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ECUADOR – Joining a credit union for Americans is a matter of finding one where they fit into a common bond, but for a group of rural Ecuadorian women under a three-year old project ending this month, they have had to earn the right to join. The program that the women are working under was co-sponsored by the Consultative Group to Assist Poor (CGAP) a consortium of 28 public and private development agencies working together to expand access to financial services for the poor in developing countries and the World Council of Credit Unions. Other groups such as Freedom from Hunger are also actively involved in helping rural Ecuadorian women become financially stable. As part of the project development, workers went into the rural areas to set up banking clubs comprised of up to six women. These women met weekly for five, 16-week cycles. The group set its own savings requirements, usually the equivalent of a $1 a week. Small loans were available. The women deposited their monies and arranged loans and then paid off the loans, and CGAP also used the meetings to provide women with additional information on health and other issues. When the women completed the cycles they could join one of the four participating credit unions in the project: CACPECO, Cooprogreso, 29 de Octobre and 23 de Julio. Together the four credit unions serve 215,000 members. According to WOCCU Worldwide Foundation Funds Manager Valerie Breunig, who considers herself fortunate to have met with the women involved because of their dedication and enthusiasm, they have a different mind set then most Americans. Breunig said Americans try to get education for good jobs, but the women she met with were trying to establish small local businesses. The attitude for self-employment can be explained both culturally and by the fact that there are no large or medium-sized employers in many of the areas where the GCAP/WOCCU program has based itself. The businesses were often simple services provided to their neighbors. One woman established a trout farm while another raised guinea pigs, which are considered a delicacy. Other women travel by bus two hours each way to buy clothes or other products to resell on stands in local marketplaces. The ideas are as varied as the needs. Ecuador, which has suffered from financial instability since the `80s saw 15 of its 38 banks fail in the last 1990s. Micro-finance projects such as these help stabilize small business in local communities. [email protected]

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