Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Microfinance has long-lasting, far-reaching economic impact

by Pam Vail, for the Inland Register

(From the April 12, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Pictured are representatives from CRS Peru and the staff of Entre Todos. Third from left is Jack Burga, CRS Peru; second from right, Pam Vail of the Spokane Diocese; far right, Javier Penna Girard, director of Entre Todos. (IR photo courtesy of Lisette Vail)

As parishes around the Spokane Diocese enter into the celebration of the Easter season, parish secretaries, bookkeepers and volunteers may still be counting the pennies, nickels and dimes from the Lenten Operation Rice Bowl (ORB) collection as these small but significant offerings continue to appear in the collection baskets.

ORB gives Catholics a chance to connect with the poor around the world and to give financial support to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief agency. Most of us are aware of the incredible work that CRS does in difficult and tragic circumstances. The refugees from the Darfur genocide, the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and men, women and children suffering from the HIV/ AIDS epidemic throughout Africa, represent some of the poorest and most vulnerable people CRS serves on behalf of the U.S. Catholic community.

But we may not realize that CRS is also working behind the headlines in many less desperately poor regions, empowering local grassroots organizations committed to raising the standard of living and quality of life for families in their own communities. I had the opportunity to connect with a CRS supported project just like this – a microfinance venture called “Entre Todos” (“Among (Us) All”) that assists poor residents in several neighborhoods north of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I came away from my experience with a new perspective on CRS and with an enormous respect for what a small group of dedicated people can do to make a difference in the lives of so many people.

Many Americans first learned about the concept of microfinance when the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank is a community banking effort in Bangladesh that specializes in granting small loans, known as microcredit, to poor people who are not served by traditional financial institutions.

With a modest loan, an individual is able to begin or expand a business, thereby providing needed goods and services in that person’s community. This helps the individual, their family and their community to break out of the cycle of poverty. Since the Grameen Bank began in 1983, similar microfinance programs have spread throughout the developing world. Catholic Relief Services has been active in promoting and supporting microfinance through partnerships with numerous community banking organizations.

Entre Todos is the first microfinance project ever launched in Argentina. A large country with abundant resources and a strong middle class, Argentina has generally not suffered from the same level of poverty as some of its South American neighbors. However an economic collapse and subsequent devaluation of its currency five years ago plunged many lower middle class and poor Argentineans into very desperate circumstances. Grassroots organizations rose up to meet the challenge and Catholic Relief Services, which did not have a presence in Argentina previously, responded by giving support to local initiatives and focusing on programs like Entre Todos that can have long-term impacts in the communities where they are based.

My visit to Entre Todos was facilitated by Jack Burga from CRS Peru, which has oversight of CRS funded programs in Argentina. We met with Entre Todos director Javier Penna Girard and his enthusiastic staff in their offices in San Fernando and I was treated to a most accommodating presentation delivered in English for my benefit. After the presentation we traveled to a nearby neighborhood to see a flea market where Entre Todos clients set up booths to sell used and handmade clothing, small toys, homemade candy and sweets, and other inexpensive items. These micro businesses provide needed income and independence for the clients and a service to the surrounding poor community.

A variety of economic activities are supported by loans through the community banks established by Entre Todos. Most loans are granted to women – all must live below the poverty line to qualify. The initial loan is small by US standards - $100 or less. But as the business grows and the loan is repaid, more money can be borrowed. Over the four-year period Entre Todos has been in existence, the organization has helped nearly 1,400 poor women and their families.

My experience with CRS and Entre Todos taught me that even a relatively small endeavor can make a big difference in people’s lives. A $100 loan provides financial opportunities for the poorest families, strengthens communities, and increases self-esteem in people who have traditionally been unable to access the rewards and benefits of modern economies. The loose change we drop in an Operation Rice Bowl box every year during Lent can multiply and transform the lives of so many members of our human family.

You can learn more about Entre Todos from its website For information about Catholic Relief Services and its many programs, including projects in Argentina, visit .

(Vail is the Catholic Relief Services consultant for the Diocese of Spokane.)

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