Actress Natalie Portman believes in microfinance

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American actress Natalie Portman is well known for her commitment to social issues. She is also a firm advocate of microfinance. In a written account of her experiences, she tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide how she is inspired by stories of success against the odds. It was Queen Rania of Jordan who first sparked her interest in such projects.

Natalie Portman firmly believes that giving loans to small businesses run by people who could never otherwise obtain credit is a solution to poverty. "It enables the world’s poorest citizens, and especially women, to take control of their lives.”

The actress knows what she is talking about. Cinema audiences may know her as the star of films such as Heat (1995) with Al Pacino, the Star Wars trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005) and Closer (2004), which earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. But Natalie Portman is also an active campaigner for political and humanitarian causes. She is an ambassador for FINCA International, the Foundation for International Community Assistance, an organisation that provides microloans to women in developing countries.

Natalie Portman first came into contact with FINCA International due to her interest in the Middle East and her admiration for Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. The actress is an Israeli-American, born in Jerusalem. She very much wanted to set up an initiative for women in the Middle East together with the Jordanian queen, who it transpired was deeply involved in FINCA and chairs a campaign for village banks. Natalie Portman immersed herself in the work of the organisation and travelled around with them. She has been ambassador for FINCA since 2004.

In response to Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s questions on microfinance, our theme for 2010, Natalie Portman wrote a detailed response:

1. Do you think that microfinance is the answer to solving poverty?

Poverty is a complex issue for which a broad array of interventions need to be employed. Key interventions, in my opinion, include access to education, the ability for women to have control over their bodies and reproduction, access to the very basic human requirements of food, shelter and healthcare, and the means to provide financially for one's family.

When I was first researching the types of interventions that can provide the most positive outcomes for the poor, I learned that women make up 70 percent of the world’s poorest citizens. I saw that microfinance provides the world's poorest citizens, especially women, with access to capital. In doing so, they are able to take control of their lives, determine how they can best use their talent and creativity to create their own jobs, acquire the assets that will allow them to move from dependence to self-sufficiency, and ensure that their children can look forward to a better, more prosperous future.

So, while I don’t think microfinance is the only solution to poverty, I do believe it is one of the key tools that can make a huge difference in the lives of individuals, their families and their communities.

2. Who profits from microfinance?

Many people profit from microfinance. First and foremost, clients and their families profit because the added income generated by small businesses allows mothers to purchase more, and more nutritious, food. It provides the means for them to take their children to the doctor when they are ill and purchase medicine, if needed. Microentrepreneurs can improve their homes, adding a roof or another room, or a latrine. But most importantly, the added income more often than not allows children to start, or remain in school, which is the best way for them to lift themselves out of poverty as they grow.

FINCA’s client assessment research findings show that mothers use their added income to pay for their children’s school fees before they make additional improvements to the family situation. In addition, communities profit because more of their population become productive members of society, and generate revenue that can support local programs.

National governments profit because of the jobs and income generated at local levels that bolster national economies. Microfinance organizations can profit because, once their programs reach self-sustainability, the income generated can be put back into their programs, allowing them to reach more clients, more quickly with larger portfolios of loan capital.

3. Does microcredit reach the people who need it the most?

Microfinance currently reaches more than 150 million people around the world, which is remarkable. However, 1.3 billion people still exist on less than 2 US dollars a day, so clearly there is a huge need to expand microfinancial services.

4. Do you have a personal story about microcredit?

I once met a woman in Uganda named Nayima . When she was 14 years old, her father forced her to marry her first husband. After giving birth to two children, her husband revealed that he had a second wife, which is not unusual in some cultures. However, the first wife did not accept Nayima, so she had to leave the household.

She married again and, with her second husband, had eight children. Unfortunately for Nayima, they were all girls, so her second husband left her because he wanted a son. He returned, however, when he became ill, and Nayima scraped together money for his medical expenses. He died shortly after returning, leaving her pregnant with twins.

Nayima moved to a single room with her children. They had nothing to eat; Nayima couldn’t even afford a piece of soap so she would ask whoever was doing laundry to give her their dirty water so she could wash her children’s clothes. Because they were so poor, all the children were forced to drop out of school. Nayima began selling bananas and fried cassava by the roadside, but still her life didn’t change much. Her dream was to operate her own small business and improve the lives of her children, so when a friend introduced Nayima to her village banking group, she joined and took out a first loan of 100,000 Uganda shillings (50 US dollars).

Over the years, she has taken out many loans and, today, she owns a small restaurant and a catering business. Two of her daughters are now married and work at the restaurant, four of her children are still in school, and one son works at a petrol station.