Celebrities Unite at Anti-Poverty Awards

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Actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and broadcaster Walter Cronkite joined forces Tuesday night to honor nine "unsung heroes of poverty eradication."

The celebrities were part of a star-studded ceremony at the United Nations honoring the winners of The Global Microentrepreneurship Awards. The nine poor and low-income winners — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, South Africa, India, China, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Peru — used small loans to establish successful businesses.

Cronkite read a message from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is traveling in the Mideast, praising the winners and the International Year of Microcredit 2005. With access to small loans, people can move "beyond day-to-day survival," earn and save more, "and protect themselves better against life's unexpected setbacks," he said.

But Annan reminded the VIP audience that "these victories are too rare still in this complicated world of ours."

Perhaps the loudest applause was given to Mama Fatu, a 70-year-old widow from Sierra Leone who took out a $25 microcredit loan in 1998 to start grinding tobacco to produce snuff. She diversified into vegetable production, rice farming and brewing local gin.

"I am illiterate," the elderly woman in a traditional African blue dress said, clutching her glass-engraved award. "I don't know how to go through immigration procedures, but today I am in New York."

As a result of the war in Sierra Leone, she said she was poor and almost homeless "but life came back because of microcredit," which enabled her to earn money to send her son to college and build a house.

Actor-director Tim Robbins, the master of ceremonies, didn't seem to mind being upstaged. Neither did awards presenters Lopez, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, Clinton, and Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.