8 Feb 2009

In the presence of greatness by Andrew Spence.

In the presence of greatness. Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, The Banker of the Poor, visited Palma and brought an important message of hope to the world at these troubled times.

You are poor. You have no collateral. You are a woman. You live in Bangladesh. Of course you can have a loan!”

Today 7.5 million people, 98% of them women, have loans in Bangladesh. 99% of them repay what they owe. They have no collateral. Every three years there are terrible floods in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people die. The survivors lose their homes. But they still pay back their loans. They don´t use excuses, even the most plausible, to default. The average size of such loans is less than 200 dollars.

It seems an impossible set of circumstances. In 1971 Mohammed Yunus returned to his native Chittagong in Bangladesh after studying economics in the US to teach at the University there. After giving lessons in economic theory he would walk down the street and see people dying there, from nothing more than hunger. The very fact of having not enough to eat to survive was to him a mystery and it got to him. How could he do something? He was not a politician or food manufacturer, just an economist.

So he went to work and studied, with an assistant, the villages and life there which he believed was the key to the problem. After a few days he realised that many of the villagers were in the hands of loan sharks asking 5% a week or up to 30% a month. In one village he found 40 villagers who owed money to these people. The whole village was in the hands of these people, caught in their trap. The total debt for the whole village? 27 dollars.

He went home and thought. And then went back to the village with 27 dollars and paid off the debt. It was no big deal, a natural sympathetic act, well within his economic power. He went back a few days later and was greeted like a hero, which he did not expect, but confesses was not a bad feeling at all. It inspired him to do more.

He went to the local bank and asked if they could help. The bank said no. These people were poor with no assets so how could the bank help? He kept going to bank after bank until one day he suggested that he be the garantor of loans to the poor. At last it seems he was talking the language of the bank! They agreed and he went to another village. It proved a success, many micro-credits of 1% were given and all were found to be good repayers. He asked the bank if he could repeat the exercise in another bank. The bank finally agreed after much persuasion, but were sceptical saying it would never work again, he would not have time to manage all the collections.

It was a success. He asked to do it in 3 more villages, same scepticism, but same success. When he walked into the bank to ask if he could exctend to 10 villages he stopped and asked himself, why should I bother with a bank? “WHO ARE THEY to tell ME what will work or will not work?”

So he opened his own bank. The Gameen Bank was founded and microcredits took off. Dr Yunis found that the poor were very good payers of their loans. He also aimed to attract women and set an initial target of 50%. Why? Because women were at the heart of the family and their priorities would be homebuilding and the children´s education. This group were marginalised, and had a traditional fear of money due to upbringing and convention. How can half the society be rendered useless in this way? It seemed to Yunus completely illogical.

Once the 50% target had been reached, he pushed it to 70 and now 98% of microcredits in Bangladesh are given to women.

Today he likes to put the two banking systems side by side and compare. When a loan is taken out with a bank in the mainstream capitalist system, there are lawyers, papers and all sorts of preocedures. The Grameen bank (or Village Bank) require none. In our system we have to go to the towns and cities to deal with our banks – the Grameen bank goes out to the villages and visits THEM.

“Capitalism has degenerated into a Casino”.

Their clients may be poor, but they are good payers. Over 97% of debts have been repaid. It is the western banks who have the defaulters, clients with credentials and collateral who seem to default on a grand scale. Yunus looks at our system and it is humbling to hear him talk about it as becoming a giant casino where selfish people have gambled with our money and ruined the world, causing millions to suffer. If billionaires lose half their money – they still have the other half. The bottom 50% of the world´s population will lose their livelihoods and are the real victims of this crisis. People are losing their jobs, their homes and access to food and health.

Yunus´s model is to be admired at these times. In fact on a recent trip to New York he was asked if he wished, perhaps joking or perhaps not, before leaving the Big Apple to buy one of their banks! Something is surely wrong at the heart of our system. He states categorically that microfinance has been unscathed by the current meltdown.

What other differences are there between our banking systems?

At the heart of Grameen is a social philosophy, and a determination to help. A recent programme jointly with Danone was devised to distribute a specially formulated yoghurt packed with extra vitamins and supplements for the undernourished children in Bangladesh. The aim was to build back their strength and they found that after 8 months, the children were properly nourished and had been saved. The review of the programme at the end of the year was not how much profit had been made, but how many lives had been saved. The funding came from the money he won for the Nobel peace prize. The remainder was spent on an eye hospital.

Currently thanks to scholarships provided by the bank, some 32,000 students are studying all over the world. Most come back to their countries of origin, qualified and in a position unthinkable to previous generations, trapped in poverty, a trap that Professor Yunus has managed to spring open for millions.

Traditional capitalism, he argues, wears a permanent pair of “money glasses” where the only focus is growth in money terms. Our main focus is always the bottom line, money for its own sake. This has to change.

The irony of all this is that the Grameen system may be required in Europe where already poverty is a real threat for many. In New York a Grameen bank was opened in Queens and now provides loans to 500 women. When asked why he set when up here his reply was simple. Under the shadows of the skyscrapers of the banking capital of the world, he wanted to provide a service where these major banking instituions were unable to do so – in their own back yard.

Looking to the new millennium.

“Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means”. Another powerful force for peace he believes is the change of US administration. The UN conference in 2000 and its important aims for poverty and the world were knocked off track by an administration in the US more interested in war than progress. In Obama he believes there is a president who will get things back on track and make up for lost time. He believes he can change the world in a fundamental way.

Meeting Gandhi

I do not know what it must have been like to have met Gandhi, but when I had the privilege to meet Professor Yunus, it felt to me that I was meeting someone as great. Not in political terms or in terms of fame, perhaps. But in the far-reaching consequences of what he has and is doing, and the enormity of this revolution. He was charming and had no airs, ready to talk to you whether president, pauper, king or commoner.

I was in the presence of greatness.

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