Sunday, May 20, 2012

Passport Series: Vibrant culture and microfinance pave a brighter future in Burkina Faso

"We’re a very poor country that’s very rich in culture."

The Kiva coordinator at our partner Micro Start said this to our fellow when she first arrived. It aptly summarizes the dominant characteristics of this landlocked west African country.

Burkina Faso, home to 15 million people, has one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in the world. With much of the north lost to the Sahara desert, high population density, limited natural resources, fragile soil and unpredictable rainfall offer no easy living for its population.

Recognizing that few countries have managed to quickly reduce poverty without first increasing agriculture productivity, organizations like IFAD, have invested in establishing new and improving existing irrigations systems.

While these investments have helped boost the agriculture industry, food instability continues to affect 50% of households. In fact, malnutrition affects 37% of children under the age of 5. While these numbers remain staggeringly high, the good news is that these numbers are steadily decreasing as other factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty are improving, like access to education and healthcare.

For decades, school fees and a preferential treatment for males stifled the education system. In 2007, Burkina Faso abolished fees for primary education, which has helped raise the boy-to-girl student ratio and decreased the illiteracy rate. Still, the UNDP still ranks Burkina Faso as the country with the lowest level of literacy in the world, and fees for secondary schooling remain prohibitive for most.

The importance of education comes into sharp relief when you look at the statistics on female circumcision. Despite being criminalized in 1996, seven years later 77% of women still had been subjected to the practice. Surveys revealed that the prevalence varied dramatically based on the education of the mother. Given that 80% of the population lives in rural areas, education is key to combating lingering bias and gender inequality disguised as tradition.

Burkina Faso has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world in large part due to a lack of access to information. This lack of resources and information at best results in lost productivity and economic activity and at worst results in things like witch hunts and physical abuse without recourse.

By partnering with organizations like Micro Start, that approach the system holistically and want to support development economically and socially, Kiva hopes to play a role in securing a brighter and more equitable future by supporting the vibrant culture of this country.

Scrolling through the stories of our borrowers from Burkina Faso, their motivation is almost always to help their children, their parents or their spouse. Families often stay very close together with the expectation that aging parents will be taken care of by their children. These strong familial bonds mean that often the generation that is working is primarily motivated by the opportunities their efforts will have on the next generation.

Burkina Faso's rich oral storytelling tradition has given birth to an influx of writers, playwrights and film makers. This creativity extends into music, dancing and crafts. The capital city, Ouagadougou has become host to the International Arts and Crafts Fair, one of the most important African handicraft fairs in the world. People from around the world gather to admire the masks, sculpture, textiles and pottery made by rural Burkinabé villagers.

By preserving and celebrating Burkina Faso's rich culture, and supporting programs that empower people with resources and information we are helping this unique, complex country live up to its motto: "Unity, Progress, Justice."

This is the first of a three-part series taking a closer look at Burkina Faso, its history with microfinance, Kiva's role in expanding opportunities for 
Burkinabé households, and what it's like to participate in the country's economy as a borrower, lender and field worker. We hope you enjoy.

Photos courtesy of Rita Willaert, CIDSE, UNICEF, Upperlab, Escalepade.