A financial institution that seeks to transform the economic position of women worldwide is holding a two day meeting in Zurich. The aim is to find new funding partners for the non-profit organisation and review the achievements of the last 20 years.
Founded after the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, Women's World Banking is now one of the leading institutions in financing small businesses run by women in developing countries.
More than 40 women-led affiliates all over the world form the core of the organisation. They provide lending, savings and business development services to more than 300,000 low income female entrepreneurs.
Through associate groups the WWB provides financial services to around 2 million people. Switzerland is the third largest contributor to the organisation, providing SFr1 million annually.
"Backing the WWB is entirely consistent with our financial sector policy," says Kathryn Imboden of the Swiss Development Agency. "The WWB works both in terms of increasing access to financial services for poor clients and in developing strong local institutions which are financially viable."
The WWB also draws support from the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Ford Foundation. Its headquarters in New York serve as a communications hub for the global affiliates.
"In many countries, for legal and social reasons, women need extra support," says Imboden. "They often cannot provide the same collateral as men, but at the same time they are a good bet in terms of honesty and reliability."
All those involved with the WWB are keen to stress that it isn't a charity but a lending institution that aims to help women onto the first rung of the economic ladder. The average size of a loan is around $600 and the average repayment rate is 97 per cent. Most clients run small family-based businesses.
"For example a seamstress in Kenya may take out a loan to buy a sewing machine," said Imboden. "This gets her business going and as her client base grows she can expand and come back to the WWB for a return loan."
The WWB is also at the forefront of the struggle for political change in the financial services industry.
"The WWB has been extremely active in achieving policy changes allowing not only its own affiliates but other institutions to operate in a better way," Imboden added.
For all its achievements, however, the WWB admits there is a long way to go before it bridges the gap between the 500 million micro entrepreneurs worldwide who need financial services, and the 10 million currently receiving them.
by Michael Hollingdale