Clinton Global Initiative brings Native American focus to the world
Rapid City, S.D. – Investing in rural development around the world is not only good charity, it can be a good business investment that will prevent a future economic crisis, according to a panel of development experts at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting. The panel included the head of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation (Oweesta).
The impact of successful economic development in rural areas is exemplified by the utilization of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) in Native communities, Elsie Meeks, President and CEO of Oweesta, told attendees and fellow panelists, which included micro-finance pioneer and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
Through training, capacity building and technical assistance services, Meeks and Oweesta are at the forefront of the movement to increase the number of Native CDFIs and asset building programs serving Native peoples across the country. During the Global Impact of Rural Innovation plenary session, Meeks was able to provide a unique perspective to the issue of poverty in Native communities and offer strategies for the future.
CGI was started by former President Bill Clinton and the William J. Clinton Foundation in 2005 as “… a call for action that brings together a community of global leaders from various backgrounds to devise and implement innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.” While CGI has often focused on international issues, Meeks urged attendees to look at domestic issues in the United States, particularly in Native communities.
Wealthy Countries Must Not Learn Wrong Lesson
Opening remarks and panel discussion made it clear that despite current economic problems, rural development is important and that wealthy countries and donors should not learn the wrong lesson. (To watch President Clinton’s remarks and the panel discussion in its entirety please see the following link: http://video.clintonglobalinitiative.org/health_cast/player_cgi2008_nointro.cfm?id=4592.) Rural investment strategies like micro enterprise are not the cause of these financial problems. Those types of investments have a real rate of return, and the current problems could actually turn into an opportunity to develop good financial practices in rural areas of the country, especially among tribes and Native communities.
Poverty in the world is often situated in rural areas. Three quarters of the poor worldwide live in rural areas and depend on the agriculture industry. The poverty in Native communities is comparable to third world countries, Meeks said.
“Native people have been handed poor policies by the federal government, but the opportunities are there now to grow beyond that,” Meeks said. “The private sector is getting a start on reservations, mostly through CDFIs. Community development leads people to wealth creation. This can seem like an odd goal when you are seeing people that are very dependant and very poor, but we have to think not just about immediate needs, but look to the future and wealth creation.”
Fellow panelist Jacques Aigrain, CEO, Swiss Reinsurance Company, noted that markets in rural areas lend themselves to commercial enterprise solutions. The success of CDFI’s in Native communities, is part of those commercial solutions, Meeks said, noting that President Clinton was responsible for the Community Development & Financial Institutions Banking Act of 1994, which paved the way for the Native CDFI movement.
“Nowhere have CDFIs had more impact than on Indian reservations,” Meeks said. “We look at it holistically- it is about asset building, financial literacy and homeownership. We have had to practice safe and sound policies, and practices. I don’t know any CDFIs that have lost money- they have all earned a rate of return.”
Investing Can Yield More Return
By investing in business and development, funders change the dynamic of giving and make it more productive, the panelists said. As Yunus said, if you give away one dollar as a donation, it never comes back, but investing in social business has a much broader impact. “If we invest the money to achieve the same goal as a charitable donation, but in a business format, that funding recycles. It has an endless life, rather than one life.”
In addition to the forum, the CGI event offered a CGI Exchange where nonprofits from around the world were able to exhibit and share their message, vision and work with attendees. Potential funders where able to see how their dollars can be put into action and were made aware of issues that may have been off their radar, especially Native economic development issues through Oweesta’s participation. It was an incredible honor to be a part of this event, said Meeks.
“It is so important to bring these Native issues to the international stage. If we can’t solve the poverty here in our Native communities, how are we going to do it in any other country?” Meeks asked. “I don’t care if there are 10 or 10,000 of us, we need to do something.”
Oweesta (http://www.oweesta.org) is a certified Native CDFI intermediary, providing Native communities with loans, investments, technical assistance, training and community development information. Its mission is to provide opportunities for Native people to develop assets and create wealth by assisting in the establishment of strong, permanent institutions and programs, leading to economic independence and strengthening sovereignty for all Native communities.
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