Director’s Corner follows Oikocredit USA National Director Sharlene Brown through her travels to investors and supportive communities in the US.
I visited New Orleans for the first time in 2000 to attend the Essence Music Festival with two close friends. Enchanted by this historic city, we left with intentions of returning with some regularity, but that didn’t happen and then the years went by. As is now written into the annals of history, Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, and the devastation that befell New Orleans was unimaginable. I recall friends overseas being shocked that there were Americans who lived in such poverty as images of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods, leveled by the storm, replayed on news networks around the world.
Just last week, I visited New Orleans for the first time since my trip in 2000 and since Katrina hit. I attended SRI in the Rockies, the longest standing social investing conference series in the US. I wasn’t certain about the condition in which I would find New Orleans. I stayed in the French Quarter and quickly learned that this historic area had experienced little damage relative to the Ninth Ward & St. Bernard – two places regularly covered by the media during the storm. In collaboration with HOPE Credit Union, based in NOLA, the conference organizers held a series of community development tours, allowing us to see the city’s rebuilding efforts in action.
I was amazed, as I always am, at the multitude of stakeholders – the government (local and federal), foundations, nonprofits, and individuals – that have come together to help rebuild New Orleans. As I visited a lovely home in a new affordable housing development for low-income individuals and families in Faubourg Lafitte, I thought to myself, “This is what makes us a great nation!” There are so many Americans willing to come to the aid of their neighbors in times of crises. The multitude of actors from private to public makes rebuilding communities and giving families a second chance possible. It is possible for us to recover from the very worst natural disasters because of the ecosystem of support within this country. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Enterprise, Providence Community Housing, among others, are on the ground rebuilding communities. In fact, the tour guide said Habitat for Humanity has built over 450 homes since Katrina, and have adapted to the needs of local musicians and developed the Musicians Village where musicians with a stream of regular gigs can obtain low cost homes and become homeowners.
Habitat for Humanity's "Musicians' Village"
My thoughts then went to the many developing countries I’ve visited over the years…and I realized that the internal ecosystem of support we have here is absent in most of those countries. When disaster strikes, there are few internal stakeholders that can take the lead. Regardless of what we think of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there often is no such equivalent in developing countries. There is no CDFI Fund that invests hundreds of millions of dollars in low-income communities or a community investing sector that manages almost $42 million in assets, receiving significant support from private investors motivated by social concerns and desiring to support the development of affordable housing, small businesses, and the development of community facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and schools.
Oikocredit focuses its investments in the poorest countries of the world because those communities lack that internal ecosystem of support we sometimes take for granted. We, and our investors, recognize the lack of opportunity in such communities doesn’t equate to lack of ability, and so we invest in such places to help to lay the foundation for an ecosystem of support. Oikocredit’s project partners are, in many cases, the only internal actors in their local ecosystem, taking the lead to reduce poverty and build infrastructure by investing in the women, men, and children of their local communities.