How does a New Jersey-based professor end up in Southeast Asia’s Mekong Delta, helping to steer essential business costs and services to some of the poorest communities in Vietnam? For Dr. Lauren Eder, professor and chair of the Computer Information Systems department at Rider University, it’s a matter of building an economy, one fisher or farmer at a time.
Eder is working with faculty and students from Dong Thap University and Vietnamese social workers to implement a microfinance program in the heart of the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. Microfinance – the supply of loans, savings, and other basic financial services to the poor – is vital to the Vietnamese people who reside in these selected communities, who typically live on less than the equivalent of $2 (USD) per day.
Later this summer, 46 selected borrowers will receive microloans, ranging from $50 (USD) to $100 (USD). As part of the program, they must agree to pay back the full loan, plus interest, within 10 months. The program will charge a low monthly interest rate plus an additional monthly percentage which will go into a forced savings account for them.
“In some cases, people are requesting loans to create a new business, while others are requesting loans to assist an existing business in order to create a stable base,” Eder explained. “One woman, who fishes in the Mekong River and sells the fish in a local market, is requesting a loan to stabilize her fishing business. Another woman is asking for a loan to buy a baby cow, which she plans to raise and then mate it in order to reproduce more cows. She expects to continue to raise calves and sell mature cows.”
The student teams from Dong Thap University are managing and monitoring the entire process. With the assistance of their professors and ongoing communication with Dr. Eder, the six students are preparing and providing monthly reports to Eder and her supporting team of business colleagues. Community leaders, who pledged their support for the microfinance project, will hold monthly meetings to collect the payments and then deposit them in a local bank with their student team representatives.
In June, Eder visited Dong Thap to present several lectures about microfinance, Internet-based collaboration and research to 200 students and faculty at the University. Prior to her visit, the students began their project-planning and training, under the supervision of two Vietnamese social workers, Co Ba Nien and Nhat Nguyen, who have been successfully leading microcredit programs in Vietnam for more than a decade.
The collaborative microfinance project evolved from a conversation between Eder and a private donor who learned about her interest in working in a developing country, and subsequently provided his generous support.
In January, Eder ran a study tour to Vietnam as a service learning trip for Rider students to learn about business challenges and opportunities in a developing country. During the 10-day trip the Rider students collaborated with students from a university in Ho Chi Minh City, located four hours north of Dong Thap. Through workshops and sites visits, the Rider and Vietnamese students learned about local businesses and microfinance.
While one of the goals of the program was to start a microcredit fund in a local community, Eder realized that more work was necessary before such a program could be established.
“The results from this experience were life-changing for students from both countries,” she said. “They earned a new knowledge about each other’s cultures, an understanding about poverty- reducing measures in developing areas of the world, and lifelong friendships,” she said.
Upon her return to the United States, Eder reached out to her contacts in Vietnam to discuss the initial outcomes of the study tour and to conduct a thorough exploration of what resources in Vietnam would be necessary to successfully implement a well-grounded microcredit program in one of the country’s many poor areas.
With the assistance of her U.S. liaison for the project, Chris Runckel & Associates, and her Vietnamese liaison, Ruby Nguyen of Access American Education, plus a network of experienced social workers involved in implementing microfinance programs in Vietnam, Eder was ultimately connected with the faculty and students at Dong.
Eder plans to continue her collaborative work with the Vietnamese professors to publish and present the project results at an international conference later this year.
“I hope to visit Dong Thap University again next year with another group of Rider business students so that they too can learn about the poverty-reducing impact of microfinance firsthand,” she said.