Toespraak van Hare Majesteit de Koningin - Opening Ceremony of the Annual Conference of the European Microfinance Network
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The COVID pandemic has subsided. Society and the economy are looking towards the future again, and we are able to meet in person. I welcome this opportunity to share with you these moments of reflection on the role, the expanding potential, and the growth of microfinance for social inclusion in Europe.
Microfinance takes many shapes and serves very different projects. It evolves in a variety of contexts. It builds on local practices and resources. Indeed, microcredit systems are conceived, and subsequently evolve, according to the specific economic, social and financial background in which they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and requirements of the customers they serve. The different contexts can also be the source of a wealth of knowledge and inspiration that can be shared by all. Sharing experience, confronting stories of successes and failures, exchanging best practices and building networks remains key. So, I welcome the broad and diverse participation in your conference, including the providers from outside Europe.
As an Advocate for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, let me first reiterate the urgency of the implementation of these universal goals. Microfinance can contribute to reaching many of them, through innovation and social enterprises. The eradication of poverty, for example, the achievement of food security and better health for all; gender equality and decent work, as well as a general reduction in inequality; and the promotion of sustainable models of production and consumption. Microfinance can also contribute to a greener economy. The implementation of the SDGs relies for its success on various model partnerships involving different stakeholders: the public sector, private companies and civil society associations. And last but not least, their overarching principle is that “no one should be left behind”.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We know that too many people, especially the young, women and older persons are missing out on the opportunities to create their own business or self-employment. Consequently, they miss out on the opportunity to improve their own life and the lives of their families, and to contribute fully to society. The reasons for this can be very diverse: displacement, a lack of quality education, an insufficient level of financial literacy, inexistent networks, or difficult access to bank credit. As a result, a vast pool of talent remains unexplored, sidetracked and underused. Women, in particular, lag behind. They still have to overcome the burdens of stereotyping and domestic work, but also, sometimes, their own lack of confidence in their business skills. Among young people, a lack of sufficient entrepreneurship skills remains a key barrier. Let me refer briefly here to the mission of the fund that bears my name: to encourage projects by young people for other young people. In this context, not only are young people, who wish to contribute to the solution of a local societal issue, encouraged to develop their own projects; they also learn, through appropriate coaching, entrepreneurship skills that they will use throughout their lives, such as team spirit, creativity, perseverance, communication, and partnerships.
In a world where inequality is growing and where crises follow one after another, it is essential that we do not bypass opportunities to help bridge the gaps and strengthen social inclusion. As your presence today testifies, there are solutions available, based on more supportive approaches, to guarantee financial inclusion. Microfinance and its rich ecosystem of banks, cooperatives, associations, volunteers and, of course, entrepreneurs are a testimony to the power of cooperation, solidarity and imagination. However, the potential risks posed by high interest rates and over-indebtedness for the beneficiaries of microcredits cannot easily be dismissed.
One cannot overstate the importance, for those budding entrepreneurs who are the beneficiaries of microfinancing, of a benevolent support and counseling system. A system that supports them in the initial stages, as they design and submit their business projects, but also later, as their professional activities start developing. Competence in financial and digital literacy, and technological reskilling remain essential. It is very encouraging to see that many providers of microcredit now include tailor-made support measures in their procedures, which are improving constantly.
However, as we saw with the COVID pandemic, unforeseen circumstances can harm the best business plan and the bravest entrepreneurs. We must draw lessons for the future. Maybe by expanding the scope of support, creating networks with other partners, keeping in mind the broader environment in which beneficiaries operate: education, social safety networks, health coverage, financial means, but also mental well-being. As you know, mental health is an issue to which I attach great importance. We are all aware, after the COVID pandemic, of the high levels of stress and anxiety that can result from prolonged uncertainty and isolation. As a result, the consensus has broadened in our society on the need to pay due attention to mental well-being and to provide adequate psychological support, counseling and care to those who require it. For new entrepreneurs, who are taking risks in uncertain times, this support should also be readily available. It could help them to buffer the shocks, build resilience, and find renewed strength after possible setbacks or even failure, to carry forward their plans and projects.
I wish you very productive discussions and a successful Conference.