Letter From Uganda: Given the Tools to Fight Poverty, Africa's Women Tend to Win

A ripple of laughter spreads through the room during Beatrice's prayer. We're in the town of Nansana, in central Uganda, taking part in a meeting of 25 micro-borrowers, all of them local women. Somebody translates: "Dear Lord, please make us strong and successful," Beatrice said before the group, before adding: "And put women above men for a change."

I'm here with BRAC, the global development organization based in Bangladesh that I'm proud to be a part of, on a visit with representatives of The MasterCard Foundation, which is helping to bring groundbreaking antipoverty solutions pioneered in Bangladesh to Africa. The MasterCard Foundation's partnership is an example of how private Western philanthropic investors are increasingly collaborating with large organizations based in the global South, like BRAC, to lift people out of long-term poverty.

Beatrice's joke cuts to the heart of much of what ails the poorest parts of our world. Women's secondary role is keeping whole sections of society, men and women alike, in poverty. So uplifting women is not just a matter of gender justice or "putting women above men." As our work and that of other antipoverty organizations have shown, when we invest in girls and women, we end up with healthier families, a more flexible workforce, lower HIV rates and a more stable society.

Uganda is facing its own set of difficulties even as its regional clout rises. Washington sees it as a strategic ally, recently dispatching Green Berets to track down Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army had long been a scourge on more remote northern parts of Uganda and South Sudan, terrorizing local populations with kidnappings, rape and child slavery. Meanwhile the economy is in turmoil, and protests in the capital, Kampala, have been simmering since April, as The New York Times reports. Ordinary Ugandans have seen prices skyrocket, with the price of sugar more than doubling to 6,000 Ugandan shillings ($2.10) per kilogram from 2,600 shillings (93 cents) earlier this year.

There are people who only see hopelessness in Africa: unrest here in Uganda, famished refugees in Kenya, continued fighting in Somalia and withering crops across East Africa. And indeed, sometimes it does seem like the poor are trapped, with the causes of poverty -- meager capital, limited access to markets, lack of healthcare, and inadequate education -- apparently too myriad to be addressed properly.

But the Bangladeshis I've worked with see things differently. They see opportunity where others see failure. To a development worker from Bangladesh, with one of the highest rates of land cultivation in the world, unplanted land is money on the ground. What they've also learned is that poor women can defeat poverty on their own when given half a chance.

Employing mainly Ugandan women, we're applying this Bangladeshi-led approach here thanks to The MasterCard Foundation, which has committed $45 million to helping us reach 4.2 million people by 2016, a target we're likely to reach ahead of schedule. We call this approach "microfinance multiplied": not just giving out loans, but improving livelihoods by providing higher-yield seeds, better farming practices and improved access to markets where poor villagers can sell their goods. By doing this, we create a network of micro-franchised entrepreneurs in agriculture, poultry, livestock and health. We train self-employed villagers to educate their neighbors and sometimes even treat simple diseases. And we create clubs for adolescent girls and open schools to educate the next generation.

Take Beatrice, a married mother of two school-age girls. Starting with a small vegetable stand selling produce from her own garden, she has taken progressively larger loans from BRAC to build inventory and open a new shop. Earnings have increased sevenfold. "I used to have a monthly income of 100,000 shillings," she told us. "Now it's 700,000."

Other numbers back up the BRAC-MasterCard approach. An estimated 1.2 million Ugandans are HIV positive, yet of the women and girls who have participated in BRAC's programs in Uganda, 67 percent report always using a condom if and when they have sex, versus only 38 percent of a random control sample. There's an apparent spillover effect, too: Even among those who don't participate, 54 percent of those in villages where we've set up programs say they use condoms, suggesting the spread of good habits among peers. Rates of early motherhood have fallen, too, with 12.4 percent of girls in the control group having children since an initial survey in 2008, versus only 8.7 percent of our program participants.

There's no silver bullet for defeating poverty, but there is silver buckshot. We've learned, for instance, that microfinance is useful on a large scale only when combined with other efforts to improve livelihoods, like the ones described above. But though the problems may seem insurmountable at times, our experience in Bangladesh, Uganda and elsewhere shows us the opposite. The trick is to find solutions that can be replicated quickly and effectively, so that the experience of Beatrice is repeated many millions of times. That means many millions of answered prayers.