Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No bailouts here

Tuesday afternoon’s session on the economy and public health was timely for the APHA Student Assembly to take on in light of this country’s financial woes.

However, the topic that caught this blogger’s attention was on the protective health benefits of microfinance in the developing world.

I’ve heard a little about microfinance, made famous by Professor Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, but I hadn’t heard about it in the context of public health. Empowering people to use their own skills to free themselves from the depths of poverty using modest loans? Sounds good to me! And it may help improve health outcomes associated with poverty, malnutrition, lack of immunizations and poor sanitation? Even better!

According to presenter Chethan Bachireddy, a medical student at Yale University, microfinance can be a powerful tool to lift people out of poverty and improve health outcomes. Bachireddy studied the use of microfinance as a coping mechanism during Indonesia’s financial crisis. He found that even in dire economic times when loans were scarce, individuals who had previously used microfinance were better able to save money. Ultimately, they tended to weather the economic crisis better than others.

Bachireddy said the poor need more safety nets, as illustrated by his example in Indonesia.

“I find it counterintuitive that the poor are the most vulnerable, yet they are the least likely to have access to things like health care and credit,” he said.

For more on microfinance, check out the Financial Access Initiative, a consortium of researchers from New York University, Yale and Harvard who are looking into ways the financial sector can help low-income families in developing nations. What are your thoughts on microfinance as a means of reducing poverty and improving health status?

— P.T.

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