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Employees engaged to drive strategic community investment

Central African Republic, Timor-Leste, February 21, 2013

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  • Village savings and loans give women in the Central African Republic access financial services for the first time. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Mercy Corps
  • Training to build and sell fuel-efficient stoves in Timor-Leste is helping families make better use of natural resources for their energy needs. Photo: Mercy Corps

Building upon their five-year partnership, in November Western Union and Mercy Corps launched the Western Union Innovation Awards.

The Innovation Awards connect Western Union employees in a meaningful way with development programming around the world by allowing employees to choose where to invest critical company resources to have the greatest impact.

The first two awards have been granted to programs in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Timor Leste.

CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 179 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. Poor families have virtually no financial services available as they struggle to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Mercy Corps and local partners have helped communities set up savings and loan associations in rural villages. The associations rely heavily on a network of community agents who are identified by members themselves. These agents provide essential technical support and train association members in good financial practices so that they can manage their resources and cope with external shocks.

The Innovation Award will help improve and expand training and support for these community agents so that programming can continue sustainably into the future without ongoing outside support.

The Timor-Leste award will expand an existing Mercy Corps program to create a sustainable market for alternative energy products. Markets in Timor-Leste are extremely underdeveloped, and prior to Mercy Corps’ programming, appropriate energy products to meet household needs were not available anywhere in the country, even in the capital of Dili.

Traditional energy sources, like firewood stoves, have high costs associated with them: indoor air pollution is linked to respiratory diseases among women and young children, deforestation increases vulnerability to climate change, and gathering firewood leaves children with less time to study.

A pilot program in three districts has successfully developed a market for alternative energy products including solar lights and biomass stoves. With support from the Innovation Awards, Mercy Corps will be able expand this program to five more districts and pave the way for a sustainable alternative energy market in the country.

Selected by Western Union staff, the Innovation Awards support Mercy Corps programs that have demonstrated innovation, effectiveness, impact and potential for scale in the areas of economic opportunity and education. The award funds will help programs expand or tackle complex issues to increase impact, or scale to reach more beneficiaries.

A nominated panel of judges had the opportunity to learn about innovative programs, ask questions and vote on the programs they would like to receive Western Union funding.

“It was an honor and privilege to participate in the selection committee which identified these two winning projects,” said Daniel Canning, Vice President, U.S. Money Transfer at Western Union and part of the panel of judges. “Both projects demonstrate innovative thinking in applying market-based solutions to address complicated social challenges. It was not easy to select the winning projects, but we are excited to see how the awards will magnify the positive impact of both programs. Knowing that these projects will change lives for the better is not only greatly rewarding but very much in tune with Western Union’s mission of ‘moving money for better.’”

The second round of Innovation Awards in May 2013 will focus on education.

Western Union and Mercy Corps share a commitment to fostering diverse, economically vibrant communities — even in the world’s toughest environments. Together, they have reached almost one million people in more than 14 countries, helping victims of disasters survive and rebuild, enabling small businesses to thrive by promoting economic development, and supporting communities around the world through education programs.

Both organizations value innovative, market-driven approaches to global challenges, and believe that everyone deserves a shot at a brighter future.