Richly deserved prize for banker to the poor
Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has helped lift millions of women and men from poverty, nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit one small loan at a time
October 14, 2006
LONDON — It would have been more charitable–and certainly a lot easier–just to give the poor woman the money. But instead, Muhammad Yunus lent her $27.
“Charity is not the answer to poverty,” Yunus wrote earlier this year. “It only helps poverty to continue. It creates dependency and takes away the individual's initiative to break through the wall of poverty.”
The woman and several of her friends used the small loan to start a successful furniture-making business and to escape the bonds of poverty in their rural Bangladeshi village. They repaid the loan in full.
Thirty years and more than $5.7 billion in loans later, Yunus' insight into the nature of poverty and the spirit of entrepreneurship has earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Friday, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded the $1.4 million prize jointly to Yunus and Grameen Bank, the lending agency he founded in 1983 to pioneer the concept of microcredit–small loans that have helped lift millions out of poverty.
“Muhammad Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other countries,” the Nobel committee said in its citation.
Yunus is the first Nobel laureate from Bangladesh, a wrenchingly poor South Asia country that usually makes headlines for floods and famines.
“I am so, so happy. It's really great news for the whole nation,” Yunus told The Associated Press from his home in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
Yunus, in a 2004 interview with AP, said the idea of using seemingly insignificant loans to help the poor came to him in 1974 while he was doing field work as a rural economist at the University of Chittagong. He met Sufia Begum, a 21-year-old mother of three, who was trying to make ends meet by making bamboo stools.
She explained to him that she had borrowed about 5 taka (9 cents) from a village moneylender for the raw materials to make each stool but collected only 2 cents in profit on the finished product after repaying the interest on her debt.
`She has become a slave'
“I thought to myself: My God, for 5 taka she has become a slave,” Yunus said in the interview.
“I couldn't understand how she could be so poor when she was making such beautiful things.”
Yunus investigated further and discovered that the female artisans in the village owed the moneylender a total of 856 taka, or $27.
“I couldn't take it anymore. I put the $27 out there and told them they could liberate themselves,” he said. By cutting out the moneylender and his exorbitant interest rates, the women quickly earned a decent return on their labor and repaid their loan to Yunus.
Yunus' revolutionary idea was that the poor could be as creditworthy as the rich and that small loans could unleash the entrepreneurial talents of people who had historically been written off as economic basket cases.
He founded Grameen Bank on this principle. Since opening its doors in 1983, the bank has made small loans–usually about $200, but some as little as $20–to more than 6 million borrowers, almost all of them women.
Instead of the usual tests of a borrower's creditworthiness, Grameen's approach was to lend money to small groups of people, with each responsible for the other's debt. The culture of personal shame and honor that prevails in rural Bangladesh served as sufficient collateral.
Grameen Bank boasts of a repayment rate of 98.5 percent. In most developing countries, government-subsidized banks that lend money to businesses and the affluent usually write off about 50 percent of their loans.
“Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development,” the Nobel committee said.
The model developed by Yunus and his bank have been successfully replicated in several other Third World countries.
The Nobel Peace Prize often goes to a noted humanitarian, or to a political leader who has opted for peace instead of war. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa received the honor. So have Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat.
This year, the oddsmakers' favorite was former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who last year helped the government of Indonesia reach a truce with rebels in Aceh province and who currently is leading talks on the future status of Kosovo.
In announcing this year's unconventional winner, the Nobel committee recognized that “lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty.
“Microcredit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights,” it said.
Yunus said he would use part of the $1.4 million prize to start a company that makes low-cost, high-nutrition food for the poor.
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