Microfinance MBAs

To be accepted to the cheapest business school in the world, all you need is to be dirt-poor, uneducated and female.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 12, 2007 5:13PM (EDT)

You spend a week off riding your bike and hanging out with various righteous activist types, getting the endorphins flowing, and you start feeling pretty good about yourself. Then you return, with a thud, to your normal existence, and you encounter the likes of Chetna Gala Sinha, the founder of what is being described as a "business school for rural women" in Maharashtra, India.

Asia Sentinel has the basic story: In the latest elaboration of microfinance and microcredit schemes aimed primarily at poor women, the Udyogini Business School will be offering classes "in entrepreneurship, accountancy, bank finance, marketing skills and confidence-building for a piffling Rs150 (US$3.70) for a three-month basic course and Rs600 for a six-month advanced one."

And in a neat twist, the diploma certifying graduation will itself serve as qualification for a bank loan.

But the real story here may not be the school, but the relentless efforts of Chetna Gala Sinha, a kind of female Indian equivalent to Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus, to improve the lives of poor women in Maharashtra. Just for a taste, here's a bio for Sinha:

Economist, farmer and activist, Gala Sinha works for social change in some of the poorest and most drought-stricken areas of rural India. She founded and is currently the president of a micro-enterprise development bank, promoting property ownership and training for women. The bank is the first in its region to provide life, accident and hospitalization insurance for women and sponsors training in animal husbandry, organic farming and veterinary medicine. The bank has its origins in cooperatives organized by Gala-Sinha to assist women in raising goats, selling vegetables and weaving. In addition, Gala-Sinha works on behalf of landless laborers for property and water rights. She has succeeded in changing government policy and law regarding property rights for women.

Early last week, an anonymous reader responded to one of my Greenbelt Ride postings by asking when I was going to stop whining about sprawl and start endorsing "population control." While I am leery of the implications of the world "control," I do agree that population growth is a crucial force stressing the world's resources and ecosystems. But there may be no more fundamental approach to solving that problem than the work that people like Chetna Gala Sinha are doing. As she noted in one profile, "We have definitely been able to influence two things: education and awareness of basic rights. Once women are economically independent, they are empowered and have decision-making powers."

Educated, empowered, economically independent women have fewer babies. It seems to be pretty much an immutable fact of economic development. Wanna make the world work? Find the Chetna Gala Sinhas laboring away in obscure corners of the globe and fund them with everything you've got.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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