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Gates Foundation allocates $38M in banking grants

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SEATTLE (AP) — From a TV soap opera advocating savings in the Dominican Republic to banking by motorbike in Ethiopia and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s most recent grants to promote global development have a decidedly more creative bent.

But the ingenuity of the recipients of the $38 million in grants announced Wednesday did not result from a foundation request for new ideas. It was an unexpected bonus, said Joyce Bontrager Lehman, a program officer in the foundation’s financial services for the poor initiative.

Lehman said the aim of a recent request for proposals was more basic: The Gates Foundation wants to work with microfinance networks around the world that have already made a successful transition to allow their customers to save money as well as take out loans.

The goal of the grants is to give more people a safe way to save their money. The foundation estimates these new initiatives could make savings accounts available to 11 million people across 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the next five years.

“Our goal is to help them reach farther down into poorer markets and farther out into the more remote areas,” Lehman said.

The impact could grow beyond the estimates, if the potential the foundation sees in these ideas is reached, she said, noting that these projects have an enormous potential for duplication in other organizations.

This is the foundation’s second big collection of grants in its financial services initiative. Another $35 million in grants was announced in September to help facilitate agent banking services in Africa, Asia and South and Central America, through the use of mobile phones and kiosks in markets and post offices.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian, CEO of New York-based Women’s World Banking, was happy to learn that the network of 40 microfinance providers and banks in 28 countries will be given $8.5 million for a variety of initiatives that aim to reach an estimated 3.5 million people.

Iskenderian also was delighted the Gates Foundation decided to wrap what she called a “crazy idea” into the mix. The foundation is going to pay to produce a new Dominican Republic soap opera or “tella novella” with saving money as a recurring theme.

Of course, the soap opera, which is expected to begin airing in the second half of 2010, will also focus on more typical soap opera themes: relationships and family drama, said Iskenderian.

And some stories will combine both approaches, such as one about a woman saving money without letting her husband know she has an extra pot of cash, and the story of a mother who learns about savings from her teenage daughter who has become mom’s go-to person at the end of the month when she runs out of money.

The idea of transmitting social messages through tella novellas is not new; birth control and HIV-AIDS prevention have been promoted through the same medium. The complicated part of this grant, however, is the Gates Foundation’s need to see proof that a grant delivers on its promise, Iskenderian said.

Her organization will be closely monitoring banking activity throughout the country when the soap opera begins airing.

Most of the Women’s World Banking ideas supported by the Gates Foundation are more along the line of the other grants announced this week:

— Helping microfinance organizations figure out which software works best for remote banking.

— Putting bank employees on motorbikes with handheld devices to reach people in remote African and Indian villages.

— Installing automatic teller machines in the Philippines.

— Researching why some people in rural areas are uncomfortable with using cell phones and other electronic devices for making savings deposits.

Iskenderian said her organization would continue to look for creative ways to increase access to savings and other banking services for the poor.

“Loans or credit were the model for the first 30 years of microfinance. Savings is the future,” she said.

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On the Web:

Gates Foundation: http://www.gatesfoundation.org