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With the abrupt economic downturn I have to wonder what will happen to US foreign aid budgets when the new president assumes office. Barack Obama originally said he will double foreign aid to $50 billion by the fourth year of his administration, if he can get elected. Earlier this month he said he will probably have to re-evaluate this plan, but that he does not intend to cut the foreign aid budget. It seems certain: Whoever becomes the next president may have to devote more treasure to bailing out banks and other unforeseen expenses.
I was thinking about this because today we are announcing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $11.7 million to Oxfam America for our Saving for Change program, which trains people, mostly women, to start their own saving and lending organizations. This helps them start businesses and become more self sufficient, and the results are impressive: More than 155,000 participants since 2005, and more than $2 million in savings. The key here is the savings: this is money poor people themselves save and lend to each other, not money from you or me, or Bill or Melinda Gates. We just pay to train people how to form the groups, keep track of the funds, and save. They take it from there and it costs almost nothing to run these groups. Some participants also help form other groups, again at no cost to the program.
Two years ago I spent a couple of days talking to women in Mali about how Saving for Change has helped them. The thing they kept stressing was their own ability to save and build their savings. No one had ever told them that they were capable of solving their own poverty, but now that they had proven that this is possible their perception of themselves and their world had changed. One young woman named Minata Konaré who sells tea, sugar, and other prepared food to her neighbors told me, “sometimes I give part of my profit to my husband, and he is very glad. I don’t have to ask him for money to buy things; anything I need I can buy myself. Usually the husband has to do everything for the wife, but I can use part of what I earn. This is really good for women.”
There is no question that the United States has to continue to fund important aid programs that fight poverty, so we can achieve the Millennium Development Goals. But don’t think for a minute that money from you or me is the answer for every poor person’s problem—sometimes we need to give them the right education and tools, and then just get out of the way.