Banking On It

In light of the current status of banks and banking in the U.S. (wretched), I suppose the last institution with which I’d like to be affiliated is a bank.  Central banks and those deemed “too big to fail” contributed mightily to the near-collapse of the U.S. economy several years ago, and their persistent breaches of integrity place them firmly at the lowest end of the scale of trustworthiness.  It’s a bad place for banks to be, when they represent an institution that really should thrive on their customers’ trust.  (Just this week I was prompted to contact one well-known national bank to inquire about when they might be predisposed to distribute a small remainder of my parents’ estate, the bulk of which was settled months ago.  Oh yeah, they replied, we probably can release those funds now.  Hm.  Who knows how long they might have elected to hold onto the funds if I had not inquired.)

Last week, however, I had an entirely different experience with a banking operation in Nicaragua.  I visited again with The Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development (ANIDES) and its visionary leader, Gloria Elena Ordoñez Vargas.  This is an individual and an organization that understands what banking is supposed to be like, and it puts to shame most of the other organizations I know that go by the name “bank.”

Winds of Peace has funded ANIDES previously, in an effort to assist the organization with the establishment of five communal banks.  These are small, local banking offices to promote the economic and organizational autonomy of more than 200 women who live in extreme poverty in very rural locations.  Indeed, the offices more often than not are simply the homes of the local leaders.  But what these banks have been able to do, what they have represented for the women members is nothing short of remarkable.

With a very modest funding by Winds of Peace, in a little more than a year ANIDES has been able to establish a revolving credit fund for the 220+ members, establish two business groups to coordinate independent “home” businesses, provide training in the creation of a savings culture, nurture a positive capital growth in each of the small banks established, offer education and assistance to women victims of domestic violence, enhance the access to basic food needs and boost the local economies of the communities served.  This is banking in its most holistic form, integrating elements that are social, organizational, cultural, economic, human, spiritual and environmental in scope.  When was the last time your bank inquired about your social, human or spiritual needs?

What is even more remarkable about this initiative’s success is that it is being achieved with women members who have almost no previous economic experience or training.  Meeting with the women for the first time last September, I was struck by their shyness and humility, but also with their tenacity (many came from miles away on foot) and their outright success: only one of the small community banks was showing deficits by its neophyte members.  Members themselves were providing the tracking, the follow-up and the solidarity with one another to make sure that their borrowing was matched by their repayments.  In other words, the bank existed to facilitate both the needs and the strengths of its members, not to impose onerous conditions that would encourage failure.  What a novel concept for banking.  What an amazing impact on the lives of some very poor people.

The intended extension of this banking project is that the women, who now have softened some of their previous fears about borrowing money, might be encouraged to invest in the improvement of their rudimentary homes and living conditions, including the installation of ecological toilets (some of the best composting toilet are being introduced into the market, recent upgrades in the technology make it easier to consider the option). This amenity- sounding so essential to so many of us- has been considered an absolute luxury by many rural residents.  With the presence of the communal banks to accompany them, such an amenity now seems within reach, and along with it rises the self-esteem of the women who can provide it.  The existence of a small bank can allow these women to take control of their lives in ways they previously could not.

What can a bank do?  Merely channel the empowerment of its members, provide access to credit and tools for investment, facilitate education to recognize and respond to gender oppression, encourage healthy habitat conditions, grow self-esteem, foster economic autonomy and teach people how to take more control of their own lives.  In a world where the future for many banking institutions seems to include implosion, we could learn a great many lessons from these communal banks in Nicaragua.  It might even beg the question, “Who really is the more developed….?”

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