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Presentation by H.R.H. the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg at the international Conference on the Future of Microfinance in Africa

04.06.2009 Discours

Presentation by H.R.H. the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg at the international Conference on the Future of Microfinance in Africa: Diagnostic to Action, held at the United Nations offices in Nairobi, Kenya on 4th June 2009 on the invitation of the Africa Microfinance Action Forum (AMAF) and Women's World Banking (WWB); (presenting their new study on opportunities and accessibility to financial products and services in Africa).

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first like to thank you, Mrs. Iskenderian and Mrs. Riria for inviting me to this conference and for your kind words that touched me very much. I am truly grateful for the opportunity you have given me to be here and to share some ideas and remarks with you on the occasion of the opening ceremony of this conference. Those of you who have already crossed my path during one of the few Microcredit Conferences that I have been to, know how profoundly important this subject is to me.

When UNESCO named me Good Will Ambassador in 1997, I discovered Microcredit, thanks to Professor Mohammed Yunus, and I was amazed by the efficiency of this tool in eradicating misery. Helping the poorest of the poor to finally have access to the credit system and delivering them from the dependence of loan- sharks is the best way of restoring confidence to those who have been forgotten by the financial system from far till now.

My commitment to society's most vulnerable, that began when I was a student in Political Sciences, continues today as a wife of a Head of State. I carry on in active defense for children and the fight against poverty through my roles as UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, and UNESCO Good Will Ambassador. I share with you the conviction that Microfinance has an essential role to play in the reduction of poverty and through this, in the promotion for a culture of peace.

I would like to quote U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, underscoring the role of Microfinance, said: "Microcredit (…) has positive consequences on the entire community and creates a fertile soil for democracy to grow because women and men can hope in the future of the planet again. We must realize that our destiny is strongly linked to the destiny of the poorest on this planet!"

Professor Yunus, amongst others, understood this long ago and says in the context of our actual global crisis that: "Microfinance close to ground reality still works, it has not been hit by the meltdown process, but a global economic slowdown affects the lives of the poor people much more than others."

The financial crisis has shown the fragile nature of our economic system. The avidity and greed of a few have endangered the efforts and the existence of many. It seems unbelievable that the World has been observing and accepting such "gambling" during years. We cannot survive without ethical principles, without social and human rules, if we want the 21st century to create a new alliance between nations, populations and citizens in order to prevent poverty, violence and war!

It seems to me that creation within us and us within creation, and the interdependence between the two, is one of the great themes of our times. We live today in a World that is characterized by a paradox: the rise of individualism and the growth of interdependence!

"Openness to the voices of better angels within us" is essential.

Globalization is a challenge that must be tackled jointly, leaving aside personal and national interests. Unless we work together, values, identities and efforts could all drown in the surging tide of globalization. In the framework of a global view of values, that is pioneered with great foresight by the organizers and stakeholders present here, you are opening a promising window of opportunities.

Your initiative proves that you understand interdependence better than any former generation. Today, fortunately, Africa is home to many Microfinance institutions and an increasing number of MFIs have integrated new technologies to reach the poor more effectively. Although these achievements are remarkable by any measure, we should not be complacent. The truth is that a majority of poor households do not have access to financial services: the sector has not yet paid adequate attention on extending its services to embrace the poorest of the poor. In most countries, microfinance does not yet reach many remote areas either. The success of a Microfinance institution has been measured for too long with financial performance outcomes, but these indicators can tell only part of the performance story. Stakeholders should also focus on how their efforts have improved the lives and how to better respond to their customers' needs in the future.

MFIs should be accountable for achieving social outcomes! It is our task not only to be successful in managing crisis and promoting transparency but to promote and strengthen human dignity, social responsibility and justice above all. Throughout the last decades, Microfinance has changed and developed a lot. The need to analyze it through the Diagnostic that is presented today is proof enough, as so many different actors are implicated.

Ladies and Gentlemen, after years of visits to the field, I can confirm that the credit tool initiates a virtuous circle restoring dignity to human beings who never should have lost it, especially women.

There is an old African saying that: "If you give education to a boy, you educate a man - if you give education to a girl, you educate a family".

In many traditional societies, women have been excluded from the market economy. The pioneering women who first braved the market were criticized harshly. But today, with MFIs spreading across large parts of the globe, we know that women default on loans far less than men, and credit extended to women has a much greater positive impact on household consumption and quality of life for children.

Through their involvement in Microfinance, many women are now extending their activities well beyond financial services. They have become leaders, instigating change in social practices and relationships and mobilizing social action. They play an important role in peace-making in communities affected by armed conflict and insecurity.

85% of the poorest clients served by Microfinance are, after all, women. However, women make up less than half of all Microfinance staff members, and fill even fewer of the senior management roles. Shouldn't the sector see the employment of women in high level positions as yet another bottom line?

The impact of Microfinance on women shows that equality in treatment is key to achieving the target of bringing down to half extreme poverty and hunger in the World by 2015. In this respect I would like to emphasize just how powerful Microfinance can be in helping to meet the Millennium Development Goals. So much remains do be done. It is now that we have to prepare adequate institutional, financial and political measures, if we want to reach them. We see that the distance between rich and poor still continues to grow! To promote a real culture of peace and a genuine respect for human dignity, we must dramatically change our mindset.

If you are here today, it is because you are committed to reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this important reunion is the expression of a bottom up process of a clear will to find answers, develop strategies, empower economies and bring back hope to Africa.

As UNESCO's former Director General Federico Mayor wrote: "There is no African fatality that would condemn this continent to structural instability and poverty. It is the exact contrary: Africa will get out of the crisis by itself. The World and Africa have to turn towards the huge potential and the exceptionally creative dynamism that are present on this continent and that wait to fully express themselves". I believe deeply that any form of "Afro pessimism" is inacceptable. As Federico Mayor likes to put it: "Africa is not the problem. It is the solution!" And this conference is a vivid testimony of that conviction.

I would therefore, on this occasion, like to congratulate all those present, and especially all women, for their remarkable work, not only in creating think-tanks and networks on national, regional and international levels, but also for sharing such precious recommendations and strategies with us.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please consider this speech as an appeal to action: working together is more than philosophy. It is a capital investment in peace and in the future.

Your passion and your ongoing commitment are, therefore, crucial!

May the impact of this event be as strong and as exceptional as the people I see here today.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Maria Teresa