After a weekend in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I traveled to see a Save the Children program in Mbuji Mayi, a city about 600 miles into the interior of the country. On my way to the office, I was amazed by the number of diamond trading outlets along the main streets. Diamond mining is big business but the people who mine them—oftentimes children—receive very little pay in exchange for the gems that people will pay thousands for around the world.
The diamond business is a glaring contrast to the widespread poverty most families face in the DRC. The majority of the population lack access to basic services, with more than half of the population living on less than a dollar a day. In addition, relentless conflict has nearly destroyed the country’s infrastructure and economy in the east. The existence of rich natural resources in
the DRC actually puts tremendous pressure on poor families; prices for food and basic services are very high due to the influx of outsiders who come to extract and buy products like diamonds. This drives costs up for everyone and is especially hard on those who can least afford it.
But in Mbuji Mayi, communities are taking their financial future into their own hands. I met with Madam Noniyabu, who invited me to join a meeting with members of the local Bubanji micro-credit project. Madam Noniyabu is powerful force for change in her community. She explained to me how the project works: each week, members deposit roughly $1-3 in a group account. Members of the group who require credit make a presentation to the larger group, which then weighs the benefits and votes on where they will invest. Most of the time, credit is extended to those who have strong ideas for starting or expanding their businesses. The goal is to help local business owners support their families and children with business grants, and use a small amount of interest to help community members in tough circumstances. Madam Noniyabiu is tough but fair—I watched as she admonished a late-paying member of the lending group and then gave a generous grant to help a woman who had just lost her husband.
By working as a community, this micro-credit group makes low-cost loans available through a community structure. Community members are able to help each other rather than relying on banks that charge up to 50% interest, and they use the funding to give the children of the community a boost.
For poor children living in impoverished areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, living in a family with some financial security improves their changes for a better childhood and a better life. To a family struggling to survive, small-scale community loans to help them build their businesses and provide for their children is worth more than gold—or even diamonds.