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Friday, October 24, 2008

Oxfam America to Expand Community Finance Program in Mali and Cambodia

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation $11.7 million grant

International development and relief organization Oxfam America today announced it received an $11.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Saving for Change, the organization's unique community finance program. Oxfam will continue to collaborate with Freedom from Hunger and Stromme Foundation to launch an unprecedented expansion of Saving for Change over the next three years.

Oxfam's innovative approach to community finance breaks with that of traditional microfinance institutions. Saving for Change trains large numbers of savings and credit groups in the poorest regions of the world to save together and make loans to each other with their own resources instead of taking out a loan from a bank, credit union or microfinance institution.

"The first Saving for Change group was trained three years ago. Today, over 150,000 villagers in Mali and Cambodia have already joined savings and lending groups," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. "With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we will reach close to 550,000 villagers in the next three years."

With this growth, Saving for Change will become the largest microfinance program in these two countries and the only one reaching the rural poor at this scale. Village groups act as their own community banks, providing villagers with a place to save and easy access to loans. As a result, poor people living in remote areas with little or no financial institutions can access self-managed financial services to build assets, increase incomes, and improve the livelihoods of their families.

"Not only is Saving for Change different because it is based on saving instead of borrowing, it also relies on person-to-person training and relationships instead of technology. This helps build trust and ultimately makes the savings and lending groups more sustainable," said Offenheiser.

Oxfam will use this grant to replicate its community finance model in communities throughout Mali and Cambodia. In addition, it will allow the organization an opportunity to explore further program growth in Latin America.

Millions of people in Asia and Africa live on one dollar a day or less, and few have access to savings or other financial services that can help them increase their financial security and improve their lives. Without places to save, it is difficult for families to build savings to pay for educational fees, medical bills, or emergencies. Others have little or no access to micro loans that could improve their incomes through investments like setting up a small sales kiosk, buying crop fertilizer, or acquiring an animal for breeding.

Funding to expand Saving for Change comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Financial Services for the Poor initiative, which works with partners to make savings and other financial services available in developing countries so the poor can better manage life's risks and take advantage of life's opportunities.

"The innovative savings and lending approach has been successful at bringing affordable financial services to people with very low incomes living in remote communities," said Bob Christen, director of the Financial Services for the Poor initiative. "We believe that Saving for Change's groups will open the door to opportunity and increased household financial security for many poor people."

The grant also supports program evaluation and research that will help document and fully measure Oxfam's impact on communities. Researchers will be asking key questions on the affect participating in Saving for Change has including:

Does it affect how-and how much-women save and borrow?

Does it improve risk-coping and food security?

Does it build crucial social networks and businesses?

And, does it improve agricultural production?

"The research component of this grant will help us fine tune our program so that it best meets the needs of the poor," concluded Offenheiser. "Documenting Saving for Change's success will also help build momentum for expanding savings-led community finance programs around the world."

Saving for Change is implemented by Oxfam America in collaboration with Freedom from Hunger and Norway-based Stromme Foundation. Freedom from Hunger's support includes developing training manuals, and contributing technical assistance for the planning, implementation and evaluation of the program. Stromme Foundation, along with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, underwrites the costs for the teams training savings and lending groups in Mali.

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Thai, Cambodia 'friendly' but firm in border talks

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AFP) — Thai and Cambodian military commanders on Friday concluded talks aimed at easing border tensions after deadly clashes last week, but staunchly maintained their front line positions.

The senior military officials, whose talks began over a round of golf a day earlier, met to defuse the border dispute near the ancient Preah Vihear temple, which erupted into a firefight on October 15 that left one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers dead.

"For the issue of Preah Vihear area, both sides vowed to exercise maximum patience in order to avoid confrontation or more military clashes," the leader of the Cambodian delegation, General Chea Mon, told reporters at the conclusion of meetings.

"Both sides will continue discussion to resolve the problem peacefully in order to ease the tension gradually," he added.

The Thai commanders, led by Lieutenant General Wiboonsak Neeparn, said there was a "friendly atmosphere" with the Cambodians but insisted Thailand's soldiers would stand firm.

"The Thai side strongly reiterates that the position of our troop deployments is clearly inside Thai territory," said a statement from Thai commanders released as the meetings began.

Cambodian Brigadier Bun Thean, a commander at the border, told AFP by telephone that "the situation remains calm at Preah Vihear, but our troops are still on high alert."

Thailand's terms of negotiation must be approved in parliament on Tuesday before the two countries can have further border talks.

Separately, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his opposite number Somchai Wongsawat reiterated that their nations would prevent any more armed clashes over the dispute as they met in Beijing on the margins of a summit between leaders of Asian and European nations.

Cambodian and Thai military officials agreed to joint border patrols a day after last week's temple clashes.

But Cambodian commanders have since backed out, saying such patrols are not possible in disputed areas.

Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia flared in July when Preah Vihear was awarded United Nations World Heritage status, rekindling long-running tensions over ownership of land surrounding the temple.
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Thailand, Cambodia resolve to settle border feud

BEIJING (AP) — The leaders of Thailand and Cambodia resolved Friday to settle their countries' border dispute peacefully, foreign ministers from the two nations said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Somchai Wongsawat discussed the issue during bilateral talks early Friday on the sidelines of a 43-nation Asian-European summit in China's capital, Beijing.

Fighting near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple last week killed two Cambodians and triggered fears of a broader conflict, and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the leaders were determined to prevent similar conflicts breaking out.

"What happened between us we have to solve peacefully, amicably, for the sake of our neighborliness," Hor Namhong said.

Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat said it was imperative that the sides order their troops not to provoke or engage in fighting.

Sompong said last week's battle "happened instantly and was uncontrollable at that time," but he added that that now "the two sides must really advise our troops on each side not to have a confrontation any longer."

The Beijing meeting came as Thai and Cambodian military officials were holding talks in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap aimed at defusing tensions along the border.

Thai Lt. Gen. Wiboonsak Neeparn said in a statement that both sides plan on exercising restraint to prevent more violence.

Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong says Cambodia wants both sides to redeploy their troops from the area to reduce tension.

The border talks ended with the two sides reiterating pledges to prevent more violence.

Thailand and Cambodia "are committed to exercising their utmost restraint to avoid confrontation or armed clashes," Cambodian regional army commander Maj. Gen. Chea Mon said.

Last week's fighting was the latest flare-up a recently revived dispute over a stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.
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