New evangelism: mini loans

Kigali, Rwanda - In a working-class neighborhood on the edge of Rwanda's capital, Anathasie Mukamana has built a small charcoal empire. A rattling bicycle taxi shuttles her along the Kabeza district's dusty main road between her two vending sites. On her rounds, she hurries an occasional smile to her customers, but more often wears the squinting eyes of a serious businesswoman.

Ms. Mukamana employs three people and brings in nearly $3,000 a year - that's in a country where 60 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day. For her success, she thanks the congregation at her local Assembly of God - and not just for their prayers, but for a small loan.

These days, Christian and other religious organizations, both here and around the world, are lending more than just a hand. Microloans - of as little as $100 - have become as much a part of their ministries as preaching the gospel. While microlending for budding entrepreneurs has long been recognized among development experts as one of the best ways to fight global poverty - in fact, the United Nations has dubbed 2005 "The International Year of Microcredit" - religious organizations are increasingly adopting the Talmudic sentiment that the noblest form of charity is helping others to dispense with it.

The fund that provided Mukamana her seed capital started "because we could not keep up with the needs of our poorer members" with just handouts, says cofounder Josephine Mukamuganga. Since 2001, the program has provided loans for around 100 women.

Here in Rwanda, nearly 1 in 5 of small-business borrowers receives loans from religiously oriented lending programs. The 1994 genocide, which took the lives of up to 800,000 Rwandans, kept many international lenders from working in Rwanda. Even after the genocide, political uncertainty and violence in neighboring Congo and Burundi have continually threatened the sustainability of business ventures.

Into this void has stepped the Christian micro-enterprise development (CMED) industry. World Relief, for example, a Christian organization based in the US, specializes in small-business lending in post-conflict regions. World Relief has helped start microfinance programs in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Cambodia, among other places. Its Rwandan affiliate opened in 1996 and has grown into the largest microfinance institution in the country.

World Relief's affiliate here has more than 18,000 active clients and branches in 10 of Rwanda's 12 provinces. Borrowing groups of around 30 members, who are generally too poor to put up collateral, guarantee one another's loans. With the group's approval, individual members can take out loans for entrepreneurial ventures or other large financial needs like school fees and home improvements.

The loans are not charity. The lender charges 2.5 percent per month, or the equivalent of 30 percent annually. Though the rate is higher than most commercial banks charge, it is far lower than the terms offered by community loan sharks. High interest rates are also needed to cover the high costs of processing loans to the poor.

CMED groups often cite several biblical citations as providing the impetus for what they do. "If one of your kinsmen in any community is in need ... you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need," reads the book of Deuteronomy in the New American Bible. CMED organizations are encouraged to use the "parable of the sower," in which Jesus praises wise planting practices to show the importance of utilizing God's resources well.

For those involved in CMED, some of those resources are spiritual. For example, World Relief's loan officers start their meetings with prayers. Ken Graber, who consults worldwide for World Relief's microfinance affiliates, says that "in the absence of biblical values, the previously exploited will turn and exploit others as they move ahead economically."

World Relief's services are, however, open to non-Christians. And Christian organizations are not the only religiously oriented institutions to offer microfinance services. Jewish Vocational Service provides financial advice and some loans to low-income residents of several US cities. And in East Africa and Central Asia, the Aga Khan Foundation, a Muslim group, provides microlending services.

The spiritual component, however, may be the most controversial element of CMED. At AMIZERO, the Rwandan microfinance affiliate of another international Christian relief organization called World Vision, tension once built up between staff members who identify as "born again" and staff from other Christian churches, according to acting director Rita Ngarambe. Ms. Ngarambe, who identifies herself as "born again," says that "some [staff members] don't believe in 'born again' so we don't talk much about 'born again.' "

Still, AMIZERO's relationships with its clients are far from secular. Sitting behind neat stacks of paper on her desk, Ngarambe says: "A client will sometimes come to me and say, 'Rita, I'm very sick. Can you pray for me?' They think we are their pastors."

AMIZERO's religious mission has led it to provide microfinance to underserved groups such as people infected with HIV/AIDS, orphans, and genocide widows. AMIZERO, World Relief, Care International, and the Rwandan Microfinance Forum recently won a $1 million contract from the US Agency for International Development to reach out to poor women in the underserved Rwandan provinces of Kigali Ngali and Byumba.

Catholic Relief Services, a nonprofit based in the US, also supports microfinance projects in Rwanda. Other CMED players around the world include Freedom From Hunger, Hope International, and Opportunity International, an organization that alone made $280 million in loans to more than 1 million poor clients in 2004.

Today around 1,200 CMED organizations operate among two-thirds of the world's population, according to the Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Britain. That's up from 505 in 2001, according to the Christian Transformation Resource Center in the Philippines. By 2025, the number of Christian development organizations, most of which offer microloans, is expected to grow by 75 percent, according to the Filipino group.

"Even though there has been tremendous growth in the [Christian microfinance] sector in the past 20 years, we are so far away from meeting the demand that exists, so there is need for more and more organizations," says Peter Greer, executive director of Hope International.