Roshaneh Zafar is pioneering the development of a women-centered and women-managed initiative that combines a micro-level lending and savings operation with related training and support activities at the community level. The formula is currently being tested and refined in two Pakistani villages and is expected to serve as a model for similar undertakings in other parts of the country.
The New Idea
Roshaneh Zafar is convinced that micro-credit programs are an important tool for offering new economic opportunities to poor women in rural settings. But unlike many proponents of such programs, she is also persuaded that parallel and closely linked training and support programs have a critically important role to play in assuring the effective management of such schemes and the success of the activities that they fund.
In 1995, Roshaneh founded a new organization, the Kashf Foundation, to spearhead the development of a new model for a “full-service organization,” managed by and for women, that combines in-house, micro-scale banking and lending operations with closely integrated training and support services. The Foundation has obtained start-up funding from outside sources and is now implementing, testing, and refining programs with those characteristics in two pilot settings in rural Pakistan.
With a rapidly growing population that is now approaching 140 million and a gross national product that is barely keeping pace with population growth, Pakistan remains in the ranks of the world’s “low-income economies.” In per capita terms, its production and income levels are less than half those of Indonesia and the Philippines. For the vast majority of its people, survival is the principal preoccupation, and prospects for improved economic circumstances are dim.
For some 90 million people in the country’s rural areas, life is particularly difficult. Feudal agricultural systems dominate the countryside and severely constrict the options of rural people, as they have for generations. Few government services reach rural areas, and basic health and educational amenities are either absent or in very short supply.
Women in rural Pakistan face especially formidable obstacles in their search for better lives and opportunities for themselves and their children. Literacy rates for rural women are abysmally low—approximately one percent in Baluchistan, and only slightly higher in rural Punjab. The few educational opportunities that are available are assigned almost exclusively to males. And pursuit of economic activities that might better their conditions is constrained not only by cultural traditions but also by lack of access to even the very modest financial resources often needed for such pursuits and to training and support services that would help assure success.
Roshaneh founded the Kashf Foundation in November 1995 with the intent of addressing the latter constraints. With the aid of a start-up loan from the Grameen Trust in Bangladesh and additional funding from a Swiss source, a revolving fund was established, and lending programs were initiated in mid-1996 in two villages outside of Lahore. While those programs proceed, Roshaneh is continuing to search for additional capital to enlarge the revolving fund and enable growing numbers of rural women to gain access to the funds they need to launch new income-generating activities.
The Kashf initiative has been well received in the two pilot communities and is already showing promising results. In a six-month period, Roshaneh and her colleagues have helped village women organize, taken them through basic business training, and coached them in basic literacy. Thus far, loans totaling more than 275,000 rupees have been extended to some 70 borrowers in the two villages, and the on-schedule repayment rate is 97 percent.
Encouraged by those results, Roshaneh and her associates are laying the groundwork for an extension of the program to a third village in early 1998. They are also planning to supplement ongoing support programs with training in group leadership.
Roshaneh is determined to demonstrate that a program combining access to small amounts of credit with the kind of training and support services that Kashf offers is the most promising formula for helping poor women in rural Pakistan succeed in bettering their economic circumstances. In the pilot villages in which the Kashf formula has been introduced, she is already finding that parallel training and support services strengthen both the credit operations themselves and the loan-financed activities that they help generate. And she is using those findings in refining the program’s design.
When the Kashf formula has been sufficiently “fine-tuned,” Roshaneh expects it to serve as a model for the work of other community-based organizations. She intends to play an active role in the dissemination process, both as an advocate of the Kashf model and as a trainer of staff members of other organizations seeking to launch similar initiatives. With that prospect in view, she has already conducted several seminars on the Kashf approach in which representatives of more than forty nongovernmental organizations from various parts of the country have participated.
Educated in the United States at Yale University and the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania, Roshaneh is well equipped with the knowledge and skills that the Kashf Foundation venture requires. She is also strongly committed to using the training and insights that she has acquired to advance the economic and social well-being of women in rural Pakistan who have long been denied both opportunities and hope for better lives.
Before embarking on the Kashf initiative, Roshaneh was one of the co-founders of Bedari, Pakistan’s first women’s crisis intervention center, which provides counseling and other services to women in Islamabad. She also spent four years as a World Bank staff member in Islamabad, where she deepened her understanding of the Pakistan economy and of the ingredients required for successful efforts to help the country’s most disadvantaged people better their circumstances.
In 1995, Roshaneh left her World Bank post to start the Kashf Foundation. In that still nascent undertaking, her efforts to develop a much-needed micro-credit program were inspired, in part, by her contact with Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the highly successful and now world-renowned Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. But Roshaneh is now devoting her full energies to the implementation of her own vision of a broader initiative, carefully attuned to conditions in rural Pakistan, that offers a new, and potentially transformative model for helping women access and manage credit.
At her small, one-room office next to her father’s law offices, there is a strong sense of people on a mission—getting work done, and getting it done quickly. The organization is staffed only by women, in stark contrast with most business enterprises in Islamabad, where women staff members are notably few.