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SFSU Public Affairs Press Release

Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.

#032--November 10, 1998; Media Advisory
Contact: Ligeia Polidora
(415) 338-1665

SF State Professor to Speak on Micro-lending

SF State photojournalist Ken Kobre and wife/writer Betsy Brill will speak at the World Affairs Council on Nov. 12 about their year-long journey in Asia documenting small business loans to women.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, November 10, 1998—When Ken Kobre and Betsy Brill saw a 60 Minutes program on the Grimean bank in Bangladesh in 1990, they were intrigued by the idea that a bank could loan money to the poor and still remain soluble. It was a topic they followed from afar until Brill had the opportunity to attend the Feb. 1997 summit on micro-credit in Washington D.C. While there she gathered materials on the programs that appeared to be most successful, and in 1998 she and Kobre tra veled to Asia to document the institutions and people who engaged in micro-lending.

What they found was a "revolutionary but simple idea," according to Brill: when the poor are given small loans, they tend to repay them. Even more interesting was that this idea was employed in a "range of different programs" and that they were "successful in each of its various incarnations." Different cultures and economies create different needs. The couple spent two months each in Egypt, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.

One example of the diverse nature of these programs is the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahemedabad, India. This bank, which was started in 1974, lends money to what was considered a high-risk group--illiterate working women such as basketweavers and street vendors. The bank has been profitable since its second year and today has more money in savings deposits than in loans. It stands as a workable alternative to traditional money lenders who charge exorbitant interest. Because of its small scale, micro-lending does not create large personal debts but rather individuals start with small loans and are rewarded for repayment with larger loans. The promise of the possibility of larger loans creates motivation to not default on current loans.

A surprise for Kobre and Brill came while they were in Indonesia during that country’s revolution. They discovered that, at a time when banks all over the nation were failing, a micro-finance department of one of the national banks was actually keeping the bank alive and, while corporations were bailing on loans, 98.6% of the working poor were making their payments on time. For them, this and other examples smashed the myth that micro-credit must be sustained by non-profits. Brill remarks that "at l east in developing countries, micro-credit programs can be profitable."

Kobre documented the people participating in these programs through pictures. He took over fifty hours of digital video and hundreds of photos. He remarks that his "original intent was to take candid photos" but found that "wherever [he] went he had an audience." He feels, however, that his photos will "give the reader a flavor of what life was like for these people" and will "show the differences"–differences in the businesses that people were trying to make work and differences among the women the mselves.

Kobre and Brill financed the trip themselves, with Kobre taking a sabbatical from San Francisco State University where he is a professor of journalism. They saw their roles on this trip as "storytellers." Brill says, "we want to tell the stories of these institutions [that engage in micro-lending] through the portraits of the people who participate in them."

Ken Kobre and Betsy Brill will present a talk (including slides) of their trip at 5:45 p.m. at the World Affairs Council, 312 Sutter St., San Francisco. To register call (925) 253-1784. Tickets are $7/$10. Students free.

SFSU is a highly diverse community of 27,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff. It is one of the largest campuses of the nationally-recognized 23-campus California State University System. Founded in 1899, the University is approaching its 100th year of service to San Francisco, the Bay Area, California and beyond.


This release was co-written by student writer, William Morris.

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