27 January 2010

Banker to the Poor - Muhammad Yunus

This is the story of Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus, also winner of Nobel Peace Prize 2006. He is truly the father of micro-credit, now a prevalent system across the world and especially in India. Since enough is being said about the concept these days, I will stick to the story around it rather than the underlying math, which is in fact equally important.
The story begins with an 'aha' moment of an economist who realizes that all the theories he teaches in the university do not answer the oldest and biggest economic problem - poverty. Not job losses or inflation or sub-prime crisis - the hard-core, seemingly hopeless cycle of poverty. And the real lesson here, which hits you at an emotional as well as logical level is that, when you look at the poor - one person at a time, it actually doesn't take much to lift him / her out of that abyss. Like the 22 US cents it took for Yunus to save one poor woman from merciless money-lenders.
Not to belittle the effort that goes behind setting up a whole system to address this problem, but the bottom line is - when compared to all the aid and charity that we see being announced everyday and the difficulties in making them reach the poor, micro-finance systems are much more doable and sustainable too! And I completely agree with Yunus' views on charity that robs the poor of their dignity and tells them in many ways that they are not capable of changing their destinies. Credit on the other hand tells them that someone believes in them enough to give them resources to build their own lives. What a world of difference it makes!
I have personally seen through some of my recent experiences that what really works is an approach which:
a) involves a study of the causes of poverty specific to the local population rather than depending on existing global theories, and
b) gives a large role for the poor to play in finding the answers instead of assuming that we the big people, know what needs to be done.
The book is otherwise filled with anecdotes of his personal life, frequently inter-twined with the political history of Bangladesh. I was surprised to see how closely involved he was in the creation of a separate state of Bangladesh, from what was East Pakistan. I was also amused to see how he doesn't even touch upon India's role in this or even later when he talks about replication of the Grameen model in other countries. India and Bangladesh are similar in many ways, so it was easy for me relate to the examples used across the book. Only when I read about children who didn't want to be a part of India or hated Gandhi, did I remember that it was not 'our story' so to speak. May be its a blind spot for Indians like me, how well-hated India as a people is. Here I must clarify. This is not about Yunus' opinion of India but just what I infer from the tone of our neighbours like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (our other 2 neighbours are screaming out their love for us anyway!) as well as not-quite-neighbours like the Aussies...
Coming back to the book, Yunus' writing style is very effective and hard-hitting. For example, he uses the phrase 'worm's eye view' as opposed to 'bird's eye view' when it comes to understanding poverty. It got the point across in a way that I can never forget. Though he goes back and forth in time for a while, one can follow the journey of a movement that has and still is changing lives of the poorest. What did strike me as odd was how he would go from one stage of Grameen to another in a broad stroke but suddenly talk about something as trivial as how a room looked or that there were mosquitoes around. May be its just me, but it was quite funny whenever he did that...
I shouldn't let this take away the focus from what this book is about  though - an economic revolution. His ability to build an able and committed team, influence key people and organizations around the world, are all very inspiring. It makes you believe in his dream that this world can be free from poverty  through a system, a planned approach - not just a few well-meaning but clueless men and women trying to do their bit; definitely not through charity. Finally, this book is a must-read even if you don't intend to fight poverty or start a micro-finance institution. Because it echoes something I once read in a friend's status message:
Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

- Margaret Mead


  1. wow! thanks for this review zid. and can you see how with under 10 posts, we've got quite a a few genres in! way to go babe!!

  2. @suki: thanks! and yeah our reading is as diverse as it gets. Mutual appreciations!!! :-)

  3. Thank you for the wonderful review , opens up a dimension to think and work on a issue.

    Self sustainable micro blocks are ones which is gonna support and build a strong unit -may it be nation or the world -well said.Charity is a food given to infants[associated causes i mean] surely not health to poverty , micro finance is a wonderful solution . Success depends not only on micro financing but also a strong foundation and protective environment for them to flourish.

    What if i can say, we can start a micro financing group ..how far will we be up for it? :).

    Thank you !

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Veera! I think there are many MFIs out there but do i see a biz plan in the making? anyway, I am keen to see what u r coming up with, lets talk sometime :-)

  5. A film just premiered at Sundance about Yunus and this project. It's called "To Catch A Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America." Might be something to check out after reading the book... the website is tocatchadollar.com.

  6. Thank you Emily for stopping by and leaving useful information too! I saw your blog and what you do. I am flattered to have someone like you read my post. i also think its some kind of a sign that I keep bouncing into ppl who work for children in some way. when i get to actually doing something, i am sure to take inspiration from folks like you! My heartfelt thanks!