Key note speech by Princess Máxima

7 november 2005

International Year of Microcredit 2005, UN International Forum to Build Inclusive Financial sectors, 7 November 2005, UN Headquarters New York.

Mr Chairman, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen - thank you. I am honoured to speak to you today as a member of the Advisors Group for the International Year of Microcredit 2005.

What better way to mark the end of the Year than to spend these days in the company of so many leading thinkers and practitioners, considering how to take microfinance forward. And then, at tomorrow's gala dinner, to celebrate microentrepreneurs, who are the living proof that access to financial services can transform lives, empowering people to escape poverty by pursuing their dreams.

In my year as a member of the Advisors group, I had the privilege of meeting many micro-entrepreneurs on my travels: a seamstress and a pot maker in Nairobi, a medicine maker and a shop owner in Kampala who sold me a pretty dress for my daughter, and many more - a lot of them women who kindly sympathised with me everywhere I went during my pregnancy! It is striking how women are empowered by microfinance and not only economically. As you know, when you invest in a woman, you invest in her whole family. Her children go to school, the whole family gets better health care and she gets a voice in her community. I recall one lady, in a meeting of women entrepreneurs I attended in Kampala, saying that as her business succeeded, people started coming to her for advice on how to start a company and how to deal with all sorts of problems, including husbands!

I have long been a believer in the power of microfinance - not just microcredit, but the whole range of financial services that help people to manage their risks and have a better chance of fulfilling their potential. That is, affordable savings accounts, insurance and money transfer as well as loans. During the Year I have become more convinced than ever of the benefits of microfinance, not only in reducing poverty but also in building trust and dignity. By enabling entrepreneurship and empowering people, microfinance gives people the opportunity to determine for themselves what is best for them. Poor people do not want hand-outs: they want opportunities. Microfinance recognizes that poor and low-income people are dynamic and savvy businesspeople. The lady who sold me the dress for my daughter in Kampala also imported shoes. But her current shoe supplier was too expensive and she was considering switching to another supplier. Through her loan officer she found different possibilities in terms of price, quality and conditions of supply. I was amazed that this woman from distant Kampala, owning a small shop, knew so much about the global shoe market and knew perfectly well what was good for her business.

So as well as celebrating the end of the Year, we are here to think more about what needs to be done to ensure that many millions more people have access to affordable financial services. And there is much still to be done, especially if we are to achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.

The biggest challenge is not how to do microfinance, but how to do it on a big enough scale to make a real macroeconomic difference. I and my fellow advisors are convinced that to move to the next level profitability will be crucial. Good financial services come at a cost, no matter what the social objective. To reach the very large number of poor people who need financial services, microfinance must become commercially viable. Microfinance should no longer base itself on charity. It should be a self-sustaining system. If we want to reach hundreds of millions of unbanked people, a viable, efficient and profitable microfinance system is essential.

Institutions I visited such as Equity Bank and KREP in Kenya, amongst many others, are good examples of why pursuing profits should be welcomed, not feared. Both are now profitable while banking the previously "unbanked", providing them with a whole range of financial products. When I spoke to them, what really encouraged me was the fact that even as they grew and became more profitable, more than ever they thought primarily about their clients and how to serve them better.

Being profitable has enabled these institutions to provide credit and financial services to many, many more people, with greater efficiency and lower cost. Other microfinance providers should follow their example. But to do so, they will need a government and regulations that help them to achieve this, rather than getting in their way.

They will also need professionals, such as competent loan officers, internal auditors, treasurers, and so on. Currently, these professionals are in short supply in many developing countries. This is something where donors can help, and I encourage them - which means many of you - to invest in training the people who can make microfinance work.

There is also a need for mainstream financial services firms to get more involved in nurturing the growth of microfinance. At the start of the year, many of the bankers I spoke to were reluctant. The encouraging thing is that, after speaking with them some more, they started to get excited about the potential of this new market. Some of them even discovered that they were already involved in microfinance of some sort. Some of them realized that in their specific areas of expertise, there was something tangible that they could do. I applaud them, and urge others to join them. We need the experience of mainstream bankers to help this sector grow.

Lastly, a word about remittances, the billions of dollars, euros, and pounds sent back home. Although the fees they pay have started to come down, they are still far too high. I hear complaints about this everywhere I go, including in the Netherlands, from where immigrants send money to Morocco, Turkey, Ghana, Suriname, Ecuador and many other places.

In South Africa, I met a woman who received money from her son in England. She wanted to add another room to her one-room-house. Every time the money arrived from her son - worth much less after money transfer fees - she bought bricks and cement bags and put them next to her house until she had enough to build it. But when the rains came, more than a quarter of the building materials were damaged and destroyed. Imagine if the fees had been lower. Imagine if banks had offered her a bank account in which to save the money, or, even better, offered her a loan so that she could build the room right away. Banks should make much more of the opportunities created by what are, in many cases, highly predictable and regular remittance payments.

In closing, then, I believe that the Year of Microcredit has been a tremendous success. Great strides have been made in building inclusive financial sectors that can provide a pathway out of poverty for millions. Don't forget that accessible financial services are as much part of the infrastructure that a country needs for its development as roads or electricity are. More hard work lies ahead; the Year is ending, but our efforts must continue. I ask not just for your commitment but also your action. There are still many millions of people out there who need affordable financial services. Let's invest in them. They deserve it, and they are worth it.

Thank you.