The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $20 million to the World Bank for a program to provide financial services in developing countries.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $20 million to the World Bank for a program to provide financial services in developing countries.

The World Bank said today it will use the Gates funding to establish what it calls the Agriculture Finance Support Facility.

The program’s mission is “to increase access to financial services, such as savings, credit, payments and insurance, in rural areas in developing countries as profitable business lines,” according to the World Bank. It will make grants to banks and other institutions.

The global economic crisis means access to financial services has become even more difficult for small farmers and rural entrepreneurs.

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Where traditional financial cooperatives are not providing sufficient services, the World Bank seems to be looking at funding alternative programs.

In microfinance, the World Bank Group’s biggest investor is the IFC, a profit-oriented financial institution with a mixed record.

The IFC had a microfinance portfolio of $498 million in 2007 and planned to double its investment to $1.2 billion by fiscal year 2010, which would make IFC the largest investor in the microfinance industry.

The World Bank said its data shows that 69 percent of small farmers in India did not have credit with formal financial institutions. In Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru nearly 40 percent of agricultural producers are “credit-constrained,” and less than 1 percent of farmers in Zambia and less than 2 percent of the rural population in Nigeria have access to credit from formal institutions.

“There is a great need among smallholder farmers, who make up the bulk of the world’s poor, for ways to save and manage their money,” said Carlos Cuevas, deputy director of Financial Services for the Poor at the Gates Foundation. “Having access to safe and reliable financial services such as savings, credit and insurance, allows poor farmers to safeguard cash, which they often receive only once a year during harvest.”

Lack of access to credit was one factor behind the sharp rise of farmer suicides in India over the last decade. But some argue that World Bank policies are also to blame.