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TAIYUAN, April 21 (Xinhua) -- Guo Youcai's life has changed dramatically since he began working with a special "bank" operated by the poor and for the poor.

The farmer borrowed 5,000 yuan (770 U.S. dollars) from the village fund agency for mutual support to lease three green houses to grow vegetables, allowing him to earn 30,000 yuan last year.

"The loan was a lifesaver," said Guo, 54, from Xiaofeng Village of Daning County, north China's Shanxi Province.

The agency that granted the loan was a national pilot poverty alleviation program to encourage mutual fund support among farmers in poor areas.

The program, similar to community fund programs in foreign countries, was launched in 2006 by the leading group office of the poverty alleviation and development of the State Council and the Ministry of Finance. With government poverty alleviation funds as part of the agency capital, farmers are welcomed to pay a certain sum of money to join in the agency, and apply for a loan at the agency to start business.

As farmers have little property to mortgage as required by regular banks, funds like "village banks" serve as an important channel to get loans.

The agency at Guo's village was established in 2007, with 150,000 yuan of government poverty alleviation fund as initial capital.

Guo was experienced in vegetable growing, but money shortages delayed his plans to expand his greenhouses. "I barely had any savings, and no body was willing to lend me," he recalled.

After several failed attempts to apply for a loan from banks, he paid 300 yuan to be a member of the village fund agency, where he finally got the loan.

The loan was free of interest, only requiring him to pay 250 yuan, or 5 percent of the loan amount, as management fee.

"All I had to do was to find five villagers as warrantor," he said.

While being asked how he would have coped if he suffered from loss and was not able to repay the loan, Guo flushed and said he would have sold every piece of his property for the repayment.

"How would I bear the cold looks of villagers and face my fellows as warrantor if I failed to repay," he said, adding having benefited from others, he will also serve as a warrantor for others next year.

A warrantor needs to pay an amount of no more than 1,000 yuan as warrant and has the liability of repayment if the person he has guaranteed fails to pay back the loan.

To date, 155 poverty-stricken villages in 57 counties of Shanxi Province have formed fund agencies with nearly 10,000 members like Guo. Loans have totalled 30 million yuan.

Lang Zuoshi, an official with the provincial poverty alleviation office, said the agency for mutual fund support is operated by decent locals selected out of village vote. They are only responsible for the account book, without any access to cash. The cash was deposited at credit cooperative, a bank-like financial institution specialized in rural region of China.

Lang said the pilot agency program has encouraged farmers to support each other, and hopefully to form a bank for the poor with more capital flow in and out of the pool.

However, years of operation have also revealed some problems, such as overdue loans and bad debts, as the agency has no legal rights for borrowers' forced repayment.

"Some villagers fail to pay back the loan as the livestock they raised using the loan died of diseases, without bringing any profit," said Guo Jinfu, a manager of the agency in Gezhenwan Village of Fangshan County, adding illness of family members or children's tuition are among other factors that have led to bad loans.

He used to be accountant of the village. He earns less than 1,000 yuan a year, which is from the management fee.

As the agency is not a licensed body registered with industrial and commercial authorities, professional financial talent is hard to find, creating difficulties to the sustainable operation, according to Guo Jinfu.

Lang said the government will shut down the agencies with unfavorable operations by withdrawing the remaining government funding and offering extra funds as reward to operations that perform well.

Wang Sangui, a poverty relief specialist at Beijing's Renmin University, said despite government efforts in poverty reduction, weak financial services in poverty-stricken area have become an obstacle that affects development of the region.

Wang urged a mechanism to recognize the legal status, rights and obligations of the village fund agencies and to include the mechanism in the social credit system to control risks of bad loans.

China has named poverty reduction as one of its top priorities for the next five years. It has vowed to help the remaining 70 million people living below the poverty line of 2,300 yuan in annual income rid themselves of poverty and access essential social services by 2020.

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