Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Nora Castaneda from the Venezuelan Women's Development Bank (Banmujer)

Magazine article New Internationalist

Interview with Nora Castaneda from the Venezuelan Women's Development Bank (Banmujer)

Article excerpt

Nora Castañeda should be tired from her gruelling speaking tour around Europe. Instead she is like a power station, pumping out energy and radiating sparkle; inspiring packed audiences wherever she speaks.

She is President of Banmujer (the Women's Development Bank of Venezuela) - a unique initiative by the Chavez Government. For, as she explains, the bank is about something much more than money: 'It was set up in consultation with people in the shantytowns and the countryside as one of the mechanisms to tackle endemic poverty in Venezuela. Since 70 per cent of Venezuelans living in poverty are women, we decided to target them. Banmujer tries to create a level playing field by empowering these women not just economically, but also politically and socially. It's a social development bank that assesses the viability of projects, and provides training in citizenship, organization, leadership, education, health and self-esteem as well as personal development. We are not building a bank - we are building a different way of life.'

'Banmujer's main function is to provide micro-credits to enable people to form or develop co-operatives and run local businesses. Low interest rates are subsidized.'

Since 2001, 96 per cent of monies lent by the bank have gone to women and 4 per cent to men. Borrowers receive loans averaging between $260 and $520, with a total of around one billion Bolivares ($520,000) already lent in the first quarter of this year. 'People ask how my government can afford this. The answer is: because we have oil! In most countries, aid simply helps women administer poverty, whereas our programme helps them climb out of it. We want to create an economy at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy, and economic change has to start with the poor.'

Being the daughter of a low-income single mother of African-indigenous descent, she knows this first hand. 'My mother slaved every day to send me to school and then university. When I gained my doctorate she was so proud and told everyone: look at my doctor daughter. But I replied angrily: "I'm not a doctor, I'm a woman!" As a mestizo (mixed race) woman, I know what poverty and discrimination mean and it was this as much as anything that made me determined to do something about it. That's why I studied economics.'

Then she chuckles: 'But I learnt Chicago economics and I had to rid my brain of that virus.' And in that, she's been successful. As a consequence, Banmujer has been attacked by its opponents because it doesn't produce profit and had run up bad debts of 40 per cent. …

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