The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Développement international Desjardins enter into agreement to develop financial cooperative interconnectivity in West Africa, Haiti and Vietnam



    A unique project to reduce poverty within countries in development

    LEVIS, QC, Jan. 9 /CNW Telbec/ - Over the next three years Développement
international Desjardins (DID), a component of the Desjardins Group, will
carry out a major project aimed at increasing interconnectivity among nearly
250 financial cooperatives within developing countries. The project, funded
through a $9.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will
span three continents and will initially allow 830,000 people to gain access
to interconnected services, such as banking and electronic fund transfers
among the financial cooperatives, with the goal of ultimately expanding into
the extended DID network of partners.
    For many poor people and especially those living in rural areas of the
developing world, financial cooperatives are the most common way to access
financial services. In many of these areas, services are limited and the
cooperatives are not connected or able to offer clients the chance to access
funds, insure their deposits, or use an ATM network outside of their own
cooperative. Improved interconnected services are likely to help address these
challenges, making enhanced financial services available to more people.
    DID's project will develop, test, and launch a new software platform that
will connect five networks of savings and credit cooperatives and allow
members to transact within the network and transfer funds between
cooperatives.
    The networks are in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo), Haiti and
Vietnam, and are longstanding DID partners. These networks took their
inspiration from Desjardins - some of them 35 years ago - to establish
financial cooperatives, create financial products adapted to local needs and,
more recently, set up federations and develop their service offer. A pilot
project already in progress in Haiti, which is implementing telecommunications
infrastructure so that financial cooperatives can offer new services to
customers, has demonstrated encouraging results.
    DID's extended network of partners currently reaches more than three
million families, or approximately 15 million individuals. Through the
operations of savings and credit cooperatives in their respective countries,
they contribute significantly to increasing access to basic financial services
for the poor. The interconnectivity project will provide support for this
local commitment and potentially multiply the outreach of services offered
tenfold.

    A cooperative, innovative project unlike any other in the microfinance
    industry today

    This project responds to needs clearly outlined by the members of these
networks of financial institutions, one of which is to ensure security for the
financial transactions they make while traveling within their respective
countries. "For these financial institutions and their members, the ability to
transact business safely and securely is just as important as gaining access
to credit. We are convinced that this interconnectivity project will, by
meeting basic needs, help improve access to financial services and reduce
poverty in these communities in addition to serving as a model for
microfinance networks elsewhere throughout the world," stated DID President
and CEO Anne Gaboury.
    Networks of savings and credit cooperatives in developing countries often
have wide geographic outreach and are the only financial institutions
operating in rural areas. Interconnectivity between rural and urban financial
cooperatives, in one network, is a way to harmonize operations and services
among them and improve the efficiency and quality of the services provided to
their members. The increasing availability of GSM data services, even in rural
areas, as well as falling prices for network hardware and software, data
storage and handheld devices, means that it is possible to imagine connecting
even small and remote institutions.
    Part of the funds will be used to round out the IT infrastructure of the
financial institutions participating in the interconnectivity project (a
prerequisite), develop local skills and promote the new services to the
members.

    Valued Partnership between Desjardins and the Bill & Melinda Gates
    Foundation

    Desjardins' experience in the field of improving access to financial
services, as well as its established relationships with microfinance networks
in developing countries, are core strengths of this project and will
contribute to ensuring its success. These were the key factors recognized by
the foundation's Financial Services for the Poor initiative, which is working
with partners to develop and employ innovative ways to bring a wide range of
financial services to people living in poverty throughout the developing
world.
    "The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pleased to partner with
Développement international Desjardins in this effort to bring small, unitary
institutions into the greater financial system, affording clients better
products and services, and allowing cooperatives to increase their outreach,"
said Bob Christen, director of the foundation's Financial Services for the
Poor initiative. "This will be a difficult task, but we believe DID is
well-positioned to strengthen the cooperative movement in low-access countries
and we hope to learn more about how interconnectivity can help people with
great needs and few resources."
    The President and Chief Executive Officer of the Desjardins Group, Alban
D'Amours, was delighted by the confidence shown in Développement international
Desjardins by the foundation. "The implementation of this project and its
scope bear witness to the outreach achieved by DID and the recognition
accorded its expertise. The entire network of Desjardins cooperatives can be
proud. This project will make it possible to develop intercooperation even
further. Intercooperation is one of the basic principles for development of
the cooperative movement and its ability to meet the needs of communities
effectively."

    Long-term outlook

    Throughout the project, DID will evaluate and assess the impact of
interconnectivity and the lessons learned. The project results will also be
communicated to other DID partners in order to multiply the potential for
interconnectivity and provide benefits to numerous other countries where
development of microfinance is a priority. DID currently has partners in over
twenty countries located on four different continents.

    About DID

    Développement international Desjardins (DID) is a component of the
Desjardins Group, the largest integrated cooperative financial group in
Canada. For over 35 years, DID has been providing support for the creation,
development and strengthening of financial institutions and is now present in
twenty countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Central and
Eastern Europe. DID, which specializes in providing technical support and
investment for community finance, draws on the rich and diverse experience
acquired through collaboration with numerous partners, and on the 100 years of
experience of the Desjardins Group. DID works in partnership with the Canadian
International Development Agency, the World Bank and other multilateral
organizations.

    About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

    Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In
developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them
the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. Based in
Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Patty Stonesifer and co-chair William H.
Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

    /NOTE TO PHOTO EDITORS: A photo accompanying this release is available on
    the CNW Photo Network and archived at http://photos.newswire.ca.
    Additional archived images are also available on the CNW Photo Archive
    website at http://photos.newswire.ca. Images are free to accredited
    members of the media/




For further information:

For further information: Karina Lehoux, Communications Advisor,
Développement international Desjardins, (418) 835-2401, extension 5796,
klehoux@did.qc.ca www.did.qc.ca


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