Skip to main content

Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Think small

When confronting massive problems like African poverty, forget theme parks and golf courses

Think small

If, whenever you ponder the immense problems of the African continent, you don't think about the role of microenterprise and microfinance, it could be that you're just not thinking small enough.

The very enormity of Africa's challenges might tempt you to reason that only enormous programs with equally enormous budgets can faze them. AIDS and poverty and tribalism and famine and endemic corruption in government are not likely to be brushed aside with lightweight efforts.

But then you should pick up the Dec. 19 issue of The Wall Street Journal and read the sad front-page story of evangelical author and leader Bruce Wilkinson. True to his quirky Prayer of Jabez philosophy of always thinking bigger, Mr. Wilkinson went to Africa over the last couple of years with a program of breathtaking scope. His plan, as reported by the Journal, included building 50,000 cottages for a million orphans of AIDS in Swaziland, and a scheme for charging Americans $500 a week to stay in those homes while getting to know and helping the children. There was a theme park and golf course for tourists, and a program for the kids to put on rodeos and serve as guides in the wild game reserves. Just the first phase of the dream was pegged at $50 million, which was going to take a lot of Jabez-type praying. Now it has all collapsed, and Mr. Wilkinson has come back to the United States disappointed and disillusioned.

I couldn't help thinking about all that as I sat on New Year's night talking with my friend Peter Brinkerhoff, who had also just returned from a year in Africa-chastened by realism, for sure, but by no means disillusioned. Peter had gone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a Pennsylvania-based organization called Hope International. Hope has a simple strategy of feeding a modest stream of capital into the local economy, from the grassroots up, and then watching it have its effect.

For Peter, that meant heading last spring to Kisangani, a heart-of-Africa city that in colonial days was known as Stanleyville. Because of that colonial past, French is still the more-or-less official language for Kisangani's million people, but Swahili is what really gets you around. Peter is conversant but not fluent in French, and he speaks no Swahili. His assignment was to recruit half a dozen young men and women whom he would train over several weeks as his loan officers. Those young people would then hit the streets of Kisangani looking for folks eligible to sign up for tiny, short-term loans that would enhance their personal financial situations.

For example, a $40 loan was extended to a woman who sold pastries off a tray on Kisangani's streets. The $40, accompanied with a little business counsel and encouragement, let her expand the variety of her offerings and buy her product more prudently and at lower cost. Over the next few weeks, during which the loan officer touched base with her every few days both for continued counsel and to collect regular payments on the loan, her bottom line improved. At the end of the 16-week cycle, her loan was totally repaid-with 16 percent interest-and she was ready for a new and slightly larger loan to propel her to a new level in her little business.

Tiny and insignificant in the global scheme of things? Of course. Except that during his nine months in Kisangani, Peter Brinkerhoff and his little team of newly trained loan officers oversaw the closing of more than 800 such loans, with a total face value of about $50,000. Strict guidelines are in place to monitor repayment procedures, and the 95 percent rate of timely return would make many U.S. banks envious. Best of all, the original $50,000 is not used up, but is constantly available in its entirety for new rounds of equally prudent lending.

No, not even that is "best of all." What is really best of all is that Peter will return to Kisangani with a new vision not just for enhancing the lending program, but incorporating an ever more explicit sense of accompanying those loans with the truth of the gospel and nuggets of biblically based business wisdom. Peter (who is only 23 and just out of the Chalmers Center program at Covenant College) prays daily with and counsels his team of loan officers and wants to extend that into a more thorough education program.

It's hard to think of an effort better calculated to reach into the warp and woof of a needy society. And all because someone had the vision to think so very small.