Tens of thousands of refugees to benefit from new UN-backed microfinance project

Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus holds a child as he meets villagers helped by his bank

13 January 2010 – Tens of thousands of displaced people around the world will get micro-loans to set up their own businesses and become self-sufficient thanks to a new agreement between the UN refugee agency and a microfinance services organization set up by Bangladeshi Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed by Mr. Yunus and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres, the Grameen Trust will set up micro-loan programmes for displaced civilians, mainly refugees but also including some returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) over three years in an initial 14 countries around the world, with a feasibility study early this year in Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa.

“The Grameen Bank and its network have given millions of poor people access to microcredit,” Mr. Guterres said. “I believe the Grameen Trust can make a vital contribution towards refugee self-reliance and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods.”

UNHCR and Grameen Trust staff will assess the number and profile of beneficiaries, while the project will also look at the rehabilitation or improvement of existing UNHCR microfinance activities. The Trust generally sets up programmes to provide seed or scale up funding, based on an approach pioneered by the parent Grameen Bank and imitated worldwide.

Microfinance is important to UNHCR because by allowing people to run their own businesses and learn new skills it can help the displaced – especially women – become self-sufficient and also prepare them if they return home, integrate them in a host country or help them start a new life in a resettlement country.

But despite the benefits it can bring, microfinance is not always considered in refugee operations. In some cases, the policies of host governments prevent refugee access to financial institutions. In others, the limited expertise of UNHCR and its partners in microfinance is a factor. It is to overcome these and other limitations, that UNHCR has established partnerships with organizations like the Grameen Trust and the UN International Labour Organization (ILO).

Mr. Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with his Grameen Bank in 2006, has been dubbed “Banker to the Poor.” He started the Grameen project in the Bangladeshi village of Jobra in 1976. In 1983, the project was transformed into a formal bank to help people escape from poverty by providing small loans, or microcredit, on generous and tailored terms.

The Grameen Trust was set up six years later to help poor and needy people inside and outside Bangladesh with the kinds of services pioneered by the Grameen Bank to reduce poverty, offer training and technical assistance, and help increase employment, income and management skills of the poor. The Trust has more than 140 partners in 38 countries.


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