ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (Mennonite Mission Network/Joint Christian Services International) — When her husband died in 2005, Amarbayasgalan’s pockets were nearly empty. She had an idea; she needed money.
The support came through a microfinance loan from Mina, a nongovernmental organization that began as a project of Joint Christian Services International, a partner agency of Mennonite Mission Network.
Amarbayasgalan’s initial loan of 50,000 tugrug (about $42) allowed her to set up a small business making felt souvenirs from sheep’s wool. That loan, when repaid, led to successive further loans of 300,000 tugrug, then 600,000 tugrug as her business continued to expand.
Today, the loan money initially invested to buy the wool, which she turns into slippers, bags, pouches, earrings and necklaces, has turned into a business that supports her three teenage children.
JCS started Mina in 2000 for the Khan Uul ger district in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, offering microenterprise loans to the city’s poorest residents who either cannot qualify for bank loans or cannot afford the exorbitant interest other moneylenders charge. Mina became a nongovernmental organization in 2001 and became self-sustainable in early 2007.
Laura Schlabach, who works with JCS through Mennonite Mission Network, said the two organizations retain links.
“Now rather than being a project of JCS, Mina is more of a partner with JCS – which means that JCS may work with Mina providing advisors, like Alun,” Schlabach said.
Sheldon Sawatzky, Mission Network’s director for East Asia, said, “This is how JCS operates – it begins projects and spins them off.”
According to a recent grant application from Tuvshintugs Batsukh, Mina executive director, most development projects focus on wealthier investors. That trickle-down wealth approach, he wrote, “may work in the very long-term, but many citizens of the Third World will by then be dead.”
Mina aims to give poor people, mainly women, more self-confidence and healthier families by providing appropriate training activities and financial services to establish, improve and expand their businesses.
Alun Price-Davies, a governor and honorary treasurer of the London School of Theology, who volunteers with Mina, said the organization uses a group solidarity method – groups of no more than 10 people gather for business training and then receive a group loan. Group members hold each other accountable to repay the overall loan, which makes defaults rare.
While Mina started with its loan finance program through investments from JCS partner programs, it now offers a Community Advancement Savings Habit program for use in churches, colleges, schools and communities. Each week, clients selected by local social workers and church volunteers deposit a minimum of 500 tugrug (about 45 cents) with a local coordinator – someone in their church, school or community – as part of a small group of solidarity investors. All of the money deposited is combined and held on deposit to gain interest and be used as a pool for investments, given without the prohibitive interest rates often quoted to poorer applicants.
The program is not only about money. Personal support and training sessions offer business knowledge as well as promoting biblical and ethical values that can lead to spiritual transformation. The programs support visions of Christian development that encourage personal relationships with Jesus, a biblical worldview, the inclusion of the local and global church, holistic development of others and the understanding that poverty has many dimensions.
Additionally, Price-Davies said the Christians that make up the credit committee pray for each loan applicant. Mina board or staff members also pray with the applicants, and prayer is a big part of Mina’s response to late payments – a member of the credit committee will visit late payers and offer advice and prayer support for their struggles.
Price-Davies said many people believe that the poor will not save, or cannot save, and therefore have little economic savvy. But he said the poor deserve respect as business experts in their own environment, not charity or patronizing advice.
“There is a need to steer clear of the destructive power of patronage and well-intentioned charitable hand-outs. What is essential both for success and the promotion of true human development is the need for donor organizations to trust the poor whom they seek to assist, and to do so by being prepared to ‘work with the poor’ as opposed to ‘for the poor,’” Price-Davies wrote. “The distinction is subtle but fundamental.”
Many of the participants are women, like Oyuntsetseg, who used her initial loan to set up a recycling center in the ger district, collecting glass, plastic and scrap metal. Her loans from Mina helped her brother and sister, who had been working with her, expand into their own microenterprise businesses – another recycling center and a grocery store, respectively.
Her current loan of 3 million tugrug helped her buy a building to house a seven-stall mini-market and eventually also become her home, enabling her to expand her existing recycling business into the space where she currently lives.
Through late 2007, seven years after it began, Mina had nearly $56,000 in loans outstanding to more than 180 clients. More than 1,200 active CASH participants from more than 60 churches, schools and organizations have saved more than $19,500. The program is thriving, but leaders are now applying for more grant money to expand the program into other areas of Mongolia, where more than three-quarters of the population lives beneath the poverty line.
Even Amarbayasgalan has seen that success can be tenuous. A stomach illness this year has slowed her production and her income. Still, her achievements have helped her look to expand her business into a cooperative. And while she seeks partners, her loan from Mina allows her family to continue to survive.