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Nobel laureate shares his story of pioneering micro-loans for the poor

Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus: 'I strongly believe that we can create a poverty-free world, if we want to'

I am overwhelmed by the honor you bestow on me. I am very grateful to you for recognizing our work. This recognition from your prestigious institution brings honor and distinction to Grameen Bank and gives a resounding endorsement at the global level that micro-credit for the poor can be a powerful tool to help the poorest person discover his or her own potential to overcome poverty with dignity. This honor helps us tremendously in carrying out our mission.

Thirty Years of Grameen

In 1976, I lent $27 to 42 people to help them get out of these unfair arrangements. People who received my money were very happy. When I saw how easy it was to make so many people happy with such a small amount of money, I thought I should work out a way to find money for them on a permanent basis. So I went to the bank to arrange loans for them, but the bank said they could not give loans to the poor people because they are not credit-worthy.

So I thought I should take it upon myself to find out whether their conclusion was right. I offered myself as a guarantor and took loans for the poor people. I tried some simple ways of handling these loans, and it worked. Everybody paid back their loans.

This triggered a whole series of experimentation - from one village to five villages, then to 20 villages, 50 villages, 100 villages. Every time it worked. But however much I argued with them, the people in the conventional banks did not want to change their minds.

Finally, in 1983, we created a bank of our own. Now we work in 62,000 out of the 68,000 villages of Bangladesh. We now lend out to 6.1 million borrowers, 96 percent of whom are poor women. Grameen Bank is owned by the borrowers. The recovery rate is 99 percent. Grameen Bank does not depend on donor funding, it lends entirely from funds mobilized as deposits. Our internal surveys show that 58 percent of our members have crossed the poverty line.

Grameen Bank gives loans for income-generating activities to create self-employment, gives housing loans and student loans for students from Grameen borrowers' families. More than 10,000 students now are in medical schools, engineering schools and universities with Grameen Bank's student loans. We are trying to create a brand-new second generation in the poor families. We provide tiny loans even to beggars. A typical loan to a beggar is about $10. We have given loans to 71,000 beggars so that they can become door-to-door sales persons rather than beg for a living from door to door.

The World is Created by Mindsets

In my work I have seen repeatedly how people inherit mindset, and how difficult it is to change mindsets once these are formed. The world is the way it is because of the mindsets we have inherited. If we train our mind differently we can create another kind of world.

We accept the fact that we will always have poor people around us. But this is precisely why we continue to have poor people around us. If we truly believed that poverty is unacceptable to us, and that it should not belong to a civilized society, we would have created appropriate institutions and policies to create a poverty-free world. We wanted to go to the moon, and we went there. We wanted to communicate with each other very fast, today we have a host of communication technologies that allow us to communicate instantaneously and cheaply across the world. We achieve what we want to achieve. If we are not achieving something, my first suspicion will be that we are perhaps not desiring it intensively enough.

We Can Create a Poverty-Free World

I strongly believe that we can create a poverty-free world, if we want to.

We can create a world where there won't be a single human being who could be described as a poor person. In that world, the only place you would find poverty is in the museum.

When school children will take a tour of the poverty museums, they would be horrified to see the misery and indignity that human beings once experienced. They would blame their forefathers for tolerating this inhuman condition which existed for so many people for so long.

Matter of Will

Charity is no solution to poverty. It may help stop the process of pauperization getting worse. If charity is not used for the right purpose, it takes away the initiative from the people. Charity sometimes helps us to shield ourselves from paying attention to the essence of the problem of poverty. It allows us to get ahead with our lives without worrying about poor people's lives. It allows our conscience to remain insulated.

Conclusion

Grameen has taught me two things: First, our knowledge about people and their interactions is still very inadequate; second, each individual person is very important, and has tremendous potential. One person alone can influence in a significant way the lives of others within communities, nations, within and beyond his/her own time.

Each of us has more hidden inside of ourselves than we ever have a chance to explore. Unless we create an enabling environment to discover the limits of our potential, we will never have the opportunity to discover what we are truly capable of.

Grameen has given me a faith, an unshakeable faith, in the creativity of human beings. This has led me to believe that human beings are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty. They suffer now as they have done in the past because we turn our head away from this issue.

It is up to us to decide where we want to go. We are the navigators and pilots of this planet. If we take our roles seriously, we can definitely reach our preplanned destination. We can create a poverty-free world.

Let's commit ourselves to get there.

Beirut,10 16 2006
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