Gates Foundation convenes global savings forum

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is getting ready to do some matchmaking on a global scale.

The world's largest charitable foundation is bringing together bankers, government officials, regulators, telecommunications companies and community organizers from around the world next week to cut some deals to benefit the poor.

The Global Savings Forum, set for Tuesday and Wednesday in Seattle, includes the usual conference fodder: speeches by dignitaries like Melinda Gates, who is expected to make a major grant announcement; and by Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, the United Nations' special advocate for inclusive finance for development.

But the conference's main focus will be getting people talking in small groups, to share ideas and technology and maybe cut a few business deals across borders, said Bob Christen, director for the foundation's financial services for the poor program.

"What we're mostly doing is putting a vision out there," Christen said. He added the $200 million in grants the foundation has made to help set up new programs to encourage and facilitate savings is secondary to its advocacy work to help poor people around the world make financial plans for the future, to save for everything from fertilizer to school fees and uniforms.

The foundation focuses its efforts on encouraging savings rather than micro-credit in Africa, Latin America and Asia because they believe that's the approach most likely to help the 2.5 billion people around the world who live on about $2 a day take control of their own futures.

How do these small farmers and merchants have anything to save? Savings for them is very different from the savings accounts Americans open in their local bank, Christen explains.

Savings to the small farmer or businesswoman means putting away the 50 cents she has left over after providing for her family's immediate needs on a given day so it doesn't end up being spend on nonessentials.

The mechanics of savings in the developing world is also quite different. People in Kenya, for example, use their cell phones to transfer money into and out of their accounts by stopping by the booth of another local merchant to make the transaction. These local "bankers" are the same people who sell cell phone minutes.

For the past three years, more than 12.6 million people in Kenya, about 57 percent of the adult population, have begun using a cell phone banking system run by a service called M-PESA to make these small transactions.

Christen said the foundation believes the same technology could help people in Pakistan and Haiti, but in the normal path of business, M-PESA of Kenya would never have a chance to meet cell phone operators from Pakistan or bankers from Haiti to talk about expanding into those markets.

Not only will they have that chance in Seattle next week, Christen said his team will focus on that kind of matchmaking, smoothing the way across cultures, languages and cell phone operating systems.

He said the foundation is also hoping to use the meeting as a way to gather intelligence from its grantees and find out what's working to help the poor save money and make financial plans for the future, and what foundation initiatives need fine turning or should be scrapped.



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