The guest of honour at the conference was the founder of Bangladeshs Grameen Bank, Mohammad Yunus. Inform-ation technology (IT) is a very powerful tool, to lift families out of poverty, he stated. It makes the millennium goal of reducing poverty worldwide by half by 2015 attainable.
The benefits to India of the magic combination of IT and microfinance were described by a number of speakers from India, including Medha Samant, director, Annapurna MFI, Pune; Dr Madanmohan Rao, an ICT consultant from New Delhi; Chandrashekhar Ghosh, Bandhan MFI, and Milind Kamble, Brussels-based regional manager for Tata Consultancy Services. The conference was organised by PlaNet Finance, the Paris-based microfinance platform, with offices in both India and China. Its president, Jacques Attali, advisor to the former French President, Francois Mitterand, described IT as absolutely crucial for development. It allowed microfinance institutions to be plugged into the world economy.
Inevitably, perhaps, the conference was dominated by the co-president of PlaNet Finances advisory board, Mohammad Yunus. He pointed to the empowerment of women, thanks largely to Bangladeshs intense microfinance programme. The dramatic change in the status of women had resulted in Grameen Bank borrowers winning 2,000 of the 14,000 seats reserved for women in local elections in Bangladesh. The importance of young people in furthering the IT revolution was stressed by a director from the Information Society Department of the EUs executive arm, the European Commission. Mr De Sampaio Nunes noted that South Korean school children, for example, were sending their homework to their teachers by e-mail.
China and India may be super ICT powers, but their experience in using IT to promote microfinance is very different. Dr Madanmohan Rao could demonstrate how ICT is transforming microfinance, and Bandhans Chandrasekhar Ghosh point to the role microfinance is playing in raising income levels in villages.
Professor Xiaoshan Du, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a pioneer in microfinance in China, had a different story to tell. The concept of microfinance was introduced in China only ten years ago, he said. While the country recognised that IT is very useful for poverty alleviation, the problem of how it can be quickly and effectively applied to this end had yet to be solved.
This was partly because the central government was not clearly backing NGOs in microfinance. And while it is now allowing banks to give microfinance, the focus is not on the poor. Thus loans are being made to even rich farmers, Prof Xiaoshan Du noted. However, he was personally very optimistic that microfinance will develop in China in the near future.
PlaNet Finance is also seeking to promote the use of IT in Pakistan and Nepal also. It is partly funded by the EU, as the elimination of poverty is the guiding principle in the EUs development cooperation activities in India. The EU is also keen to promote cooperation between Indian and European firms in the most advanced sectors of ICT. Hence, the meeting in Brussels in three weeks time of the steering committee set up under the EU-India science cooperation programme. The five-member Indian delegation will be led by V S Ramamurthy, secretary, Department of Science and Technology, and include scientists active in genomics and nuclear physics.
The meeting will look at ways in which Indian scientists can take part in the EUs sixth framework programme on science and technology. The pro-cess will be carried forward at EuroIndia 2004, to be held in New Delhi from March 24-26, with the aim of giving Indian and European companies an opportunity to network across the entire field of information society technologies. While they will be looking at ways to bridge the digital divide, they will also be looking at next generation technologies, alongside eEnabling as well as security and standardisation and existing communication technologies.
The wide array of speakers from India and China at this weeks conference on IT @ work in microfinance pointed to an area in which India has an undoubted advantage over China -- the English language, though they will have to learn to speak more slowly when addressing an international audience.