Christian groups merge to form partnership in Rwanda

By August 14, 2007

Rwanda (MNN) — Opportunity International reports the world's leading Christian organizations supplying micro-finance and micro-enterprise development to the poorest of the working poor today announced a historic partnership by merging operations in Rwanda to open a micro-finance bank for the poor in a country that is making steady progress and often great strides in rebuilding and reunification.

The Urwego Opportunity Micro-finance Bank (UOMB) of Rwanda, headquartered in the central district of Kigali, will open a new banking hall using state-of-the-art technology in early fall. The combined operation has offices in 27 of the 30 districts in Rwanda, more than 28,000 loan clients, and over 3,000 savings clients. UOMB has $4.5 million in equity capital and a loan portfolio of $1.7 million.

Ironically, this unique partnership did not begin in any of the partnering organizations but began with the dream of a former investment banker from Little Rock, Ark. Dale Dawson is a dedicated volunteer who today is chairman of the Opportunity International President's Council. Dawson says, "It's the first time that faith-based organizations have come together in a partnership in order to provide a full-service bank."

The partnership includes World Relief, a Baltimore-based agency that specializes in rebuilding communities in the aftermath of war or natural disaster. World Relief has operated Urwego Community Banking, the first and largest micro-finance institution in Rwanda, since 1997. World Relief Canada and HOPE International have been financial partners in Urwego for several years.

"Micro-finance has played a key role in building peace and reconciliation through trade as Rwanda continues to recover from the horrors of the genocide," said Sammy Mah, president of World Relief. "Ten years ago, while others focused on relief work, we led with micro-finance activities, believing that was the best way to overcome poverty, instability and conflict in Rwanda."

Opportunity International is the final leg in the partnership, bringing financial and technology expertise in the operation of the new bank. Over the next 12 to 18 months, UOMB expects to further expand banking operations across the country using innovative technologies to enable poor Rwandans easy access to safe and secure financial transactions.

Dr. Ephraim Kabaija, former chief of staff to President of Rwanda Paul Kagame and currently the President's advisor on rural development, explained the critical need for a bank that offers savings accounts to the Rwandan people. "Do you know how many children die in our country every year because their mothers cannot afford the $2 – $10 needed to buy medicines to treat diarrhea, fever, malaria and other common illnesses? Do you appreciate how much angst, misery and despair we could eliminate from our country if every family had $50 in a savings account?"

Dawson says this partnership will help that. "The reason they don't have that is because they don't have a safe place to keep their money. Our goal is to be able to offer every family in Rwanda a savings account, so they can save that $50 so we can give each family a safety cushion for their family needs."

According to Dawson, the church is involved in a major way. "You see the church actively engaged in addressing the people's holistic needs. And so the churches are openly talking about their faith, but they're also talking about meeting people's needs and bringing people together to put faith in action."

With Rwanda's agriculture-based economy, a $50 savings account will be a huge asset.

Laurie Cook, CEO of World Relief Canada, said, "We believe that providing financial services to those who are entrenched in poverty is actually a matter of justice and an imperative for those of us who are blessed with more than our share of resources. What is being provided with this new venture is the opportunity for many to reach the first rung on the ladder."

Peter Greer, president of HOPE International, said, "The need in Rwanda is significant. However, micro-finance has proven to be an effective tool for addressing both physical and spiritual poverty in this country, and HOPE International is excited about the possibilities for the future of UOMB. This partnership has contributed to strength and growth for Urwego in the past, and the current merger to form UOMB will further enhance these efforts."

Dawson says with the financial resources available to Western Christians, "We have a responsibility, and we have a challenge to use these resources to make a difference in the world. So we look for people who will get involved, not only with financial support, but also as volunteers."

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