Book Review: Banker to the Poor

When J.D. announced that this week would be Book Week at GRS, I was excited about a set deadline for tackling a book from my ever-growing reading list. Since micro-finance and micro-credit have been of interest to me for the past four years or so, I decided to read Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and The Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus. (J.D. reviewed the same book in 2007. Read his take here.)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank, an organization that helps the world's poorest, especially women, escape poverty through micro-loans, which are small loans given to start a business.

Banker to the Poor chronicles Yunus' journey from a “bird's-eye-view economist, teaching elegant theories in a classroom, to a worm's-eye-view practitioner” and the creation of Grameen, a bank owned by its poor borrowers that boasts a loan recovery rate of 97.29%.

Meeting Sufiya Begum
In 1974, professor Yunus, then a Bangladeshi economist from Chittagong University, took his students on a field trip to a poor village. There they interviewed Sufiya Begum, a woman reluctant to talk to them due to the village's strictly-observed custom of purdah, meaning curtain or veil, that virtually secludes Muslim women from the outside world. Eventually Sufiya came to the doorway and told Yunus and his students about the economics behind the bamboo stools she made. To make one stool, she had to buy 22 cents worth of bamboo with a loan from local moneylenders, who charged her 10% per week. Her net profit was just two cents per stool.

Barely able to feed herself and her family on two cents per day, Sufiya was essentially enslaved to the lenders. She couldn't save money or invest in her business because she was barely able to eat. All for a lack of 22 cents.

Yunus was shocked to realize that if Sufiya just had access to a loan at a better rate, she could feed, clothe, and house her children and expand her business, raising her family above the poverty line.

The birth of Grameen
Yunus collected data on the village to find out how many borrowers were dependent on the moneylenders, finding that 42 people borrowed a little less than $27. He loaned them the money. Yunus writes:

It struck me that what I had done was drastically insufficient…My response had been ad hoc and emotional. Now I needed to create an institutional answer that these people could rely on. What was required was an institution that would lend to those who had nothing.

Yunus fought through red tape from banking institutions, governments, and local customs. With great tenacity, he found a way around numerous roadblocks with a passionate devotion to the people he was serving.

In 1983, Yunus formed the Grameen Bank. Grameen now has 2,564 branches, with 19,800 staff serving 8.29 million borrowers in 81,367 villages. Despite the warnings from traditional bankers, 97% of the loans are paid back. Yunus wasn't surprised by this, as he knew the poor, who had no cash cushion and no other options, would not blow their one chance to get out of poverty.

A focus on women
From the start, Yunus wanted to focus granting loans to women, with a goal of having 50% of the borrowers be female. It was an uphill battle to say the least. Yunus had to fight against customs, religious zealots, and banking institutions that effectively excluded women (they could make deposits, but couldn't get a loan without the presence of their husbands). From birth, these women are routinely told they are unwanted and should have been killed at birth or starved — that they are just another mouth to feed and dowry to pay.

Additionally, Yunus saw that starvation and poverty were more of a woman's issue than a man's. If one family member has to starve so that the others can eat, it's an unwritten rule that it must be the mother. A man also can throw his wife out at any time, simply by repeating “I divorce thee” three times, leaving her unwanted in her parents' home or begging on the streets. But when a woman is given the means to support herself, her success focuses on her children and household. Yunus writes:

Though they cannot read or write and have rarely been allowed to step out of their homes alone…they pay more attention, prepare their children to lead better lives, and are more consistent in their performance than men. When a destitute mother starts earning an income, her dreams of success invariably center around her children…When a destitute father earns extra income, he focuses more attention on himself. Thus money entering a household through a woman brings more benefits to the family as a whole.

It took six years to reach the goal of 50% female borrowers. Today women make up 97% of Grameen borrowers.

Grameen around the world
As Grameen and its methods expanded, Yunus would constantly hear that micro-lending wouldn't work in another village or country. But to Yunus, people who were poor — which he defined as not having access to shelter, clean water, and a constant supply of food — had a lot in common no matter the geography.

One of the most touching stories in Banker to the Poor was that of an impoverished 40-something woman who made quilts. Through an interpreter, she told Yunus she was initially afraid when a bank staff member came to see her. Her husband didn't like her talking to outsiders or leaving her home without him.

Though the staff member told her about the women in Bangladesh who were changing their lives, and she wanted to be like them, things where she lived “were so rough.” She didn't dare do this herself, saying, “My husband would kill me if I created trouble for him.” The staff member introduced her to other women in the neighborhood, and eventually they formed a group. (Group meetings were a requirement for a loan through the local micro-finance organization, which critics said made it too hard for the poor to borrow money.) The woman eventually took out a loan, quickly repaying it and applying for another. Her quilts are in such high demand, she can barely fill her orders.

This woman, who spoke only Spanish, lived in Chicago, Illinois.

She never thought she'd earn her own money, she told Yunus. In fact, she never thought she'd have any money at all, since her husband never gave her any. In the 15 years that she had lived in America, she didn't even have a friend until meeting the four women in her group, who she came to regard as sisters.

Today Grameen methods are applied in projects in 58 countries.

The politics of micro-lending
Grameen and micro-lending have been criticized by the Right and the Left, and it doesn't seem to side with either, despite Yunus' praise for Democratic politicians and criticisms of Republicans. Grameen supports smaller government and criticizes welfare programs that don't allow people to break out of the poverty cycle — yet it's committed to social objectives and social intervention in the form of policy packages (without government involvement).

No matter your politics, Banker to the Poor is an inspiring memoir that will give you a new understanding of poverty around the world, micro-lending, and socially-responsible enterprises.

Note: You can read more about Yunus at PBS The New Heroes, a series about 14 social entrepreneurs.

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