Friday, October 13, 2006

Nobel winner is lifeline for needy

Nobel winner is lifeline for needy

POSTED: 7:43 a.m. EDT, October 13, 2006
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NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) -- For a man who has perhaps done more than anyone to help people out of poverty, Muhammad Yunus makes no apologies for giving nothing to beggars.
Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank, which has made more than $5.7 billion in tiny loans to poor Bangladeshis, providing a lifeline for millions and a banking model that has been copied in more than 100 nations from the United States to Uganda.
But Yunus's philosophy is to help the poor to help themselves: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but only by teaching him how to fish do you feed him for life.
So he never responds when a blind or crippled beggar or a mother cradling her baby holds out a hand for money.
"I feel bad -- sometimes I feel terrible -- that I'm denying the person. But I restrain myself. I never give them (anything)," Yunus told Reuters in a 2004 interview at Grameen's head office. "I would rather try to solve the problem than just give them a hand and take care of them for the day."
The economics professor, who along with his bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, has been trying to solve the problem since 1976, when he lent the equivalent of $27 to 42 women in a village near his home in the southern port of Chittagong.
The women were in hock to moneylenders charging extortionate rates, and Yunus's initial aim was simply to persuade a local bank manager to step in and offer them regular credit. The banker said it was impossible without a guarantee. So did others.
Yunus set out to prove them wrong and has never looked back. Grameen -- the word means village in Bengali -- now disburses tens of millions of dollars a month to 6.6 million borrowers, of which 96 percent are women.
"I'm very happy that I continued and that it grew into an institution and really proved its worth," said Yunus. "We have done something that put a big question mark next to the entire banking system. Banking will never be the same again."
Born in 1940 in Chittagong, the commercial center of what was then eastern Bengal, he was the son of a goldsmith, one of 14 children, five of whom died in childbirth.
A devastating famine that swept through Bangladesh in 1974, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, changed his life forever. A university field trip that year made him question how modern economic theories could ever deliver social justice to the poor.
"While people were dying of hunger on the streets, I was teaching elegant theories of economics," he told Alan Jolis, co-author of a book on his life, "The Good Banker", in a 1996 article published by Britain's Independent on Sunday.
"I started hating myself, the arrogance of pretending I had answers," he said. "We university professors were all so intelligent but we knew absolutely nothing about the poverty surrounding us.
"I decided that the poor themselves would be my teachers."
Yunus is proud that microfinance has taken off worldwide. If poor people are given the same access to credit as the rich, they will thrive, he says.
"Leave it to the people," he told Reuters. "They can take care of themselves. You don't have to shed tears for them. They are very capable."
Grameen Bank recovers nearly 99 percent of its loans even though borrowers need put up no collateral and pay a 20 percent interest rate on income-generating loans, which are always for one year.
Repayment starts the second week of the loan which releases the borrower from the need to pay a lump sum at the end of the year. All transactions are carried out in public meetings on a weekly basis in a country where corruption is endemic.
Grameen gives interest-free loans to the very poorest.
"Why should financial services be denied to the poor? Why should information technology be the exclusive privilege of rich people? Why can't we design things for poor people?" Yunus asks.
Borrowers from Grameen Bank own 94 percent of the equity of the bank. The remaining six percent is owned by the Bangladeshi government. Yunus defies critics who say his bank makes loans that are too small and too expensive, and insists he is not waging war on the rich, just helping the poor.
"I don't care if the rich get rich. It doesn't bother me. They should get richer. I'm worried about the poor getting poorer and not getting richer.
"If there are several Bill Gates in the country, I don't care. Lifting the bottom of society is the most important."
Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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