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CHARLIE DOKMO: Our design team is on the field, in the heart of the poor communities, working with community leaders so that they have the ownership of the program.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, creating opportunities for the world’s poor. And later, children and war in Sierra Leone.
OLARA OTTUNU: I met a boy, Abu Sese, who is know ten months old. You would not believe this, but this boy’s left leg was cut off when he was two months old, to punish the parents.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The latest UN Human Development report highlights the world’s increasing rich-poor gap. But one Oak Brook, Illinois-based organization is working to reverse the trend by granting microcredit loans to poor but enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Charlie DOKMO is Chief Executive Officer of Opportunity International. He says the organization’s goal of reducing world poverty dates back to 1971.
DOKMO: Opportunity International is a charity that focuses on microlending to the poor. What we do is we give very small loans to poor people around the world. These loans are paid back through our partner agencies in these countries and the money is then recycled and on-lent to other poor people. It’s a very simple concept.
MC HUGH: It’s a simple concept but it’s one that a lot of folks in the United States probably are not familiar with. How long have you been doing this?
DOKMO: Opportunity was set up in 1971. Our founder was a man by the name of Al Whittaker. He was the International President of Bristol-Myers and had worked with them for over 25 years and had a very strong exposure to the international arena. And as he traveled and lived in five star hotels in these various countries, in the developing nations, he oftentimes would be parked literally right next to the very poorest of the poor. And over time his heart and burden for the poor grew, where he decided to take early retirement in `71 and set up Opportunity. And that was the essence of our vision, was to really stand with and help the poor so that they could help themselves. We are in 29 countries and looking to open three more countries in the next six months.
MC HUGH: And which countries would those be?
DOKMO: Those are the three countries in the Balkans—Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania. We officially have not opened the work there, even though we do have a small program. We’re in the process of getting legal registration set up in those countries. So, there is a bit of a time lag. Sometimes we do start the work and the legal registration will follow. But it’s a very needy area. The Balkans is just a huge—it’s a region with a lot of change right now as a result of the war.
MC HUGH: As far as Kosovo goes, do you have plans to work in Kosovo in the future?
DOKMO: Well, we have been asked by a couple of large international "technical donors" as we call them—these are government agencies that have asked us to consider working in Kosovo because we are very experienced in the Balkans. And we are looking at a survey trip in the fourth quarter of this year and hoping to make a decision to see if it is really the right time and the right context for us to set up a lending program.
MC HUGH: What types of services are provided in the countries that you operate in?
DOKMO: Well, our primary service is—our first service is education. We go into a poor community and we’ll work in small groups with poor families, communicating to them what is it we do and what their needs are, and learning. So it’s a kind of an education, as a process, as a first step. Secondly, we will go into that community and design a lending program that will be very appropriate for their needs. The programs we design, although we have a couple basic methodologies, are rooted "in the grass," as we speak. So that we don’t come up with grandiose plans here in Chicago, but our design team is on the field, in the heart of the poor communities, working with community leaders so that they have the ownership of the program. And, so it’s a combination of education, lending, and then ongoing consulting. Once a person or a family does receive a loan to set up a small business there’s a process where we stay with them so that they can be successful and take another loan and help really grow their work.
MC HUGH: You talk about microcredit loans. And so how small are those loans?
DOKMO: The smallest loans that know of—and we’re in, like I said, 29 countries—the smallest loans that I’ve seen are in the Philippines. And they’re $25. It’s hard to believe that $25 can make a difference, but it’s a powerful agent of change for a small family: a family, a mom and a dad and one child, it can take $25 and get a, lease a small stall in a market in rural Manila. And with that money able to set up a small business so that they can either sell candles, children’s clothing, or whatever. And to facilitate enough currency transactions so they’re making a profit. They repay the loan and their family is fed. The children are clothed, educated, and it’s really exciting to see that $25 can make a huge difference.
MC HUGH: How many loans have you granted, say in the last year?
DOKMO: Last year we made over 150,000 loans. The impact of these loans is about 200,000 families. It’s, we’re currently, as I said, we’re in 29 countries and these are very tiny loans. The smallest is, like I had said, of $25. But in Eastern Europe the loan sizes get a little bigger, a little larger. They’ll be $2,000-$3,000. ‘Cause the culture and situation in Eastern Europe is a little different.
MC HUGH: How is your repayment rate?
DOKMO: Repayment rate has been very strong. Last year it was 94.7% internationally. This is in the midst of what I call the "Asian Flu," where, you know, we had the Indonesian meltdown and the Bulgaria crisis, currency crisis occurred, as well as the Russian ruble crisis. And in the midst of these crises what we have seen is that microentrepreneurs, these entrepreneurs with a tiny business, have the most flexibility, they have the biggest heart, they are capable of thinking on their feet, they’re very street smart and savvy, and they, there’s enough business in that community for them to survive.
MC HUGH: So these are not poor people looking for handouts. These are people that really want to better themselves.
DOKMO: These are poor people who really want to make a difference in their own situation. They are—in the countries we work, in most countries outside of the United States, there is no social safety net. And so the, there’s, the only safety net they have are their families. And so they realize every day, these poor families realize that if they don’t have a chance, I mean they are destitute. So, they are very eager and motivated to work. They’re not lazy. They’re very, you know they’re very intrinsically motivated to take care of their families an so forth. So, it breaks some of the stereotypes that we might have in the US, of you know, like the poor are lazy, or they’re just waiting to get a hand-out. And they’re not. The poor that we work with are very motivated to make a difference.
MC HUGH: Where have several of your more successful programs been?
DOKMO: There’s several. Our work in the Philippines has grown at a very high rate. I wouldn’t say exponentially, but it’s close to exponential. We started our work in the Philippines in 1983. And have grown—last year we loaned out about $12 million in the Philippines. And we have nine partner agencies there that are located in some of the key islands. The repayment rates are high, the leadership team is excellent—the board members on these local affiliates are very motivated to run a good organization. And they have a very strong commitment to see change. Now, the government of the Philippines, President Ramos was the previous president, was very motivated to help microentrepreneurs. And so that further fueled our success. When a government stands with us in our vision to help the poor, lots of things can change.
Uganda. We’ve had a very successful program in Ghana. We have a partner there that has been very successful, up in Kumasi, Ghana—it’s up in northern Ghana. We’ve been working in Nicaragua for several years and we have a very strong, growing program. We’ve had a number of very key successes.
MC HUGH: Of the, these small businesses that are developed with your loans, what types of businesses are we talking about?
DOKMO: Anything and everything. We’re talking about children’s clothing, running small, in the Philippines they’re called sorry-sorry shops, which is like a microversion of a Seven-Eleven. They’re small stores that are run out of the front corner of a home. In Columbia I’ve had a chance to see a number of shops that they sell flowers, greens—anything you might see in a marketplace—vegetable stands. These are all things that Opportunity would be part of. Normally what we do is we stand with them and their dream and their idea. And so we don’t get into any arms manufacturing, any alcoholic activities, or anything that might have some kind of legal complications. And so we have a very few industries or activities that we don’t do. But we generally permit anybody with a good idea to stand with them. Eighty-five percent of our clients are women. And we have found that women are a very strong source of change in the communities we work. And that we have a very special intentionality of building on the success of their loans.
MC HUGH: Can the microcredit loans help bridge the gap, the growing gap, between the rich and the poor?
DOKMO: I think it’s the only answer. The recent UN report on poverty was—I’ve known the numbers were there, but seeing it in black and white was a real shock to me. That, you know, three of the richest people in the US have more wealth than 600 million people in 43 of the poorest countries. And when I read that I wept. And I said, "The economy is not wrong. And the people who are wealthy aren’t necessarily wrong. And I don’t think we need to condemn these people. I think what we need, is need to have more of our kind of activity to help give the wealthy a chance to be part of the solution." And so it’s my conviction and part of my vision that our work is not only with the poor, but it’s with the wealthy. And to give them a vision for how they can really make change in the world today.
MC HUGH: Why should Americans care about Third World economies?
DOKMO: That’s a good question. I would say its our role as a citizen of the world to care about others. And as an American, even though we may seem isolated we are part of the global village. We are receiving goods from China, Taiwan, Indonesia—you know, our sneakers are probably made in Indonesia or Korea, the ones we look at on our feet. And every article we have is, or most every article is produced from other countries. And our products are going abroad. And so I think it’s naïve of us to think that we are isolated—economically, politically—and we are part of a global community. And it’s my conviction that we need to demonstrate our citizenship in that community and to be a part of the answer there.
MC HUGH: Charlie DOKMO is Chief Executive Officer of Opportunity International. For more information on Opportunity International’s programs, visit the organization’s Web site at www.opportunity.org. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: In a moment we’ll hear more about the prospects for peace in Sierra Leone.
OTTUNU: The abduction of children has been massive. In Freetown alone, the capital, more than 4,000 children were abducted.
MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: The civil war in Sierra Leone has lasted the better part of a decade. Last July a peace accord was signed but the situation on the ground remains tense. Olara Ottunu is an Undersecretary General of the United Nations and he is UN leader Kofi Anan’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Last month that job took him to Sierra Leone, where he investigated the impact of war on the children of this West African nation.
OTTUNU: The Sierra Leonians are a wonderful people. They are so peaceful. They are so hospitable. They are so warm. You would not guess that reading the newspapers. You would not guess that seeing the images of the atrocities which have been committed there. But in Sierra Leone a small group of people, a tiny segment of the population, because they were rejected by the people in the political process, decided to unleash unspeakable terror on the civilian population, the people. It does not in any way reflect on the Sierra Leonian people as a society. Quite the opposite. But in this space of time this small group of people managed to turn the society upside down.
The children of Sierra Leone have suffered beyond belief. Children who have been maimed, including the cutting off of limbs—arms and legs. I met a boy, Abu Sese, who is know ten months old. You would not believe this, but this boy’s left leg was cut off when he was two months old, to punish the parents, you know. I met—oh, it’s unbelievable what this group of people did to that society. Young girls who have been sexually abused. We estimate that probably, you know, 60% of abducted children have been young girls, most of whom have been sexually abused. This is whole new phenomenon in this magnitude within the society. A society that is, you know, doesn’t know how to handle the social stigma attached to this. There is a reticence in addressing the issue. The abduction of children has been massive. In Freetown alone, the capital, in the month of January, when the rebel incursion entered the city, more than 4,000 children were abducted. And more than 3,000 of them still remain behind the rebel lines. The number of children who have been used as child soldiers—more than 10,000 have been participating in the three major fighting groups as child soldiers.
The whole society has been deeply traumatized because of what they have gone through. This hell that they have gone through. Something unknown in their tradition and history. But within that trauma, this generalized trauma, a deeper trauma of what has happened to the children, you see. What has happened to the children, who have, you know, witnessed these things, who have been violated sexually, who have been maimed and so on, you see. And of course, most of the children now in the period of eight years of war, have lost out on schooling, on education. And how to recuperate them? How to give them a productive role in society again is a big challenge.
PORTER: Before we talk about how to react to that challenge, I think we need to address this question about the uneasy peace in Sierra Leone. Do you have any sense that the war is truly over there?
OTTUNU: At the moment there is no fighting going on. So the war has suddenly ended. But the population, the children especially, are very anxious. They are anxious to see some very concrete, bold steps to implement the peace agreement signed in London. And in particular people are very eager about seeing the process of disarming of the combatants begin in earnest, in a systematic and serious way. Because it is those arms, the fact that these groups were armed is what gave them total power over the population. That completely gave them the power to terrorize a population. So for people to feel secure, they need to see that those arms have been collected and taken away. That will bring back a sense of confidence.
PORTER: You released an Agenda for Action For the Children of Sierra Leone upon your return. Summarize for us what we’re talking about here. What are the main point that you think need to be taken up right away?
OTTUNU: Well, this is the following. The children of Sierra Leone have suffered unspeakably. They have suffered disproportionately in this war. They therefore have the highest stake in the peace. But unless we make arrangements, institutional arrangements to ensure that the welfare of children—their needs, their concerns—will be central in this phase which Sierra Leone is now entering, which is a most unusual, extraordinary phase, the aftermath of war, given what they have suffered through. So there’s a reason why I have come up with a fifteen-point agenda of specific things that needs to be done, you know, to those who have lost their limbs. This new community of persons, a special program for them. A special program to address the issue of trauma, those who have suffered deeply from trauma, using both traditional methods responding to trauma as well as modern Western methods of doing so. That’s why I’ve come up with the issue of what we should do to immediately gain access and release people who were abducted and who are behind the rebel lines. But I’ve also proposed that there should be a national commission for children in Sierra Leone, established today. A commission that will have the necessary political clout and standing and legitimacy to ensure that the interests and protection of children will be a central concern when policies are being made, when priorities are being set, when resources are being located. Otherwise children will lose out, they will be short-changed, they will be marginalized. We’ve seen this in so many other situations before, in a post-conflict setting. And yet, it is clear to me that apart from the imperative of re-establishing security and peace, apart from that imperative, perhaps the most important single challenge facing Sierra Leone is a crisis of the children. This massive problem inherited from the war. So unless we have structures in place the children will lose out.
I have also proposed—and this has now been accepted—that systematically in every peace operation, every peacekeeping that’s set up by the United Nations, following the ending of a conflict, the mandate of that operation should explicitly refer to the priority to be placed on children and their protection. This has now been done in the case of Sierra Leone, the very first time. We want to do the same thing in Kosovo. We want to do the same thing in East Timor, the same thing in the Congo, and so on. Secondly, that there should be a Senior Child Protection Advocate, attached directly to the office of the person who is in charge of the operation. A special representative to make sure that this aspect of the mandate is being taken seriously and being implemented.
PORTER: Olara, the world community didn’t pay much attention, really, to Sierra Leone during the war. Is there any way to get the world community’s attention focused on Sierra Leone, now that we have this moment of opportunity there?
OTTUNU: Well, it’s part of the reason why I wanted to be in Sierra Leone, so soon following the ending of the war and the signing of the peace accord. To see for myself the conditions. But above all to highlight to the international community the need for their own response, for their action. I have made an appeal to the international community not to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Not to let down the children of Sierra Leone. But right now that the war has ended, to join hands with the Sierra Leonians, to assist the war-affected children. I’ve also appealed to the Sierra Leonians themselves, Sierra Leonian political leaders in particular, to help the international community to help them. And that’s why I appealed to the rebel leaders to return to return to Freetown, to be seen to be implementing the agreement. For the government and the rebel formations to begin proceeding to disarm the armed groups. So, for the Sierra Leonian political leaders to take critical, crucial, bold steps themselves that will help to create a certain measure of confidence internally within Sierra Leone, but also with regard to the international community. So it’s a joint effort. It’s a two-way responsibility; the primary responsibility obviously belongs to the people of Sierra Leone, to the government of Sierra Leone, to the rebel groups; but the other responsibility is to the international community, and I hope that they will not let down the children of Sierra Leone in terms of expression of concrete solidarity.
PORTER: I have time for just one last question really, with you. And I want to know if there’s anything that we can learn from this situation that will help us to prevent it from happening elsewhere. Is there any lesson from this?
OTTUNU: Yes, definitely. One, I want to speak about the strengths of Sierra Leone. In spite of what appearance there may be, Sierra Leone is a society which, when you scratch beneath the surface, is actually well placed to recover from this trauma. Why? One, Sierra Leone is the only country emerging from a protracted war in which the government, the national government, is elected—democratically elected—and not contested. It is the only case I can think of where those who were in opposition, those who support the government, they are all agreed in supporting this government and saying "It is our government, we elected it." It has been part of the reason, after all, for the terrible atrocities and war of the last couple of years, defending this democratic gain.
Secondly, Sierra Leone is a country with a very strong civil society. Very strong civil society. Those who fought the military junta and helped to bring it down, isolated and made life difficult for it, even before the West African forces removed them military with a civilian, with civil society. And, I’ll say in many societies that have gone through protracted conflict of this kind what do you see? You see division along ethnic or religious lines. On the surface Sierra Leone qualifies for this kind of situation, a society with a big Muslim population, a big Christian population—there are many ethnic groups. But, thank God, Sierra Leone emerged from this conflict without those divisions tearing apart the society. It remains a society relatively united with a sense of national cohesion.
I went to a meeting in Sierra Leone where the group began first with reciting the first verses of the Koran, so I assumed this must be a Muslim community. But, immediately afterwards, without missing a beat they proceeded to recite the Lord’s Prayer—the same people. Cause that’s where they are. Very ecumenical people. And when I asked them they said, "We always do it this way. We go to each other’s churches and mosques and we intermarry, we are completely mixed." So it is no consequence to them, the fact that one is a Moslem or a Christian, or from this or that ethnic group. By and large that has not been an issue. That’s a strong point, a strong point for Sierra Leone. I’m hopeful for Sierra Leone if we can go through this initial phase of re-establishing peace and security and if the international community doesn’t adopt a wait-and-see attitude, but reaches out to help them help themselves.
PORTER: That was UN Undersecretary General Olara Ottunu. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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