Laurie Doyle graduated from Messiah College in May with a degree in Business Administration. For her, college was more than a time to engage in ivory-tower speculation and theory. Doyle put her knowledge to good use by participating in a Micro-Economic Development (MED) team during her senior year.
"I saw this to be an ideal way for me to use my education to get involved in a cause that is so much bigger than me," she said.
The emergence of micro-economic development groups at Messiah College and other U.S. college campuses over the past decade reflects the growing popularity of microfinance as an effective charitable business endeavor.
Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus pioneered and popularized the idea of microfinance--loans made to poor people who could benefit from a relatively small investment. In his work studying the rural poor, Yunus discovered how much an impoverished person could be helped by what is a small amount of money in the developed world. Yunus' studies led him to create Grameen Bank, which makes loans to poor people usually ignored by other banks because of high risk and low return. The bank has loaned billions of dollars in small amounts to the Bangladeshi people.
"Conventional banks look for the rich; we look for the absolutely poor," Yunus told TIME Magazine in 2006, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. "All people are entrepreneurs, but many don't have the opportunity to find that out."
Micro-finance stands apart from charity because the money is a loan, not a gift. Although some debate the statistics, Grameen Bank boasts a repayment rate of better than 95 percent. This is accomplished not only through lending money, but also by creating groups that work together, supporting the common goal of self-advancement. The more holistic model of lending allows people to invest smaller amounts of money to help people get out of poverty while expecting a return on their investment.
Knowing they can actually help people become self-sufficient provides a great motivation for the Messiah students involved in the school's MED group, Doyle said: "[We] care deeply about each individual we may potentially reach and are beyond excited to see our hard work changing villagers' economic situations."
The microfinance model has proven more effective for economic development than charitable handouts, which often result in a pattern of dependency and fail to respect the dignity and responsibility inherent in a Christian view of human value. Taking out a loan, rather than accepting a handout, restores the recipients' confidence that they can do it themselves, said J-Lynn Conrady, the advisor to the Messiah College MED group
The concept of microfinance has become increasingly popular on college campuses for the same reasons its popularity has grown around the world: micro loans are an inexpensive, holistic, effective method of providing economic development. College students lack the money to invest in grand development programs. But microfinance programs show that small amounts of money can create a great deal of change.
College campuses have begun supporting these efforts in three different ways. The most popular method is to loan or donate money to a microfinance charity. More than 600 colleges have formed teams to lend money through Kiva, a popular microfinance website that acts as a clearinghouse for partners who distribute micro loans. A number of Christian colleges are among the collegiate clubs. As of mid September, Texas Christian University, in Ft. Worth, Texas, held the lead for Christian colleges, providing $26,125 through 271 loans.
A second concept is to use the principles of microfinance to start a business. Just as banks profit from loan interest, these organizations raise capital so they can lend smaller amounts of money to people unable to get a traditional loan. They fully plan on company profit while aiding in the economic development of others. Yale University started the first collegiate program of this kind in 2001.
A third concept brings the money source closer to home. Students travel to an economically depressed area to train locals how to pool their money and set up Savings and Credit Associations (SCAs) that loan out money for worthy projects. Organizing SCAs has been the primary focus of the MED at Messiah.
"It doesn't necessarily allow them huge chunks of money, but it does allow them to start small businesses," Conrady said. "And we have people on the ground who work with these organizations after we have gone." Trips during the past five years have resulted in new SCAs in Zambia and most recently in Costa Rica, at the beginning of 2012. Doyle participated in the May 2012 trip to Zambia and recognized the need for community-based solutions.
"You may try and guide the villagers toward a specific option for their group, but we quickly realized that no matter how much research we may have done, they will always know what is best for their community," she said.
Participation in the MED group at Messiah is open to anyone regardless of major, but the group especially draws students from the business department interested in practically integrating their learning with ministry opportunities. The MED group attended the Evangelical ACCORD network conference last November to explore the latest ideas in poverty relief, and plan to attend this year's conference in Colorado Springs. The conferences bring together relief groups under the goal of "empowering the Christian community to End poverty." For some Messiah students, their involvement in the MED group has led to careers in microfinance with ACCORD network members like HOPE International or upstart microfinance organizations like the Mango Fund.
Messiah recently hired Dr. Connie Ostwald with the goal of starting an academic program in Economic Development in the Fall of 2013. Microfinance will be a prominent part of the department's teaching. Ostwald's goal as an economics teacher and MED advisor alongside Conrady is to show students how they can affect positive change. She hopes to encourage more students to get involved with the developing world. Doing so brings practical application to the theme verse for the MED group, Isaiah 58:10: "And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday."