Helping hands around the world

The Internet has made giving to those less fortunate easier than ever.

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Last spring, I lent 100 bucks to a woman named Helena Tawiah, whom I'd never met.

Here's how it happened:

My wife and I were watching TV one night – it must have been PBS – when we heard about a project called Kiva. We've both lived overseas and were impressed that the founders had concocted a way to marry sophisticated Internet capabilities to the need for capital at the grass-roots level of developing countries. They do this by putting their technology at the service of foundations working with small-scale local businesspeople. These foundations develop loan requests from the entrepreneurs, upload them to Kiva, and then help make sure the loans get repaid.

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We went to the website. There, we were invited to "Choose an entrepreneur" from a list of them in countries all over the world. What caught our eye was Helena's Plastic Products, run by Helena Tawiah of Nkurankan, Yilo Krobo District, Ghana. There was a photo of Helena standing before a large collection of plastic containers, a kind of Tupperware queen of Yilo Krobo. Why not advance her $100? We would start our own mini development-aid program.

Why Ghana? If you've been to Ghana, you have to love the place. Accra, the capital, has a wonderful West African vibrancy that you'd never expect when you see what the sea air does to the sides of buildings. The town looks – or at least it used to – as if the whole place is in an advanced state of decay. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We were in and out of Accra when I was doing business in West Africa 35 years ago. We usually stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. Late at night, as we'd be trying to get to sleep, the band on the bar terrace below our window would play, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." One of my favorite tunes. I lived in San Francisco before we married. I loved to hear the band swing into those familiar strains. The local crooner would sing: "where little cable cars / climb halfway to the sky..."

And I'd want to jump out of bed, thrust my head out the window, and yell: "Halfway to the stars! Stars! Stars!! It rhymes, my friend! 'Stars' rhymes with 'cars.' " I wanted to, but I never did. It was their country, after all, and I was a visitor.

Every morning, as we'd be lying in bed with the gray light of dawn just appearing in the sky, a well-dressed hotel executive would unlock the door, poke her head inside the room, and ask, "Are you leaving today?" Our personal alarm clock. We knew it was time to rise and conquer the world.

My contact in Accra was Cameron, a tall, well-dressed, well-spoken, good-looking African. He had published a novel, "The Gab Boys." I still have a copy of it on my shelves – and oh! did I wish I could say I had published one, too. When he took us to his home, his wife, Beryl, greeted us. She was attractive, formerly a dancer whose father had been a Briton in the colonial service. And there was a teenage boy, Cameron's son.

"The son is the child of one of Cam's up-country wives," a fellow I met told me. "He has two wives up country, taking care of his farms. Beryl's his city wife." Amazing!

So we chose to help Helena Tawiah in Ghana. The website told us that she had six children, one of them in school, and that she cared for two grandchildren. "Monday through Saturday," the website said, "Helena wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to cook for her children and prepare for her workday. Usually she arrives at her plastics kiosk by 6 a.m. so that she completes a full work day before her children return from school around 4 p.m."

"In Ghana," the website continued, "buying in bulk requires a large amount of working capital that many small business owners do not have."

Helena had apparently had an earlier loan; that made her seem loan-worthy. With her Kiva loan, she stocked items she'd never carried before – coolers, thermoses, and a larger selection of bowls and buckets. She had attracted new customers and had significantly increased her weekly take to 100,000 cedis, the Ghanaian currency. Still that amounted to less than $11, and our hearts went out to her. "...Helena keenly reinvests 100 percent to restock her business," the website assured us.

The loan would be administered by the Kraban Support Foundation, a local organization whose "ultimate aim" is "...to enhance the access of small-scale entrepreneurs to sustainable financial services."

Kiva posted Helena's request for a $750 loan on April 10, 2007. Two days later, 17 Internet contributors had funded it, some of them supplying no more than $25, but still contributing to overseas development. The website gave their first names, some photos, and where they came from. Three were from California, and two each were from Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York. Three were couples, and one was a family from Utah (complete with baby photo).

What this array of investors says to me is that there are a lot of good people out there who'd be happy to give at least $25 to help someone less fortunate than themselves. To me, that represents the best of America.

There are other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doing similar things – although without the contributor having so direct a connection with the local entrepreneur. We've contributed for several years to FINCA. Also to Pro Mujer. They're microfinance NGOs, with Pro Mujer specializing in helping Latin American women. We've also supported TechnoServe and Children International.

There are dozens of similar organizations making it possible for well-intentioned people in developed countries to help others who are less fortunate. I have a friend who is convinced that it is these organizations – not governments – that will move the world beyond the conflicts of the day.

Some weeks ago an e-mail flashed on my screen: contactus@kiva.org. It let us know that Helena had repaid her loan. I feel strangely proud of her and of the 17 of us who helped her.

I reinvested the $100 in Kiva. This time, we are supporting 16 "lionesses" (so they call themselves) who prepare and sell food in Bolivia, where we've visited. They sought $4,850 to provide fast, local food to tourists during festivals. That's more than Helena asked for, but the loan is being administered by Pro Mujer, and we know some Pro Mujer people. So we feel confident about our money helping women get ahead. We wish the lionesses well!

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