When the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in October to microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, Christian micro-lenders enjoyed the publicity brought to their field.

"We hope microfinance will now take center stage in the fight against poverty," said Bill Toannon, director of microfinance at World Relief. Microfinance banks on the theory that loaning small amounts of money to the world's poorest will help them work their way out of poverty.

Opportunity International (OI) made its own headlines in September after receiving the largest private donation ever given to a microfinance organization. Retired entrepreneurs John and Jacque Weberg pledged $50 million over the next 10 years. The money will help fund an OI goal to mobilize $1 billion in six years to help 100 million people.

Microfinance "gives people the dignity of working their own way out of poverty, with God's grace," said Christopher Crane, OI president and CEO.

"The most exciting part is that parents are working their way out of poverty and breaking the cycle permanently for their children."

oi borrowers, mostly women, form a group and guarantee each other's loans. They use their first-time loans, which average about $83, to start businesses. OI employees counsel borrowers weekly, teaching them how to bank, manage their finances, save their profits, and live in a Christian manner. As a result, 98 percent of the loans are repaid.

"Microcredit challenges our traditional notion of the poor," said Russell Mask, who has studied the field since 1992. "It assumes people have knowledge, skills, and some resources that can be mobilized."

It's working, said Susy Cheston, who has documented OI's work in the developing world. "Our clients are sending more of their ...

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