Fact: It is not an imperative that the government create extensive programs to try to solve every social issue–be it poverty or lack of health insurance.

History shows that when governments take this direction it breeds inefficient, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracies too far removed from the needs of the people they claim to be trying to rescue. Often, government programs are sold to the public as humanitarian efforts. This is a great marketing strategy-it all sounds so noble. And if you dare speak out against the inefficient programs, you could be labeled callous, or worse, a racist. However, we only have to look to the current inefficiently run government programs (e.g., Medicaid/Medicare) to see that government isn’t equipped to address all issues through sweeping programs. Serious social issues do, of course, exist and need to be addressed. But how?

More often than not, grassroots efforts by people, for people, are the best way to help people in need. Our founding fathers never intended for government to answer all of society’s ills. The federal government’s intended purpose is to secure our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, allowing the populous to creatively address personal and social issues through economic initiatives and charitable organizations.

An example: Micro-financing efforts received much public attention in 2006 when Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank shared The Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” The Grameen bank is an answer and an alternative to failing aid schemes meant to help the poverty stricken. Micro-finance institutions recognize the free market as something that can produce incredible change; a space where business and entrepreneurship can be harnessed to create economic development that is more sustainable than short-sighted handouts.

I participate in another micro-lending organization called KIVA, an internet platform which allows a direct connection between lenders and micro-financing institutions already on the ground in countries around the world. Basically, I am the micro-lender and I get to pick my loan receptions from a long list of people from around the world who are seeking to start or expand a small business.  Every few months I receive a nifty update in my inbox on a loan that I made to a young female entrepreneur in a rural area of Guatemala. The woman I lend to, Juana, is still in her teens, living her life thousands of miles away, and is admittedly shouldering much more financial responsibility and employing a greater amount of entrepreneurial spirit than I ever did at her young age. Juana’s needs are great. Sure, someone could have simply supplied some of those needs by giving her things–Here, take this money, these clothes, this food. But I imagine that Juana would prefer the course she is on:  to be self-sufficient and, beyond that, personally successful.   Juana’s motivation to make her situation better is high; she just needs help in helping herself.

This relationship is a testament to the power of the individual and the capacity of the entrepreneurial spirit. Person-to-person micro-lending is a prime example of individuals, independent of government, being motivated to action: lenders by concern for others, and ‘lendees’ by concern for their own welfare and that of their families. Each piece of the equation, the lenders and the ‘lendees,’ are voluntarily participating, without the intervention of government, in a viable method to raise people out of poverty.

It’s worth noting that many micro-financing institutions specifically spotlight women as the preferred beneficiaries of micro-loans. Statistically, they are in greater need-they are more likely than men to be poor.  But women also have a lower loan default rate and are more likely to reinvest any increase in income into the health, welfare, and education of their families.

This focus on women by micro-lenders also relays an important message to society:  women merit great respect and are valuable assets to a household and to a community. Women receiving micro-loans develop increased confidence and assertiveness within their households and in their greater communities-often experiencing elevated status as well. This status is not the glossy, superficial type-but rather is reflected in a real increased respect from and influence in their families and communities.

I had the opportunity to see first-hand, over several years, the change that micro-lending to women can have on a community. I traveled with a national collegiate organization that addresses social issues through free enterprise. The village we worked with was remote, isolated, poverty stricken, and experienced high mortality and illiteracy rates. The women had low status when we first began work there – not being invited to community discussions. After a few years, brave women began bringing their ideas to our team, requesting loans, and being more successful in their business ventures than the men. The men of the village began to value the women as capable individuals worthy of respect, evidenced not only by men “allowing” their wives to take micro-loans, but also taking micro-loans on behalf of their wives to buy their wives tools to implement their business ideas – a clear demonstration that they viewed their wives as partners instead of property.

It’s an important point to consider as Women’s History Month comes to an end: We can’t expect government to fix all the problems women (or any population) around the world face.  But the good news is that each of us can make a difference on our own using creative entrepreneurial and free enterprise solutions.