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Women’s World Banking  —  a value system of self-determination —  Interview with Michaela Walsh
by Connie Hargrave

An interview with Michaela Walsh, founder and past president of Women's World Banking, a world-wide network which encourages women's economic self-sufficiency by helping them start businesses.  

Share International: What is Women’s World Banking?

MW: WWB offers women around the world the full range of knowledge and services they need to succeed in business: management skills, loans and guarantees, and monitoring of progress. WWB has facilitated the start-up and expansion of thousands of women-owned businesses and co-operatives. Most importantly, however, it is a group of women with a variety of skills and professional talents working to build self-esteem and self-confidence in others.

SI: You are one of the founders. How did WWB start?

MW:When women met in Mexico City as part of the 1975 United Nations Decade for Women, we identified a universal problem: women had no access to credit in any country in the world. Those attending closely examined the economic facts of women’s lives: women perform over 65 per cent of the world’s work, earn only 10 per cent of the income, and own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property. It was concluded that women generally lacked the means to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

When a small group of delegates met to address this issue, the first idea to emerge was to start a development bank for women. I suggested that because we lacked both the resources and talent to create an institution, we should instead work to give women access to the financial systems which now exist in their own communities. It was subsequently decided to develop a network to empower women who possess entrepreneurial qualities to gain the confidence, skills and capital needed to start businesses.

SI: Is WWB a system of financing?

MW: It very definitely is. WWB works to overcome the reluctance of lending institutions to support women’s enterprises. It offers banks the assurance of a limit on its risk in lending, as well as the potential for increased revenues. WWB also helps to develop the management and technical skills of women who borrow money, as well as provide loan guarantees for them. The benefits are obvious, because not only does WWB share the risk with the bank, but the women-owned business infuses new capital into the local economy.

SI: With affiliates on six continents, WWB has evidently become successful.

MW: Our global network has reached well over two million women. When you consider that many of these women have up to 10 children, it adds up to a lot of people. As a part of such a network, women are learning how to articulate their wants as well as to recognize and develop their abilities. For instance, in many countries they are telling the World Bank that they will not simply take money to do what it wants them to do. Rather, they are learning to define their terms and to negotiate.

SI: How is WWB organized?

MW: WWB is incorporated in Holland, and has an international Board of Directors, with a working office in New York. Every affiliate functions differently, however, according to its own local economy and resources. There are no outside rules and regulations, and there is not a textbook on how to do it. However, if you were to query the participants, they would all say that WWB is helping them do what they want to do. We have in common a value system of self-determination, and therefore promote decision-making at the local level. Rather than setting up a bureaucracy with a central control we invited entrepreneurial women in many countries to join together as WWB affiliates, and they have subsequently assumed responsibility over their own local programs.

SI: How does the global network function?

MW: There is an exchange program to visit others in different countries; an international training institute; an international guarantee fund, and there are international meetings every two years as well as monthly newsletters.

SI: What kinds of enterprises have been started with the help of WWB?

MW: These vary greatly. For instance, WWB’s first loan guarantee helped a woman owner of a bicycle repair shop which was initially located in her home. Within four years there were two shops and a manufacturing facility away from her home, with 13 jobs created. The owner now conducts seminars for women interested in entering business. On a much larger scale, another WWB affiliate worked with nonprofit women’s organizations and their government to start an agribusiness project to increase milk production. After making 267 loans to import cows and to purchase equipment, vehicles and supplies, the co-operative now produces 400 litres of milk a day with 82 women and their families participating. In Kenya, a group of weavers who make and sell the kikapu, or shoulder bag, on city streets, were able to rent a storage space for their supplies with a loan from WWB, and are very enthusiastic about their co-operative venture.

SI: WWB has affiliates in 51 countries which vary greatly, from the USA and Canada to Bangladesh, Spain, Haiti, Thailand, Burundi, Chile, Bolivia and the Philippines. What kind of interchange occurs?

MW: WWB surveys the needs of affiliates to determine strengths and weaknesses, and encourages exchange programs for mutual education. For instance, just before WWB-Japan became an affiliate, six of its board and staff members visited WERDAN, the affiliate in New Delhi, India, for a three-week workshop. WERDAN is well known for its successful entrepreneurship training tailored to the needs of women. At the request of WWB-Japan, WERDAN designed and organized a special program to 'train the trainers,' who in turn trained women in Japan. The entire workshop had lively interactive sessions full of practical suggestions needed for entrepreneurship, while the theme focused on women becoming the harbingers of change in the economic world.

SI: How does WWB differ from US AID, or other alternative systems of banking such as the Grameen Bank?

MW: WWB is an alternative mechanism, but not an alternative system. While US AID does finance credit for women, its credit programs are run by others who collect the interest from its loans. By contrast, the women who manage the credit programs with WWB are due any interest, and they also become partners with their own banking and business community. The Grameen Bank, on the other hand, is simply different in that it works primarily in one country, and the higher levels are managed by men. We are all involved, however, in helping bankers re-learn relationship banking.

SI: What is relationship banking?

MW: Successful WWB affiliates have mastered the art of relationship banking, which means 'keeping the money warm'. With warm money, both the borrower and lender lose sleep at night until the money is repaid. With cold money, the borrower loses sleep figuring out how to repay, and the lender loses no sleep at all. Many government and donor programs create cold money. WWB affiliates and other successful microenterprise lenders make sure that the money stays warm by: 1) creating a relationship with a woman in which she realizes she has been selected to be a model and inspiration to other women; 2) creating peer pressure and mutual accountability for results; and 3) encouraging savings by women.

SI: What do you see as being the main impact of WWB?

MW: WWB’s main impact has been in empowering people economically. WWB started with the vision that things should be different. It continues to seek new ways to bring about and adapt to cultural and economic changes which help women become part of their money economies. For instance, as an international financial intermediary, WWB intends to encourage direct investment in women’s enterprises on a global basis. It expects to accomplish this by collaborating in the creation of new financial vehicles and in the deployment of portions of existing investment pools for this purpose. WWB is committed to remaining a small, flexible organization. Its unique design as a decentralized network of independent affiliates and professionals around the world is based on mutual trust, resource exchange, and shared collaborative opportunity. As the network increases, its influence for positive change will expand like ripples in a pond.

SI: If women are interested in WWB, what would they do?

MW: They would simply contact the Women’s World Banking Office in New York for information to set up an affiliate, and would become automatically linked to a global network of women.

From the January/February 1994 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005