie Marasignan and Willie Garcia are based in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands respectively. Mr. Palis' and Ms. Eugenio's work involves providing advice, training and technical support to microfinance schemes around the region, while Ms. Marasignan and Mr. Garcia concentrate on specific projects. All four UNVs - working under the supervision of SMILE Regional Programme Coordinator/Chief Technical Adviser Jeff Liew - are from the Philippines, where microfinance is well established and successful due to a strong network of NGOs and a large population. "In the Philippines, microfinance is an old man whilst in the Pacific it is in its infancy," notes Ms. Eugenio.
As a team, the four UNVs have more than 30 years' experience in developing and managing microfinance schemes. They are committed to spreading that knowledge. "I feel the highest fulfilment and satisfaction in my work as microfinance specialist is when I see the lives that I touch through microfinance have been transformed from economic uncertainties," says Mr. Palis.
According to Ms. Eugenio, "microfinance is about improving the lives of poor people." Clients of the Pacific SMILE Programme microfinance projects say they have benefited in various ways, such as receiving a regular source of income and employment from their microenterprises. They have built up entrepreneurial skills during business training courses and through advice from UNVs. As a result of the training and credit schemes, clients have developed good savings habits that have yielded financial benefits for their families.
An important aspect of the SMILE programme is to create a supportive environment for microfinance to flourish. Currently there are many laws and regulations that create barriers to the entrepreneurial spirit.
"It is disheartening for a budding businesswoman, having come up with a unique business plan, secured a small loan, only to be thwarted by the fact she has to obtain a business license which costs more than the total amount of her micro-loan," notes outgoing UNV Programme Officer Catherine Beattie. She says governments in the region are being encouraged to review their laws and regulations that currently may be inhibiting factors to flourishing income-generating ideas. To date, four countries have been thoroughly reviewed. In the Pacific it is important to provide a support service to make the scheme work. This includes not only the initial loan, but also business training and advice.
National initiatives with UNV support throughout the region include:
Fiji: The Enterprise-based Savings and Loans Scheme has provided savings and credit services to 491 factory workers at their place of employment. The Community-based Savings and Loans Scheme offers members in low-income housing communities to save for educational, medical and other family needs. The Social and Economic Equity for the Disadvantaged Foundation (SEED) is the first local NGO specializing in the provision of microfinance and microenterprise development services for the disadvantaged. The Anandpur Microcredit Project is a joint project of the Rotary Club of Ba, the National Planning Office and the UNDP that is providing loans and advice in the squatter settlement of Anandpur and nearby Bandrau, home to low-income Indo-Fijian and Fijian families. AMP has disbursed loans to 29 women.
Samoa:The Microenterprise Financing and Savings Mobilization Project is implemented in partnership with the Women in Business Foundation (WIBF), a local NGO promoting entrepreneurial development of disadvantaged women in Samoa. The project is targeted at women in predominantly rural Savaii where most women do not have access to cash income and have very little or no experience in handling money or running a business. Women are first given small loans for meeting family needs. Later, they can apply for an income-generating loan.
Solomon Islands: The Solomon Islands Microcredit Scheme for Disadvantaged Women (SIMIWODS) aims to forge partnerships with local NGOs in delivering microfinance services to the urban poor women in the capital, Honiara. Under the SIMIWODS scheme, women clients group themselves into four to receive a loan to finance microenterprises of individual members. The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) was selected to first participate in the project. As of date, SIMIWODS has helped 30 women.
Vanuatu: The Vanuatu Women Development Scheme (VANWODS) is a project of the Government of Vanuatu's Department of Women Affairs and UNDP to provide poor women with affordable micro-loans to start income-earning activities and to be able to save regularly. VANWODS has benefited a total of 419 members, all of whom are women from low-income settlements around the capital of Port Vila. Loan repayment has been consistent at 100 per cent.
Compiled by Richard Nyberg from contributions from UNV specialists Ofelia Eugenio, Marjorie Marasignan and Willie Garcia and outgoing UNV Programme Officer, Catherine Beattie.
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