Mae Antoinette Yee-Romero (let) stands with her husband Miguel Romero in Spirit Square.

Giving people a hand up

One woman's connection to the Philippines before the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan may offer an idea on how to help after.

The Philippines was brought to its knees by Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 8, 2013.

The death toll is believed to be over 4,000 people, and for the survivors, it will be a long, hard road to recovery. This much we know.

What we don’t always know is what the best way to help is. A recent discussion of this issue on the CBC advised people to give to organizations already doing work in the area.

Organizations and governments around the world are pitching in to help, and Fort St. James is no exception, with the BC Liquor Store branch locally taking donations towards the relief efforts.

But Fort St. James also has other connections to the Philippines, with some residents in the community coming directly from the typhoon-ravaged country.

Luckily enough for those The Courier spoke to, no one was from the hardest hit area of the country, the Layte and Samar Islands.

But the connections one resident of Fort St. James has includes an organization which has been doing non-profit work in the country for over 25 years.

Mae Antoinette Yee-Romero, who came to Fort St. James after meeting her now husband Miguel Romero, was an employee of an organization which works across thePhilippines, and did work in the devastated areas.

Yee-Romero worked for the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, a micro finance organization which works independently as well as with other institutions such as Kiva.

“I like it because of the thrust and the mission of the organization,” said Yee-Romero.

She worked for the organization for seven years, starting out as an auditor and moving up to become head of their accounting and finance department.

The organization, structured in the growing micro finance model initially created in Bangladesh, offers interest-free micro finance loans to help those struggling in poverty.

Negros Women for Tomorrow works mostly with women and has 151,000 clients all over the region of Vasayos in the Philippines.

Their entire loan portfolio is worth US$18.8 million, but clients on average take individual loans of US$123.80.

While these kinds of amounts may seem insignificant in affluent North America, this can offer women an opportunity to set up their own small business or purchase equipment which could allow them to expand an existing business.

The average gross salary in the Phillipines was US$3,979 in 2006 according to their government census, however it would have varied widely, with those in extreme poverty making far less and professionals making far more.

In this context, it is easy to see how such small loans can be life-changing for women struggling to feed, clothe and shelter their families.

To be eligible for these loans, the women are interviewed, their skills are assessed and their loan or business proposals are worked on through the organization.

The women may also be eligible for training to help them get started.

While no collateral is required, the organization and their partners encourage the loan to be seen as a matter of dignity, and loan recipients are partnered up with others, creating a support network, in case one month one of the group has extenuating circumstances, the other women pitch in to cover her repayment.

The payback rate is over 98 per cent, though the typhoon will likely impact this statistic significantly for the next while.

Loans can even be as small as US$25, and through partner non profit organizations like Kiva, which bridge the gap between those in the First World willing to lend $25 to groups working in foreign countries with the people applying for loans, anyone can donate a $25 loan towards these projects, and can even look through the projects and select whichever one resonates with them.

“It’s not a dole out,” said Yee-Romero. “It’s teaching them to fish.”

One of the major benefits to the clients of the organization who take out these loans is the organization pays for them to have health insurance, which can make a massive difference to those suffering from extreme poverty, as access to even basic health care is normally out of their reach.

The organization celebrated their 25th anniversary while Yee-Romero worked for them, before she came to Canada, and they published a book featuring 25 members helped by the organization over the years and some of these stories stayed with Yee-Romero.

She recalls one testimonial in which the woman spoke of being so humbled by the trust shown by the organization in giving her the loan. She used the loan to grow her business by purchasing farm equipment and ended up being eventually able to purchase a simple vehicle to move her produce to market and to be able to build a concrete home for her family. She was also able to afford to send her children to school.

“It’s really  nice to hear these kind of stories and it makes your work fulfilling,” said Yee-Romero.

“If they want to help themselves, we help them.”

The organization has branches in the hard hit areas and Yee-Romero said she knows the branches will be helping clients with emergency food and clothing, and they were filling their main branch with donations for the area when she spoke to The Courier.

Once the rebuilding begins, organizations like Negros Women for Tomorrow will be able to help those families devastated by the disaster make new starts with businesses and replacing equipment destroyed in the disaster.

Through organizations like Kiva, donations can be pooled and then given out to local groups like Negros Women for Tomorrow, which works directly with the loan recipients. Kiva is a non profit working to alleviate poverty and is funded by donations and grants and Kiva does not take administrative fees from the loan money they receive, they facilitate the connections to the on-the-ground organizations and report to lenders. Kiva has a world-wide network of micro finance institutions and they use the internet to connect these institutions to the lenders.

The repayment rate of the nearly 1.2 million loan recipients since Kiva started in 2005 is over 99 per cent.

Interestingly, when you give a US$25 loan through Kiva, you can track the loan and when it is paid back, you can then once again loan out the same $25 to another borrower or withdraw the money back.

Kiva’s website allows the lender to select the type and location of project he or she would like to fund, from helping a Bolivian farmer purchase a tractor to helping a Ghanese grocer purchase more stock.

This holiday season, it might be a nice option to spend some of the holiday budget on trying out micro finance for yourself or in lieu of a token gift. It may just change someones life.

For more information on Negros Women for Tomorrow or Kiva, go to: www.nwft.org.ph and www.kiva.org.