Freedom from Hunger Shows How Banking and Healthcare Can Work Together for the World’s Poor

Freedom from Hunger has successfully completed a $6 million project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The four-year grant enabled Freedom from Hunger and five microfinance banks in Africa, Asia and Latin America to add health protection options to their financial offerings, reaching more than 1.5 million of the world’s rural poor in five countries: Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, India and the Philippines.

“Microfinance is succeeding at putting money into the hands of poor people but too often ill health causes them to slip back down the ladder into poverty again,” said Chris Dunford, President of Freedom from Hunger. “Our solution is to bring together the economic development and health sectors to develop practical and coordinated tools that have more power to create lasting change.” The health programs included health savings, health loans, health insurance, health education, group discounts with health providers, mobile healthcare in rural villages, distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and more.

Freedom from Hunger conducted careful research and evaluation to determine the impacts of these innovative combinations of microfinance services and health programs. In Bolivia, for example, 24 percent of clients said that they had never seen a doctor before participating in the program, and in India, the life-saving use of oral rehydration solution increased by 47 percent to treat children with diarrhea (a leading cause of death in local children). In Benin, families in the program were 23 percent more likely to own an anti-malarial net.

“These are incredible outcomes after only a brief intervention period and they show that this work is having impact,” said Marcia Metcalfe, Director of Microfinance and Health Protection at Freedom from Hunger and former CEO of a U.S.-based health insurance company. “Microfinance has enormous potential as a financially viable mechanism for reaching poor, rural people with simple but life-saving health protection services.”

Locally owned microfinance banks see increased returns when their clients are healthier and have more knowledge and options to protect their health. Microfinance banks are typically commercial entities with a social mission, so they must earn enough profit in order to continue serving their clientele. Freedom from Hunger, with the support of grant funds, can help microfinance banks improve efficiency as well as the impact of their products to better achieve their social and financial goals.

“Our experience has shown that well-established microfinance banks can offer valuable health-related options to their clients at low or no cost to the bank itself. In fact, our research results indicate that, in some cases, the resulting increase in client attraction and loyalty may lead to a net financial gain for the banks,” said Myka Reinsch, Special Advisor at Freedom from Hunger.

Daouda Sawadogo, leader of one of the participating microfinance providers, RCPB in Burkina Faso, pointed out, “These services go a long way to addressing the needs of our clients and helping them overcome poverty-and if they can be offered at low or no marginal cost, then that is a double win.”

Participating microfinance institutions include Bandhan (India), CARD (Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, Philippines), CRECER (Crédito con Educación Rural, Bolivia), PADME (Projet d’Appui au Développement des Microentreprises, Bénin), and RCPB (Réseau des Caisses Populaires du Burkina, Burkina Faso).

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