(Texte disponible uniquement en anglais)
Ladies and Gentlemen
During my last visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2004, I was greatly impressed by the developments underway in your country. Five years have passed by, and I would like to congratulate you again on the impressive achievements of the Emirates. Their Highnesses Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed now follow the footsteps of their regretted father, the late president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. We honour his memory.
In the Emirates, you share and promote a vision of building a peaceful and equitable society in which human development takes a central place. Your country is known and appreciated for its openness and tolerance, and for its stimulating professional environment. Over the years, the Emirates have become an important partner for Belgium. And we are also delighted that many Emirati people found their way to Belgium. We cherish these close links with you and are hopeful that for the future this relationship will become even closer.
I am especially honoured by the invitation of His Highness Sheik Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan which has given me the opportunity to speak to you at this splendid college which offers outstanding opportunities for education and personal development.
Each time it is a pleasure to meet motivated students who are open to innovative and creative ideas and initiatives, and not afraid of taking up a challenge. The Higher Colleges of Technology are preparing you for a bright future as responsible citizens.
Today I want to talk to you about an issue that is possibly not well-known to some of you, namely "inclusive financial services"; maybe the terminology 'microcredit and microfinance' is more familiar to you.
I also know that your college will be working on a project during the coming months, called "Stand up and take action to end poverty now". As an advocate for the International Year on Microcredit 2005, I thought it a good idea to tell you something more about inclusive financial services.
And it was with great interest that I learned yesterday that Sheik Nahyan recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founding father of microcredit and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. This MoU agreed upon with the Yunus Centre promotes mutual understanding and cooperation in areas of common interest in education, research, information gathering and action planning so as to deepen an understanding of each other's cultures. I salute wholeheartedly His Highness Sheik Nahyan for taking this initiative.
I have no intention of giving you a lecture on the technical aspects of inclusive financial services. My only ambition is to awaken your curiosity and to encourage you to learn more about this financial instrument and further develop your thinking on the subject. You could be the next generation of policy and decision makers that have to strike a balance between on the one hand financing and banking and on the other hand helping poor and low-income people to improve their standard of living. Not an easy task to do!
But what exactly are we talking about? Microcredit, microfinance and inclusive financial services. As you can see, the definition has evolved over the years. To put it simply: they are all unique tools to fight poverty and help people improve their standard of living. They are based on the experience that poor people and low-income households are capable of taking control over their own lives and their own finances. They are tools the poor need to lift themselves out of poverty: small loans -sometimes a few euros or dollars- allowing them to start up or expand a business, and financial services helping micro-entrepreneurs to benefit from their own labour.
It is estimated that today over two billion people worldwide remain excluded from traditional banks and the financial services we are so familiar with such as credit, savings, insurance, and money transfers.
But why is it that so many people are perceived as "unbankable" and do not have sustainable access to the formal financial institutions? Are they really not profitable or reliable-as is often stated by some? No. It has been repeatedly proven that micro entrepreneurs are one of the most vibrant and energetic groups in developing countries. And what is even more important: the poor want more than charity. They want to be sustained in their own economic activities that generate increased earnings. They want to meet basic needs by increasing their assets and income. The poor want to build their own businesses, repay their loans, and save money with the ultimate goal to achieve a better life for their family. When talking about "microenterprises" one thinks about small retail shops, street vending, artisans making craft items....while in rural areas where the poorest of the poor are living, small income-generating activities are mostly centred around food-processing and trade; not all are farmers.
It will not be a surprise to you that women are very active as clients of inclusive financial services. Poverty often has a female face. Being quite often the poorest of the poor, women consider microfinance a tool to improve their own status and that of their family and to have better access to healthcare. It gives women the economic independence they had never experienced before. But women especially want their children to have a good education so that the children may realise their own dreams.
During the past years, I visited many projects all over the world: in Mexico, Russia, China, India, Mali,...Each time I met energetic micro entrepreneurs. Just by listening to them, we can learn so much. All of them have an interesting story to tell. Nobody knows better the difficulties and impediments to finding finance than the people who experience them. So let us listen to them and get them seriously involved. I am looking forward to meeting some Emirati beneficiaries of a microcredit programme sponsored by the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development later today.
The debate on the definition of inclusive financial services, on the definition of poverty, on data-gathering, on innovation and new technologies ,....still continues. The big achievement after years of advocacy in this sector is that governments, the public as well the private sector working together, financial institutions, non-governmental organisations and others are all aware now of the great potential of inclusive financial services as a tool to alleviate poverty, to empower women and to promote human development. Increased access to financial services is further needed as well as cross-sector coordination, in order to create successful financial systems. All those issues have been put today on the agenda of policy makers.
Having said all of this, I do continue to believe that social and financial considerations should work hand in hand. Let us never forget that behind the statistics and financial figures stands a human being working hard to achieve a better life.
I express the strong hope that you, at the Higher Colleges for Technology, will explore deeply the different issues at stake in creating an inclusive financial system accessible to the "unbankable" in developing as well as in developed countries.
Yes indeed, this instrument is also used in the developed world although on a smaller scale and within a different socio-economic context, where a well developed social security system and a strong banking sector exist. But the basic philosophy remains the same: to help those who want to start up a small business and improve their situation through their own efforts.
Your Chancellor, Sheik Nahyan is a man of vision. The MoU signed with the Yunus centre in Bangladesh will enhance the knowledge about microcredits in the United Arab Emirates, and encourage reflection about a poverty free world. This is a good way of proceeding.
Dear students, I wish each and every one of you much success for the future.
I thank you.