Development Street Kids Can Bank On

To find a bank still readily giving loans during the financial crisis, you need only look as far as a Delhi train station.

There you'll find a child sitting at a ramshackle post. Despite his unkempt appearance, he's branch manager. Expertly trained by the people at Butterflies, a Delhi-based children's charity, he diligently takes deposits and marks them down in his client's passbook.

Like many banks, there's fine-print. All clients must be below the age of 18.

The Children's Development Khazana is unlike traditional banking institutions. You won't find many suits among their elected board of governors. That's because it's completely run by street kids.

With 26 main branches and 53 sub-branches across India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka, the Khazana gives more than the opportunity for to save their money - it gives children the opportunity to invest in their futures.

"In Hindi, khazana means wealth. We liked how that sounds. 'Children's development wealth,'" says Gerry Pinto, an advisor for Butterflies. "We brought it to the kids for discussion, they took to it."

Wealth is not something easily accumulated by street children. Their earnings first buy food. Then there is real concern of losing it. Extra money is often spent on destructive pastimes like drug abuse or gambling. It may also be stolen by older kids, policemen and others in positions of power. Sometimes shopkeepers who agree to take care of the money never give it back.

Observing this, Butterflies offered sanctuary for children's money. Once they had gathered enough, that collective piggybank became a place of business.

"They said they didn't want to go to a real bank," says Pinto. "They said, 'Big banks do not respect us because we are not dressed well. We want our own.'"

They came up with a system of passbooks and account numbers to record earnings. Then, they elected child managers and committees who trained with Butterflies in accounting to keep track of the day-to-day banking. The other children are then invited to basic literacy, math and budget training to better keep track of their deposits and withdrawals.

To take out a loan, they must draft a proposal to start a business or go back to school and submit it for approval by the loan committee.

"We help them through the whole process of appointing a board of directors and a child manager," says Pinto. "It teaches them democratic practices, how to organize a meeting and how to budget for expenses."

That in turn helps the children plan for their futures.

Take Tania Naaz for example. The 17-year-old daughter of a sex worker living in Muzaffarpur, India learned embroidery skills to make a living but had no where to put her earnings. After her father was paralyzed in an accident, she felt pressure to join her mother's profession in order to provide for the family - until she opened an account at the Khazana.

Naaz began making regular deposits. After a year, she took out a loan of 5000 rupees and started her own business. Since then, she has actually paid back 2200 rupees of her loan, saved another 1250 in her account and avoided exploitation in the sex trade.

"The major element that attracts children is making money," says Pinto. "But, when it comes to capturing their minds and promoting these development ideas, there is nothing like the bank."

Pinto explains they have seen hundreds of children break through poverty by saving. One group of children in Sri Lanka even used their collective earnings to construct girls' toilets for the community.

While none of the children with accounts at the Khazana seem like the most desirable candidates for a loan, the opportunities created by an account and passbook are seemingly endless. That's because investing in someone's future is never a risk.